…this album by Fred Hersch rightly takes its place in (ECM) monumental body of work, and justifiably ranks amongst the finest in the oeuvre.

ECM 2799 / 589 0962 (CD) & 589 0964 (LP)

Fred Hersch (piano)

Recorded May 2023, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano

After the collaboration with Hersch and Enrico Rava that produced the album, The Song Is You it was always on the cards that Manfred Eicher would invite the pianist back to record a solo album, and here we are.

As the title would suggest this is an intense and intensely lyrical set that imparts melody, introspection, and even playfulness that moves logically from composition to improvisation and back again. The mixing of standards and free improvisation may not always sit comfortably alongside each other, but Hersch brings a freshness to the composed and a flow to the improvised that ensures a continuity and development throughout.

Hersch has chosen to follow the gentle and sedate side of the music, and there is no headlong rush or rapid tempos to be found. Instead, the pianist takes his time over each of the selections, sparse melodic fragments and the use of space dominate the spontaneous compositions, and a studied approach given to the standards.

Coming to the session with a list of titles borrowed from a Robert Rauschenberg monograph the improvisations ‘Aeon’ and ‘Volon’ are built gradually from fragments of melody or motif, patiently worked by the pianist to a completed work.

Of the pianist’s original pre-conceived compositions, the beautiful and mischievous ‘Little Song’ was written for the duo session with Rava. Not making the cut for that album, it is gratifying that Hersch did not forget the piece and it makes its recorded debut here.

Another Hersch tune, ‘Akrasia’ seems to have made it only in part as during the performance the manuscript appears to have fallen on the floor. Hersch after playing the opening theme decided to carry on regardless letting the mood and feel of the composition dictate what was to follow, in a moody exploration.

The standards originally weren’t part of the plan for the album, but a Hersch points out they seemed to suggest themselves as the recording session progressed. Ellington and Strayhorn’s ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ therefore opens proceedings in a sparse yet fresh reading, that also sets the tone for the rest of the album, that closes with a rather austere ‘Winter of My Discontent’.

Russ Freeman’s ‘The Wind’ is given a thought-provoking rendition and is the longest track allowing Hersch to get right inside the composition. This is a slow and intense piece of music, and it is almost possible to feel the way Hersch was making his way through the music. There is much use of space, but the notes when heard are impeccably weighted and placed. If the music carries a sense of reverence for the material, ‘Softly as in the Morning Sunrise’ is the pianist’s dedication to Sonny Rollins who he describes as an inspiration and citing Sonny’s version at the Village Vanguard as “the gold standard for me. Sonny Rollins is my hero, frankly. As a jazz musician he has everything, and I’ve been strongly influenced by him.”

The discography of solo piano recordings released by ECM has frequently been a topic of conversation, and this album by Fred Hersch rightly takes its place in this monumental body of work, and justifiably ranks amongst the finest in the oeuvre.