Jazz Standard


NY Jazz Report's Thad Kawecki and Will Wolf stopped by Jazz Standard on Sunday 14.December to catch both sets by pianist/composer Fred Hersch as he finished up a unique weeklong engagement of "Fred Hersch Duos." Each evening Hersch teamed up with a different collaborative partner. This night it was innovative vocalist Kurt Elling.

Fred Hersch   Piano
Kurt Elling   Vocals

Wolf: This was a clever idea, a grand recipe for a week of musical treats: Fred Hersch Duos. At one of the coziest and most intimate spots in town, freshly equipped with a brand new Steinway. And on this special evening with Kurt Elling, an appreciative, intelligent, and attentive audience. Add a five-star menu of finely made tunes to work with, and you have most of the essential ingredients needed to help produce a sumptuous feast.

Yeah, Hersch, a Model B Steinway, and Elling in from Chicago---nice. And brave of Elling to appear in such a revealing, bare-bones context and lay it on the line. The entire evening was colored with this sense of vulnerability and danger---the feeling that chances were being taken by both men---and this gave their performance the stamp of authenticity.

It certainly was not your typical evening of straight ahead jazz. And Elling's offbeat stage style and use of an extended palette brought another dimension to an already impressive choice of material. Except for a couple of Monk tunes, all love related songs. That was definitely the topic of the evening.

They did throw a few interesting curves: spoken word, Hersch's original art songs, an unamplified solo number by Elling, and plenty of insightful commentary.

Insightful and witty.

Good point.The humor helped keep things informal. And you're right, the evening did have a unifying theme of love. From the heartache of "YOU DON"T KNOW WHAT LOVE IS," to the more rarified feelings of "THE SLEEPERS" (where Elling used a poem by the Sufi mystic Rumi for the spoken intro), the duo plumbed the depths of this emotion. It's worth noting that "THE SLEEPERS," a Hersch setting of the Whitman poem, was the only piece to be repeated when it was selected to cap the weeklong event.

Elling's recitation was well done and well received. And both performers worked together to interpret this beautiful song with intelligence and sensitivity. In fact, all the Hersch originals ("THE SLEEPERS," "ENDLESS STARS," "VALENTINE," and "ARIA") were first rate, and produced a fitting contrast to the rest of the evening's repertoire. But the standards worked just as well, and were equally as innovative. Elling's solo performance of "I CAN'T GET STARTED" was a real highlight: an impressive piece of improvisation with a pretty convincing depiction of a saxophone soloist, including all the hand gestures---a nice dramatic touch.

That was a risky piece of theatre that could have easily turned into a hipster's nightmare. But he pulled it off with conviction and without any "hipper than thou" affectation. Both of these guys know how to tell a story---or eighteen of them on this date---without hitting you over the head. There was a refreshing lack of redundancy and they used plenty of space. Hersch's beautifully flowing economy was especially noteworthy.

And don't forget their keen sense of time and phrasing. It was equally masterful, and just as important to the success of their collaboration. And Hersch boldly demonstrated a swinging touch on his superb solo rendition of the rhythmically challenging (and as he himself described it, "tricky") "WORK." A brilliant interpretation of the crafty and eccentric Monk tune. Another highlight.

Kawecki: Well, to paraphrase Hersch, "you can't go wrong with Monk." And he was right. Both "WORK" and "RHYTHM-A-NING" brought down the house. Elling's vocal on the latter tune was a clear nod to Jon Hendricks, and proved his command of this classic jazz style. And Hersch's neo-bop improv knocked this tune right out of the park.

And into the lobby. They were humming it at the coat check as we were leaving.

And so was I.


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