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Fred Hersch: Thelonious: Fred Hersch Plays Monk

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There are pitfalls on the path presented by this project; being too imitative and inviting hopeless comparisons with the originator or reducing the pieces to harmonically conventional fakebook formulas are the two deepest. Hersch avoids the latter by dint of his very advanced chordal sense. He uses voicings that are as outr as Monk’s but different. In some of the best moments he actually evokes Monk’s sound on celeste. Hersch avoids the overly Monkish route successfully, but with qualifications. Monk had a unique but relentless swing and was one of the great masters of solo construction. Hersch doesn’t try to swing the tunes but takes a more intellectually distanced approach to the music, which is always interesting but sometimes no more than that.

A qualified success, then, but even that is impressive when the task at hand is so demanding (Randy Weston and Abdullah Ibrahim seem to remain the only pianists who can consistently do Monk and be themselves). Hersch manages to make us hear new possibilities for these compositions, no mean feat, and shows himself to be an intelligent and gutsy musician.