Mark Gresham | 25 MAR 2021
On Sunday, Spivey Hall at Clayton State University presented a virtual solo recital by acclaimed jazz pianist, band leader and composer Fred Hersch. whom The New Yorker has called “a living legend.” As a recording artist with some 50 albums to his credit, Hersch has performed numerous times at Spivey Hall in the past three decades, most recently in April 2017. Except for the pandemic, he would have again performed live there earlier this month to help celebrate Spivey Hall’s 30th Anniversary season.
Hersch’s early response to the pandemic was a creative one resulting in a solo album released in 2020 called Songs From Home which was an instant success and generated tremendous critical praise. Hersch’s program for Sunday’s video included several selections from that album in the mix, introducing each number wither before or after playing it.
In his introduction to the concert video (recorded in Hersch’s pandemic-time home in Pennsylvania), Spivey Hall’s executive and artistic director Sam Dixon described Hersch’s artistry as “a musical world that allows ample time space for beauty and reflection and the opportunity to connect.” that was borne our fully by the ensuing performance.
He began with Billy Strayhorn’s “Upper Manhattan Medical Group” (1956), recorded in 1959 as as track 4 on the Duke Ellington studio album Jazz Party, with the condensed title “U.M.M.G.” by which it is also widely known. Strayhorn worked with Eliington as a composer and arranger for three decades. He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 1964, the disease from which he died three years later. The unusual title title is an oblique tribute to Strayhorn’s personal physician, was Arthur Logan, M.D., who was also Ellington’s physician. Given Hersch’s own history of medical challenges, it was a fitting opener for a recital presented in the limitations imposed by pandemic.
In stark contrast, the folk-rock “Wichita Lineman” written by Jimmy Webb in 1968 and recorded and made famous by Glen Campbell the same year, is a song that invokes an open landscape, but with the narrative of limitations being the relentless need for repair of a public power grid – a different kind of healing, as it were – and the longing for love and personal connection that comes from the obligation of work. It appears on Hersch’s new Songs form Home album, as does “After You’ve Gone” is a popular song composed on 1918 by Turner Layton with lyrics by Henry Creamer, originally recorded by Marion Harris on July 22 of that year for released on Victor Records, and has retained a perennial presence in recordings by notable artists in every decade ever since.
Hersch then played one of his own compositions, Song Without Words: No. 4, Duet, from his 3-disc Nonesuch album, Songs Without Words (2001). It’s a piece that establishes an lively rhythmic ground, then breaks from it with wide-ranging contrapuntal passages, picking up the ground again every now and then.
Next, he drew upon another two numbers from his new album. First, “All I Want” by Joni Mitchell, from her 1971 album, Blue; then Cole Porter’s “Get Out Of Town,” from his 1938 musical, Leave It to Me!, again pairing a popular song from Hersch’s pre-jazz youth with an influential song from the first half of the 20th century.
Then came the world of cinema, with the Harry Warren/Mack Gordon song, “This Is Always,” which was written for the 1946 musical film Three Little Girls in Blue, (a movie which also featured the classic song “You Make Me Fell So Young”). But “This Is Always,” didn’t make the movie’s final cut, although as a song on its own managed to become popular the very same year the film was released.
That number was followed by “It Might As Well Be Spring” a song from the 1945 film State Fair – notably the only film with an original score by the songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. It won that year’s Academy Award for Best Original Song.
To close, Hersch turned to a pair of Thelonious Monk tunes, “’Round Midnight” and “Blue Monk.” For an encore, played another of his own compositions, “Valentine,” a lovely short and sweetly lyrical tune.
After the concert, Hersch and Sam Dixon engaged in a prerecorded far-ranging conversation in which they discussed what drew Hersch to become a jazz, important moments in his life, and his plans for the future. ■