6) Fred Hersch Trio - Whirl (Palmetto)
Fred Hersch has been getting a lot of press lately, for two main reasons: 1) he's a really, really great pianist with a new album out, and 2) he suffers from AIDS, and came terrifyingly close to death in 2008, at points developing severe dementia and entering a two-month coma. He lost all motor function during that time, unable to eat, speak or play piano. And yet, somehow, Hersch has managed to produce more excellent music in the past year than most of his fellow jazz musicians who are in good health do in a decade. He released two CDs in 2009, Live at Jazz Standard with a group he calls the Fred Hersch Pocket Orchestra, and Fred Hersch Plays Jobim, a gorgeous solo piano album of songs composed by the timeless Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Now comes Whirl, Hersch's return to the piano trio format, something of a home-base for jazz pianists from every generation. There's no gimmick or over-arching theme to Whirl, just a highly-functioning modern jazz group playing a perfect program of originals and covers. As with the previously reviewed Jasmine by another titan of modern jazz piano, Keith Jarrett, Whirl at times embraces simplicity and stark beauty. Hersch's original habanera, "Mandevilla," opens with an almost-clichéd bass line and spins out a perfectly constructed melody that sounds like it could have been written in 19th-Century Cuba. But Whirl isn't all simple and pretty. Hersch originals like "Whirl," "Skipping" and "Snow Is Falling" are knotty and complex compositions, with gorgeous, organic melodies soaring over heady shifts in key and time-signature.
Throughout the album, the sympathetic playing of bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson perfectly compliment Hersch's heartfelt playing. It seems that the crucible of illness has only made Hersch more focused than ever, and, if Whirl is any indication, jazz fans should expect much more great music from the pianist in the future.
Further reading: An in-depth New York Times story on Hersch's recovery from illness
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