Recent Reading – Two Memoirs

Two very different books with fascinating stories to tell:

Good Things Happen Slowly – Fred Hersch. A leading jazz pianist tells about not only his journey as a musician, but as a gay man and as a survivor of incredibly grave illness. His prose is no less finely shaped than his work at the piano. Like all the best writing about music, it made me want to go back to the music – in this case, both his recorded performances and his published concert music.

Here’s a live Hersch performance of “In Walked Bud”:

George Szell’s Reign – Marcia Hansen Kraus. As a native of Cleveland who just missed the Szell era, I was fascinated by this collection of tales describing the history of the Cleveland Orchestra in the mid-20th century. Szell’s autocratic leadership of the orchestra led to its supreme excellence, and the remembrances of many of the members of the orchestra gathered here shed light on what it was really like to work under the maestro. Kraus, the widow of Felix Kraus, an oboist in the Orchestra during the Szell days, has not written a dry scholarly book (though it is meticulously footnoted), but rather a very human portrait of an organization and its leader, doing us the service of recording the reminiscences of those veterans of the Szell era who are still among us.

Christmas Break Reading List

I’m presently quite absorbed by the new Harvey Sachs biography of Toscanini, but also in progress or waiting to be opened are Leonard Slatkin’s Leading Tones (which includes amusing anecdotes and astonishing stats on the premieres that man has given – what a contribution to the field!) and Fred Hersch’s Good Things Happen Slowly. Then there is the reading in prep for the grad course I will be doing next semester: George Perle, Douglas Jarman and Dave Headlam on Berg, and David Schiff’s unique The Ellington Century. I’ve been reading and re-reading Perle since I studied with him decades ago, always with pleasure and profit and not a little awe at his command of the material; but there is also much to learn from Jarman and Headlam.

Let me repost a couple of seasonal links:  a reminder to work on your eartraining at Christmas time, as well as a Christmas cookie recipe in the manner of the Roman Missal.

Heat Wave Miscellany

– Two upcoming concerts by the Argento Ensemble feature important French composers and celebrate the renovation of Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum. Music by Tristan Murail on Sunday, July 22 at and by Philipe Hurel on Saturday, July 28 – both concerts at 5:30.

– A massive interview with Fred Hersch has been posted at Do the Math.

– The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE to you) has put up a nICE library of videos – performances as well as chats.

– Miss Ella shares her thoughts on the weather.

– Blogging will continue to be very intermittent until more progress is made on the current composition projects including this one.


In 1980-81 I played jazz and classical piano in the bar of a Philadelphia restaurant called Frog, or “Frög” as the place’s logo would have it, with the umlaut and “o” supposedly suggesting the face of a frog. I played the late shift on Thursdays and Saturdays, playing, I think from about 8 until midnight or 1. Playing the early shift before me on Saturdays was Philly native Uri Caine, one of today’s leading jazz pianists. Although my bio says I have worked as a jazz musician, you may notice that it doesn’t claim I was any good at it, and this is in extremely marked contrast to Uri, who played the early shift so that he could go off to a more serious jazz gig after the restaurant job. I first knew Uri when he was an undergrad at Penn and I was a graduate student. Already at that point he had an uncanny command of an array of compositional styles, both jazz and classical, from all eras. When he played a piano piece he had created in response to a classroom assignment to write something in the style of, for example, Schumann, it was never quite clear how much he was improvising, so remarkable was his improvisational facility in classical idioms. It makes perfect sense that his best known music would become his work engaging classical pieces, such as his takes on Mahler and the Goldberg Variations. Uri would try to crack me up as I entered the restaurant by juxtaposing jazz and classical pieces – in the middle of a Cole Porter tune four bars of the Liebestod would suddenly appear, perfectly integrated – “I Get a Kick Out of You” indeed. This kind of facility and breadth also makes sense given that polystylistic composer George Rochberg was an important mentor for Uri.

I’ve been listening to a lot of solo piano recordings lately in connection with an upcoming project (about which more soon!), and the recordings have included jazz records, such as Uri’s 2002 release, Solitaire. While Uri can groove with the best, most of the pieces on this record don’t stay in one place long enough for this skill to be apparent. His imagination is too restless for him to play several choruses in the same general rhythmic feel. Sometimes the rapid-fire changes of tone put one in mind of John Zorn’s music, where the juxtapositions themselves carry expressive weight, as much as what is going on musically in each section. The piano attack tends toward the percussive – no Bill Evans influence apparent here. Sometimes the accompanying textures accumulate in waves of rhythmically irregular, nervous figures that do not suggest a pulse; other moments are clearly metrical, even evoking the gospel or down home feel that is one element of Keith Jarrett’s solo work. There are no genuine ballads here. On the other hand, there is what I take to be an improvisation on a twelve-tone row, (hey, it’s called “Twelve” after all), a set of apparently improvised variations on a twelve-tone row – stated baldly at first, then proceeding with increasingly shorter note values.

For comparison with Uri’s music, I pulled out Fred Hersch’s Songs Without Words, a three disc set on Nonesuch, and Jason Moran’s Modernistic. A superficial analysis would say that Hersch’s is the most traditional approach of the three – consistently rich harmonizations, no abrupt stylistic juxtapositions. But within that framework the work is fresh and highly original. Pointillistic textures that dart about the keyboard project Hersch’s rich harmonic palette in unexpected ways. “Caravan” is reconfigured as a sort of tango, with dissonances that are comparable to, but not identical with the alarming harmonic colors of the original. The aerated texture makes the acid colors more vivid. Hersch commands the most beautiful piano sound of the three artists. Debussy is part of his voice more than with Caine or Moran.

There is a big range of styles on Jason Moran’s Modernistic, and the pieces can sometimes break into a momentary freakout in a way that Caine sometimes does, but Hersch never does. Moran’s conception is unique in two ways: first, the use of special pianistic sonorities – sampled effects (Conversations With Myself for the 21st century) and a detuned (processed, I assume) instrument evoking a 1930s roadhouse keyboard – and second, the use of ostinato. It is a clever take on “Body and Soul” to focus on a repeated cadential progression rather the tricky harmony of the entire form. This is improvisation as simplification rather than elaboration – Holiday, not Fitzgerald.  An alternating hands gesture that would normally serve as a one bar fill in a piece like James P. Johnson’s “You’ve Got to be Modernistic” becomes the momentary focus itself – as in his treatment of “Body and Soul”, a fleeting detail is extracted and expanded, with provocative formal implications. Moran is willing to use straightforward ostinato textures as a framework in ways that Hersch and Caine are not. My sense is that Moran can do anything he wants at the piano, but his virtuosity is, like that of Monk, more compositional than pianistic.

All three men offer the satisfying pleasure of hearing a musician thinking out loud.

I do think those of us who focus on notated music are being irresponsible if we overlook the music of improvising artists. 35 years ago, one of my undergraduate teachers would ask us to avoid what he called “cigarette chords” – chords one should only hear when smoking cigarettes, meaning, in a piano bar. I think he was trying to discourage a simplistic approach to the post-Debussy/Ravel harmony that informs a good deal of jazz practice. But now I wish my own students could write harmonies that are as colorful, varied, and elegantly shaped as what you can hear in the work of Caine, Hersch, Moran, and other jazz artists.

LC listings

The phrase “LC listings” usually refers to library holdings that are categorized according to the standard classifications of the Library of Congress, but in this case, I want to call your attention to the listings of webcasts that the Library of Congress offers. Among the musical items that caught my eye are these:

– Steven Swayne on William Schuman’s Seventh Symphony

– Walter Frisch on early Schoenberg

– Judith Tick on Ruth Crawford Seeger

– interviews with Jim Hall and Fred Hersch.

I haven’t yet had time to look at the above myself, so I make no claims for how interesting they might turn out to be. But the topics are certainly of interest.

(photo: the reading room in the Library of Congress)

Revisiting Fred Hersch

David Hajdu’s article on Fred Hersch in the Times Magazine several weeks ago led me to pull out some of his recordings, in particular the 3-CD set he released on Nonesuch in 2001. I’m especially fond of the solo work that dominates this album. One highlight is the astonishing version of Cole Porter’s  “So in Love”. In the booklet notes Hersch calls it “probably the slowest ballad I ever recorded.” The performance lasts nearly 8 minutes, yet consists of a brief intro, a coda, and only two choruses! Now, part of the deal on that is the form* of the song. Porter notated the piece in cut time, with the opening notes of the melody (“Strange dear, but true dear”) notated as half, half tied to half, half, etc. This means the form of the piece is the usual AABA, but each section is 16 bars, except the last A which is extended. Does anyone play the piece as though the tune was written in 4/4 quarter notes – with a walking quarter note bass? The number of bars would obviously be halved, and the piece would be closer to a conventional 32 bars (plus that extension). Why does the mind rebel at that idea? The booklet notes say that Hersch usually plays the piece in 5/4 – presumably a bar of 5/4 for each bar of cut time – a vastly more sophisticated way of filling in those long measures than the usual cocktail piano strategy of a bossa nova or even, Lord help us, a rhumba feel. The song is from Kiss Me Kate, and the performance on the Broadway cast album is about 72 to the half note, a solid andante. Hersch plays the piece with a basically steady quarter note pulse of left hand chords at  about 60, but he plays the piece in 6/4! (Or, call the pulsing chords triplets – the notation would differ, my point is the same.) Two bars of cut time are covered in 6 pulsing chords. So: on Broadway, two measures of cut time lasted 4 beats at 72 (3.33 seconds); in Hersch’s version, two bars of the original cut time now last 6 beats at roughly 60 (6 seconds) (or 3 beats at 30, if you like, which would be off the metronome). The 6/4 feels utterly natural, so much so that at first I thought the piece was being played in 4/4, with generous rubato. There certainly is rubato here, but the metric framework has been altered from the original version.

Of course, just playing slowly is no special feat (after all, we’ve all worked with drummers who seemed to make a specialty of it, and I don’t mean that in a positive way.) What makes the performance a tour-de-force is the way Hersch is able to spin out a line that keeps up the continuity despite the luxuriously slow pace. The duple/triple tension between the pulsing chords and the tune helps keep the melodic thread taut. It feels a bit like the slow movement of the Ravel Concerto in G** with its steadily pulsing left hand chords, though the right hand melody in the Ravel does not offer an opportunity for the wonderfully elastic rubato that Hersch brings to bear here.

Hersch remarks in the booklet about this tune that “as a solo, it struck me more as an intimate confession between one person and another, almost like whispering in bed.” It’s an apt image for a haunting performance. Pillow talk may be intimate like this recording, but never this eloquent.


*Allen Forte (yes, the same fellow known for writing about post-tonal music) writes perceptively about the superbly shaped melody of this piece in The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era.

**John Adams has recently blogged interestingly about Ravel here.