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What could have been a major disappointment for many ticket holders of the previous night’s concert — cancelled because of treacherous icy weather — was rectified by the generosity of the artists and the cooperation of Duke Performances and Casbah Durham. The Fred Hersch Trio rolled into town ahead of their scheduled Friday night gig, but was forced to spend the night in a hotel instead. After a hectic Saturday of master classes and a mini-concert at UNC-Chapel Hill, plus the evening’s concert, a second set was added at 10:45 p.m. to make up for nature’s knockout blow. Kudos to Aaron Greenwald and Duke Performances for notifications on their website and an equitable solution for fans of Fred Hersch.
This is also a good opportunity to acknowledge the incredible strides that Duke Performances has made in partnering with the Durham community. Lots of lip service is often given to town-and-gown relations, but it is Greenwald who has actually done the deed in joining local businesses, churches and clubs in presenting great artistic events. Casbah Durham, a small club just blocks away from the east campus wall, is the latest in this great conspiracy.
I must admit that upon arriving at Casbah Durham at 10:30 I was still under the spell from a phenomenal concert just blocks away at the Carolina Theatre by the Monterey Jazz All-Stars that included astounding performances by jazz pianist Benny Green. I put aside the inevitable comparisons, was fortunate enough to score a seat literally just a few feet from the stage and settled in to hear an artist I have long wanted to hear live. The Steinway piano looked a bit incongruous on the small, crowded stage. Joining Mr. Hersch was the drummer Eric McPherson, using a relatively basic drum kit, and bassist John Hebert. They started off with “You and the Night and the Music” by Arthur Schwartz. Right away you could hear the influence of years of classical training as Hersch turned this beautiful standard into a Bachian adventure, employing sophisticated counterpoint within the framework of a popular song.
Hersch is not the type of musician that dazzles you with virtuosity (although it is evident that he is capable of such) or muscular exhibitionism. He is cerebral — in the best sense of the word — and invites you to explore the possibilities of surprise-altered harmonies, beautiful phrasing and rhythmic secrets embedded within any piece that he is playing. He is also an accomplished composer, having written a symphony at age 12! He next played “At the Close of the Day,” a piece that is part of a set of works he wrote based on Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” This was a lovely, introspective composition.
Lest you think that this was solely a late-night, meditative session, the trio went decisively up-tempo and outside the box with the adventurous Ornette Coleman’s “Forerunner,” a high energy interplay among the three musicians. Along these lines was also the jazz standard “Fall” by Wayne Shorter which allowed for cookin’ extended solos by the sidemen. But, either because of the fatigue of a long day and the approaching midnight hour, or the preference of the players, they saved their most compelling and captivating performance for the slower, more harmonically rich songs. Without any announcement, Hersch began a long, unaccompanied journey through an initially hard to discern piece that was a masterpiece of mining of musical essence. It was finally revealed as Duke Ellington’s masterpiece “Mood Indigo” as the bass and drums joined in for one of those transcendent performances where you could sense musical bliss.
The set, and the Fred Hersch Trio’s fabulous adventure in the Triangle, ended with their nod to another great pianist: Thelonious Monk. Hersch perfectly captured the quirkiness and the delicious angular trip of “Evidence.” With that, the audience was able to walk out into the frigid night and almost believe that we were climbing the stairs of The Village Vanguard out onto Seventh Avenue.