Jazz pianist Fred Hersch has been a frequent visitor to the concerts organized by San Francisco Performances (SFP). It therefore seemed appropriate that he would be one of the artists called upon to celebrate SFP’s return to Herbst Theatre. That celebration took place last night with the “fifth edition” of Hersch’s trio with John Hébert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums.
Hersch is one of those pianists whose approach brings to mind the full scope of keyboard performance that reaches all the way back to Johann Sebastian Bach. This is not to say that he offers a jazz take on Bach’s music. Rather, it is just a matter of his approaching the keyboard with those same priorities that Bach emphasized in his pedagogy and, presumably, in his performance. Those priorities involved just the right balance of refined technical skill (at any tempo) and a capacity for invention as part of the practice of performance.
There is no questioning Hersch’s capacity for invention. Only five of the selections he played last night (the last being his encore) were his own compositions; but, regardless of the name behind the chart he used as a point of departure (Hersch never used the music stand on his piano at last night’s performance), he was always weaving his own inventive twists to what he happened to be playing at the time, whether it was a standard by Irving Berlin or the convolutions of Ornette Coleman.
As might be guessed, Hersch’s inventiveness emerges from his dexterous finger work. His thematic lines tend to be elegantly shaped arabesques, often curling in different ways in different registers at the same time. He also seems to take great delight in rethinking his rhythmic infrastructure, meaning that the tune behind his improvisations often sound more like it is being hinted than stated. This was particularly the case with Miles Davis’ “Nardis,” in which subtle suggestion of the tune never evolved into explicit statement. Hersch is playful in his approach to such elaborate transformations; and last night he called his arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “Change Partners” a “derangement.”
That playfulness easily spread into the other members of the trio. McPherson’s drum work was particularly notable for its modesty. His beats were always subdued, perhaps to avoid conflict with Hersch’s complex rhythms; and sometimes his playing distilled down to a few punctuations at just the right moments in the flow of a melodic line. Given the (notorious?) excesses of so many jazz drummers, McPherson’s less-is-more approach amounted to a significant breath of fresh air.
Hébert, on the other hand, brought intense energy to his engagement with his bass. This often involved plucking with both hands, resulting in the same sorts of rhythmic complexity that Hersch evoked from his keyboard. Hersch allowed Hébert generous slots of time to work through his solos, and his capacity for inventiveness with right up there alongside Hersch’s.
Nevertheless, if complex embellishment was the name of last night’s game, Hersch, like many other SFP artists this season, wanted to honor Ruth Felt’s long career as SFP President. As a note of thanks, he dedicated his performance of Jerome Kern’s “The Song Is You” to her. Kern had to wait a bit while Hersch slowly unfolded an extended introduction (whose duration probably would have made Joseph Haydn smile); but that introduction led into a straight, but highly affectionate, delivery of the most familiar tune of the evening, an evening that demonstrated in every possible way just how well properly-played jazz can hold up to serious listening.