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Many of 66-year-old pianist Fred Hersch’s banner releases — both before and after his near-rebirth following a two-month coma in 2008 — have revolved around a piano-bass-drums trio foundation. The new Breath By Breath, with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Jochen Rueckert, is no exception.
The album also features impactful interaction with the Crosby Street String Quartet (violinists Joyce Hammann and Laura Seaton, violist Lois Martin and cellist Jody Redhage Ferber) to exemplify both Hersch’s classical upbringing and the album’s nod to his meditation practice. But, as usual, it’s the pianist’s uncanny interaction with the acoustic rhythm section that sets a foundation throughout.
The effects are first felt through the eight-movement “Sati Suite,” named for a Pali word meaning “mindfulness” and “awareness.” A master improviser, Hersch flashes storytelling solos within Gress and Rueckert’s odd-timed cadences on the opening “Begin Again” while the string players offer occasional embellishments. The strings then provide a gorgeous intro and outro to “Awakened Heart,” with Hersch playing unaccompanied in between and displaying his early classical training, both as a player and seasoned composer. The combination of classical technique and jazz sensibilities has become expected among young, modern pianists, but the veteran Hersch helped lead the charge.
That charge is vividly illustrated on the ninth and closing track, “Pastorale (Homage à Robert Schumann),” which features a series of exchanges between the trio and string quartet. Gress, a returning member of Hersch’s first trio, highlights the stately title track and the playful “Monkey Mind” with his pulsating intros and understated soloing. Guest percussionist Rogerio Boccato energizes the shimmering “Mara,” while “Worldly Winds” closes the “Sati Suite” in joyous fashion. Even considering Hersch’s far-reaching, decades-long previous recording career, Breath By Breath qualifies as rare air. — Bill Meredith
Featured photo: Erika Kapin