Fred Hersch has long been acclaimed as an exploratory artist, an outspoken activist, an influential educator and a uniquely lyrical pianist. The 7 pieces on Open Book offer some of the finest, most unguardedly emotional solo music that Hersch has created in a career unique for its profound poignancy and passion. Recorded in a South Korean concert hall on a superb Hamburg Steinway concert grand piano, the album captures the vital essence of the revelatory adventurousness and intense beauty that have made Hersch one of the most important solo artists in jazz.
The centerpiece of Open Book, and the spark that ignited the album, is the nearly 20-minute improvisation "Through the Forest." Unique in Hersch's extensive discography, the stream-of-consciousness gem is a miniature masterpiece of narrative development, a compelling journey through an abstract, glimmering landscape, revealing that in his early 60s Hersch continues to take creative risks and daunting inventive leaps. The album opens with the stark musings of "The Orb," taken from Hersch's autobiographical music-theater piece My Coma Dreams. A love letter to Hersch's longtime partner, AIDS activist Scott Morgan, "The Orb" is the final dream depicted in the show, and in this solo rendition becomes a nakedly heartfelt outpouring of raw but tender emotion.
The mood then takes a turn for the playful and swinging on "Whisper Not," a longtime staple of Hersch's repertoire that here becomes a vibrant, virtuoso marathon of thematic exploration. The piece also serves as an ideal mirror to the album's other composition from the pen of a jazz icon, Thelonious Monk's "Eronel." Hersch has long been recognized as one of the premier interpreters of the Monk songbook, but despite including one of the iconic composer's pieces in every one of his sets for most of his career, Hersch had never tackled this particular tune, co-written by pianist Sadik Hakim. Monk's original stride-inflected lines come in for a dizzying array of variations in Hersch's endlessly imaginative take.
On the other side of "Through the Forest" in the album's symmetrical structure comes Hersch's own classical-flavored "Plainsong," a spare, lyrical piece composed in the bucolic setting of the MacDowell Colony, the inspirational artists' retreat in rural New Hampshire. Open Book ends on a meaningful ellipsis, Billy Joel's moving "And So It Goes." In title alone it's an apt conclusion, suggesting an embrace of life as lived and hinting at its open-ended continuation. The full lyrics, which Hersch has performed in duo settings with singers including frequent collaborator Kate McGarry, remain unspoken here but obviously deeply felt in every note.