By my records, Fred Hersch’s last album, Sunday Night at the Vanguard, was released by Palmetto Records roughly a year ago. As the title implies, this was a “live” recording of a session at the Village Vanguard in New York that took place on March 27, 2016. Tomorrow, Palmetto will release their latest Hersch recording, Open Book; and, as was the case last year, Amazon.com is currently taking pre-orders.
The new album consists entirely of solo performances, and the title can be taken as a bit of a pun. Hersch’s memoir, Good Things Happen Slowly, will be coming out next week on September 12; and it is not difficult to approach the music as a collection of companion pieces for the book. As expected, there is also an Amazon Web page for pre-ordering the book; and both Web pages have a button for pre-ordering both items at the same time.
All recordings for Open Book were made at the JCC Art Center Concert Hall in Seoul. Most notable is “Through the Forest,” almost twenty minutes of spontaneous improvisation taken from a concert that Hersch gave on November 1, 2016. As Hersch put it in his short note on the album jacket, this is an example of his “let’s see what happens” approach, which he calls his state of mind when he approaches a piano keyboard. By his own admission, the “forest” of the title amounts to a “jetlag and coffee-fueled dreamscape” in which his “defenses were down;” and his reaction was just to give in to the circumstances.
Fortunately, following Hersch through this forest is not excessively challenging to the attentive listener. As the album title suggests, while his mental state may have been dreamy, his rhetoric of delivery is consistently clear and explicit. Every now and then there are fragmentary suggestions of standards; but, as is often the case in a dreamworld, those appearances tend to vanish as soon as they are recognized. What sustains is the “canvas,” so to speak, on which evoked “images” come and go, often as “patches” recognized only through their respective textures. As “live” recordings go, this one is impressive for the absence of any ambient noises, suggesting that Hersch’s listeners on this occasion could not have been more attentive.
“Through the Forest” is, literally, the centerpiece of the album, since it is both preceded and followed by sets of three shorter pieces. Those six recordings were also made in the JCC Art Center Concert Hall, but not during concert performances. Each of these two sets of three begins with one of Hersch’s original pieces, followed by couplings of pieces by other composers that have influenced and inspired him. The latter of the two Hersch originals, “Plainsong,” was composed at the MacDowell Colony and seems to honor that institution’s legacy of classical music compositions written there. (The colony was founded in 1907 by Marian MacDowell, pianist and wife of composer Edward MacDowell.) The opening track, however, is “The Orb,” which was composed as the final “dream” section of Hersch’s autobiographical music-theater project, My Coma Dreams. Conceived as a love letter to his longtime partner, AIDS activist Scott Morgan, it is the perfect introduction to the almost confessional framework of the entire album.
Nevertheless, beyond “Through the Forest” itself, the most interesting “let’s see what happens” experience arises in Hersch’s approach to Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not.” Whether or not Hersch realized it, his technique follows a plan best associated by Benjamin Britten. In 1963 Britten wrote a guitar piece for Julian Bream, his Opus 70 “Nocturnal After John Dowland.” This was a set of variations on Dowland’s song “Come, Heavy Sleep.” However, Britten began with the most ornate variation and then made each following variation a bit simpler until all that remained at the end was the theme itself, a “reverse-order” approach to the usual theme-and-variations form. Similarly, without the track listing at hand, even the most attentive listener would probably not recognize the “Whisper Not” tune until it emerges with almost no adornment at the very end of the track.
In the symmetry of the plan for the album, “Whisper Note” in the opening set of three is complemented by “Eronel” in the second set. Hersch has long had an interest in the music of Thelonious Monk, but this is the first time he worked on this particular tune. Unfortunately, the track listening does not give quite the right account of its provenance.
The music originated with Sadik Hakim, recalling his past love for Lenore Gordon by reversing the order of the letters in her first name. Hakim composed the piece with Idrees Sulieman. They showed the result to Miles Davis, who kept it in his repertoire for only a brief period. They then took it to Monk, who liked it but made some changes to the score. Unfortunately, by the time the song was copyrighted, Monk was listed as the only composer; and that lack of acknowledgement was only corrected after Monk’s death by his son, Thelonious Monk Jr. Sadly, Sulieman’s name is not included on the track listing for Open Book; but at least Hakim’s is there right after Monk’s. This is definitely an improvement over the booklet notes for The Complete Blue Note Recordings, which gives only Monk's name!