Fred Hersch's Whirl

Fred Hersch, one of the top handful of jazz pianists on the scene, spent several months in a coma last year, owing to complications from HIV, with which he’s been living for well over a decade. When he emerged, he had to teach himself how to play piano all over again—not the technique, but the reflexes, the timing, the coordination—but you wouldn’t know it from Whirl (on the Palmetto label), his first album since the return.

It doesn’t have quite the fluency or exuberance of Let Yourself Go or In Amsterdam, my two favorite Hersch albums (both recorded live, in 1998 and 2003, respectively), but Whirl is a lovely and riveting piece of work all the same.

His phrases are shorter, sometimes a bit more clipped, than in the past, but he still has his fleet touch, and his deep, if subtle, swing, which string the phrases together in a seamless stream. He navigates a knotty Paul Motian tune, “Blue Midnight,” with aplomb, and tackles his late mentor Jaki Byard’s boppish “Mrs. Parker of K.C.,” with wit and energy.

As usual, he shines most richly with the romantic ballads, especially in this case two originals, “Snow Is Falling” and “Still Here,” the latter an elegiac piece that he wrote for Wayne Shorter but that resonates more shiveringly since, clearly, it’s also become a song about Hersch himself.

James Farber recorded and mixed the disc, so the sound is, as usual, very good: the piano percussive and liquid, the bass plucky and tuneful, the drums a little bit compressed but sizzly (in a good way) and deep on the soundstage.

Charlesp's picture

Fred,Whirl is available on vinyl. Have you compared the cd with the vinyl?

Fred Kaplan's picture

Charlesp - I found out about the vinyl edition shortly after posting the piece. I will try to obtain a copy and write it up, too...Fred

Eric Hancock's picture

Hersch did an interview with Terry Gross in which he talks about his illness and subsequent recovery. Worth listening to.

jrmandude's picture

Maybe wrong to say, but saw him last fall and did not do much for me. Rather harsh, lots of technique and little space. Did appear physically weak, though his playing sure wasn't. It was a college master class kinda thing, so maybe those folks liked it more.

Fred Kaplan's picture

jermandude - Must have caught him on a bad night. I've seen him twice since his comeback, once at the Village Vanguard with Paul Motian, once at Smalls with the same trio as the one on the album. He played in fine form both nights...Fred