Fred Hersch doesn’t get to the tunes of Cole Porter until the last disc of his forthcoming three-CD set, a mostly solo outing called Songs Without Words (Nonesuch), and they make an apt finale: Porter’s songwriting epitomized elegance, and no pianist in modern music plays more elegantly than Hersch. Every note sits perfectly in place; his chord voicings demonstrate a quiet but thrilling attention to balance and nuance; and even his most propulsive rhythms display an unruffled command worthy of James Bond. These qualities are more prized in a conservatory than in a nightclub, and perhaps as a result Hersch has developed a hybrid style, combining 19th-century classical romanticism and the 20th-century romanticism of jazz–a decade ago, for instance, he made two albums that applied improvisation to works by such composers as Debussy, Mussorgsky, Poulenc, Ravel, and Tchaikovsky. But Hersch avoids the fusty pallor of the drawing room thanks to several other virtues–most notably his robust passion, his genius for improvising in entire paragraphs rather than clipped riffs, and his capacity to build a truly swinging cadence from complicated cross rhythms. He has unusually deep insight into the machinery of other people’s compositions–not just the chord patterns, but also the way each melody rhymes with itself or interlocks with a harmony line–and this lets him bring a correspondingly unusual freedom to an interpretation without compromising the heart and soul of the original. (The first disc of the new set consists of Hersch’s own compositions; the second, jazz standards by the likes of Ellington, Monk, and Shorter.) Hersch has led some excellent bands and extraordinary trios, and both are sparingly represented on Songs Without Words; in recent years he’s most often performed solo, as he will at this free concert. Few pianists have made sidemen seem so superfluous. Thursday, March 15, 7 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-744-6630.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rick Luettke.