I’m hard-pressed to name a pianist who has less in common with Thelonious Monk than Fred Hersch, who explores Monk’s music here this weekend. Monk wrote much like he played, with jagged edges, blunt harmonies, and choppy rhythms, while Hersch’s encyclopedic technique, pinpoint attack, and lawyer’s command of nuance allow him to balance romance and intellect with little apparent effort. On recent albums Hersch has dived into the music of more mellifluous soul mates like Billy Strayhorn and Richard Rodgers, so his newly released solo album, Thelonious: Fred Hersch Plays Monk (Nonesuch), is a surprise. But it also turns out to be a delight: The younger pianist never goes out of his way to mimic the great bop architect. On the contrary, even when he pays homage to Monk’s ironic brand of stride piano, he lends it a refinement heard from few of his predecessors, and he drapes the famous ballad “‘Round Midnight” in a pastel gauze that has nothing to do with Monk’s conception of the tune as a tough roadhouse lullaby. But Hersch has such a deep insight into the machinery of Monk’s compositions–not just the chord patterns, but also the way in which the melodies inhabit the harmonies and the way the phrases rhyme–that he can reinterpret these tunes with the same freedom modern classicists bring to Beethoven’s sonatas. The songs undergo real transformation while remaining inescapably Monk’s–a testament to the composer’s genius as well as to Hersch’s strength of musical character. Saturday, 7:30 PM, Unity Temple, 875 Lake, Oak Park; 708-383-8873. NEIL TESSER
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by James Gudeman.