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Silent, Listening is both a highly individual musical offering and an important contribution to ECM’s line of innovative solo piano recordings. It finds US pianist Fred Hersch, one of jazz’s most outstanding soloists, putting a poetic emphasis on alert, open improvisation while also embracing original compositions and a scattering of standard tunes in his album’s graceful creative arc. Interspersing songs and spontaneously composed pieces, Hersch shapes and sustains a musical atmosphere that he describes as “nocturnal”, an atmosphere of heightened sensitivity to sound.

“I still believe in the idea of an album as a complete musical statement from beginning to end,” he says, adding that this is a perspective being lost in an impatient age. “To me, an album has to tell a story.” Silent, Listening builds upon Hersch’s alliance with Manfred Eicher, established with The Song Is You, Fred’s duo album with Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava.

“The things that I’ve been happiest with in my life as a musician in jazz,” says Fred, “have been those things that have happened most organically. And in that recording with Enrico, which was made very spontaneously, I recognized that something special was going on. I said afterwards that I’d really like to make a solo album with Manfred as producer, in the same hall – where the acoustics, to my ear, are pretty-near perfect - and on the same piano.”

In May 2023 Hersch returned to Lugano’s Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI. “I came with some ideas of tunes of mine I might want to play, and with some little snippets of things that were like launching pads for improvisation. ’Silent, Listening’, the title piece, for instance, has written material at the beginning and the end, and I improvise on its motives and feel.”

“Little Song” is a Hersch composition, written originally for the duo with Rava, which receives its recorded premiere here. As for the standard pieces chosen, “I had no idea I was going to play those. I just sort of felt them in the moment, and then the spontaneous compositions arose to offset the tunes.” To name the latter, Hersch brought along a list of titles culled from a Robert Rauschenberg monograph – “Rauschenberg was always good with titles” - hence “Volon”, “Aeon” and more.

“I play a little more inside the piano than I usually do,” says Hersch of the exploratory, freely-structured pieces. “People don’t necessarily associate me with open improvising, but it is something that I have done a lot of, over the years. In fact, the recording with Enrico also included an improvisation that worked really well. And Manfred’s very positive response to that encouraged me to go further in this direction, alternating tunes and not-tunes on the solo album.”

Among the standards, Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington’s “Star-Crossed Lovers” sets the scene with a sparse, haunted interpretation that cleaves to the melody. “It’s such a beautiful melody, and sometimes it’s enough to state it. I learned the tune from Jimmy Rowles who used to play the song , as did Tommy Flanagan. I knew both of them well when we all worked at Bradley’s in New York, and recorded a version of ‘Star Crossed Lovers’ on my very first album back in 1985.”

“The Winter of my Discontent” is a tune that Hersch began playing after meeting its composer Alec Wilder in 1978. “Wilder made contact – also at Bradley’s, as it happens - and sent me books of his songs, and that’s one I’ve been playing ever since, in different formats including duo and trio. In Lugano, the mood of what I was playing seemed to suggest and lead to it.”

“Softly As In a Morning Sunrise” is, in Fred Hersch’s mind, “always associated with Sonny Rollins at the Village Vanguard. Sonny’s version is the gold standard for me. Sonny Rollins is my hero, frankly. As a jazz musician he has everything, and I’ve been strongly influenced by him.”

“Akrasia” is an instance of a Hersch composition that took on a second life in the studio. Its title, meaning “acting against one’s better interests”, is an allusion to life in lockdown when, Fred says, he found himself spending too much time indulging in detective novels and computer games. “You know you shouldn’t be doing it, but… Anyway, ‘Akrasia’ is a longer composition and, when we started recording it in Lugano, I suddenly realized that the music was on the floor, and I couldn’t see it! So I played the beginning of it and then just kept going, improvising, and it turned into something unexpected but, we felt, interesting.”

This openness to contingency and willingness to honour the flow of things was also, Hersch says, reflected in his performance of Russ Freeman’s “The Wind”, which provides one of the album’s most magical sequences. Fred says that his younger, perfectionist self might have balked at his delineation of the melody but that, at 68, he is trying “not to micromanage everything anymore. What we got was a great first take” – gentle, but full of feeling – “that would have been impossible to recapture with the same spirit.”

The in-the-moment spontaneity of Silent, Listening makes it, similarly, a self-contained one-off. Hersch enjoys the challenge of finding new musical solutions for new spaces and his upcoming touring activities include solo piano performances in both the US and Europe. Dates include Merkin Concert Hall, New York City (April 16), Piedmont Piano Company, Oakland CA (April 28) ,Dakota, Minneapolis MN (April 29), SPACE, Chicago IL (April 30), Cleveland OH (April 31), Firenze, Italy (May 11), Festival Ste Germain, Paris, France (May 18), Stadtcasino, Basel, Switzerland (May 21), Innsbruck, Austria (May 23),), Flagey, Brussels, Belgium (May 31), Ghent, Belgium, June 1. Additionally Fred Hersch plays duo concerts in France with Avishai Cohen in Nantes (May 6) and Coutances (May 8), and appears with the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra in Stockholm, Sweden on May 17. He plays in trio with Drew Gress and Joey Baron in Treviso, Italy on May 25. Hersch returns to Europe for another round of concerts in October.

For biographical and other details, visit Fred’s web site: www.fredhersch.com

Further ECM recordings with Fred Hersch are in preparation.

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