Fred Hersch, the composer and jazz pianist, gave a performance of a new set of compositions entitled "Dedications: Suite for Trio" on Saturday night at Montclair State University, my alma mater. Mary Beth and I attended the concert and thoroughly enjoyed the musical program, which consisted of 13 pieces, in 12 different keys (only C major is repeated, in the first and the last compositions), each dedicated to an individual who in some way inspired the composition.
Montclair State University has an arts program that features a series of events under the banner of "Peak Performances" which are open to the general public. Tickets were free for MSU students; $15 each for everyone else. I was familiar with Hersch from his recording of compositions inspired by Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass", and at $15 a pop I could not pass up an opportunity to see and hear him perform in person.
We parked on Valley Road, off campus, and took the long staircase that runs up to Newman House and behind the house to the campus, a familiar path I followed regularly 35 years ago when I started at what was then Monthclair State College. Catching our breath, we found our way to the Alexander Kasser Theater - a relatively new building on the MSU campus, and a nice venue for a concert - not too big, good lines of sight from our balcony seats, attractive, comfortable, decent acoustics.
The first piece, "Free Flying" (C major) is dedicated to Egberto Gismonti, the Brazilian pianist, guitarist and composer. Hersch's notes, included in the program, speak of Gismonti's impeccable sense of rhythm and fusion of Brazilian dance music with classical music. True to his source of inspiration, this piece may have been the brightest and most rhythmically appealing piece of the 13 in the Suite. In any case, the piece was a strong opening number.
Mary Beth enjoyed a slower, more complex "Poem in a Cloud" (B minor) inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh, the famous, wonderful, Vietnamese Buddhist monk and author. Though I have read several of his books, and value his wisdom, I was not as impressed with this piece. It had its lovely moments, but on the whole it was less appealing to me.
Perhaps my favorite piece came late in the program, a D major composition dedicated to J. S. Bach called "Invention #1". If Bach had written some jazz music, it might have sounded like this. This was a fun piece of music that clearly delighted the audience -- fugue and jazz chords blended beautifully. Two other pieces were notable for pleasurable listening on Saturday night - "Tahira's Smile" and "La Principessa" - two pieces dedicated to women Hersch met in Italy, during a one month residency at Bellagio, the Rockefeller Foundation villa on Lake Como.
Other compositions were dedicated to Wayne Shorter, Jim Hall, Jimmy Rowles, Billy Drewes, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Ornette Coleman. The Bb major "Sartorial", dedicated to Coleman, which featured some Coleman-inspired improviation by Hersch, was the only disappointment of the evening. In this piece, and occasionally in a couple of others, Hersch slowed down the music with one-handed improvisations that left me unimpressed. Clearly his compositions are beautiful, and his talents in performing these pieces are exceptional, but improvisation is not his strongest suit.
Hersch was accompanied on Saturday by Joe Martin on bass and Richie Barchay on drums / percussion. Martin had a couple of appealing solos and sounded really good on one piece in which Hersch played only the right hand and Martin filled in underneath. Martin also played well in one extended duet between the bass and drums. Barshay, on the other hand, was both dazzling and aggravating in his energetic, showy and sometimes bizarre manner with the drums. Entertaining to watch, Barshay injected some of the music with an energy and dynamism that pulled the trio and the audience into the music, but sometimes his playing was just a mystery and distraction. Imagine someone playing Led Zeppelin loudly on his iPod , while you are trying to listen, quietly, to some chamber music on yours.
In short, aside from some minor quibbles, this was a lovely night of new and interesting music. I'll be looking forward to my next return visit to Montclair, and hope to see a recording of this music by Hersch on my shelf someday soon.