The music should be enough when it comes to heralding Fred Hersch as one of the great jazz musicians of our time. But circumstances in the 54-year-old pianist’s personal life took his music—and consciousness—away for several months. The story does add a compelling frame to his latest studio recording. Indeed, it makes the very existence of Whirl something of a miracle. And still, for all the drama, poignancy, and near-tragedy of the run- up to Whirl, it is in fact Hersch’s radiant creativity and his sparkling interplay with bassist Jon Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson that make this beautifully realized LP one of the must-have jazz piano recordings of this year.
Having gigged as a sideman with such giants as Stan Getz, Art Farmer, and Joe Henderson, Hersch was already a respected player when he became newsworthy in the early 1990s by going public as HIV-positive and gay. The jazz scene didn’t become remarkably less closeted for that, and it was less the news hook than Hersch’s “my way” attitude, manifested in a terrifically varied catalog of recordings, that elevated him to greater prominence. He played the music of Billy Strayhorn, Johnny Mandel, Thelonious Monk, and Rodgers and Hammerstein; he collaborated with such vocalists as Janis Siegel, Norma Winstone, and Nancy King; and he matured as a sophisticated composer, writing for large ensembles (including a setting of the poetry of Walt Whitman) and his unconventional Pocket Orchestra.
Then, in 2008, Hersch was beset with AIDS-related dementia and, after bouts with hallucinations and paranoia, fell into a two-month-long coma. His ordeal involved dialysis, a tracheotomy, and the loss of almost all motor functions. That he survived was amazing; that he regained enough strength and will to re- teach himself how to play piano was a testimonial to his dogged determination; that he resumed recording and has since released a live Pocket Orchestra CD, an album of Antonio Carlos Jobim tunes, and, now, Whirl, with more major works (including “the coma project”) in process, is almost unfathomable.
But when it comes to music, Hersch remains eminently comprehensible. An unabashed believer in beauty, he fills his pieces with lyrical melodies and cozy harmonies, and he chooses his borrowed material for the possibilities it offers for emotional expressiveness on those same terms. Of Whirl’s ten tracks, six are originals, inspired by the likes of ballerina Suzanne Farrell (the title track), saxophonist Wayne Shorter (“Still Here”), and Jobim (“Sad Poet”). Compositions by piano mentor Jaki Byard, drummer Paul Motian, and classic standards composers Harry Warren’s (“You’re My Everything”) and A.E. Swan (“When Your Lover Has Gone”) fill out the variegated panorama.
Staunchly accessible, Hersch’s improvisations—in the tradition of Bill Evans and Paul Bley, more concisely focused than Keith Jarrett’s, and antecedent to such younger acclaimed pianists as Brad Mehldau and Jason Moran—are hardly simple. Great pleasures can be had by listening carefully to how he chooses which notes to single out, which to cluster, which to stagger, and which to place in meticulous harmonic and rhythm juxtaposition to what Hébert and McPherson are playing. And those pleasures are delivered here with the vinyl trump cards of warm, breathing ambiance and rounded precision, sonic qualities too often perceptibly diced in digital reproduction of piano music.