It’s an ill wind that blows no good. The miserable winter of 2014 enabled one of Richmond’s best weekends of world class improvisation at the Modlin Center. The appearance of The Branford Marsalis Quartet was long-scheduled, but pianist Fred Hersch was a make-up for concert originally scheduled for snowy February. Both gigs were excellent in very different ways.
Marsalis started his Friday evening gig with a warning. He had just come from sessions highlighting the facts about the sorry state of the music industry -- jazz in particular. He spent the morning at VCU telling students what they didn’t want to hear, he said. "Then I came to University of Richmond to tell students something they didn’t want to hear. You may not want to hear this either, but you paid so you are stuck," he said.
Not that anyone was complaining, the first song -- the burner “The Mighty Sword” -- was an uncompromising post-bop complexity of notes. For the opening pieces Marsalis played beautifully rounded notes on the soprano saxophone -- an instrument often characterized by nasal eccentricity. He faded into the background after the heads and solos, letting his rhythm section shine. The tenor sax came out with honking Sonny Rollins percussiveness for Thelonious Monk’s “Teo.”
And so it went, alternating between blazing speed and balladic melodicism, a band working at the highest level. But the band transcended mere brilliance with “As Summer into Autumn Slides,” a lovely tone poem that for the performance was dedicated to the just-deceased Alvin Garnett -- the father of VCU alumnus Alvester Garnett. What had been impressive became something more, heartfelt and illuminated from within. It was easily the highpoint of the show.
The encore, the New Orleans standard “St. James Infirmary,” was a cheerful anticlimax.
Fred Hersch’s performance, inside Camp Concert hall in the middle of a perfect spring Sunday afternoon, did not attract the crowd that attended the sold-out Marsalis show. Despite being one of the great jazz pianists of his generation, Hersch is not quite a household name. Not that this matters when he is at the keyboard.
In a master class on Saturday afternoon Hersch laid out his multilayered approach to playing jazz. It requires the simultaneous mastery of facility with the instrument, a sophisticated understanding of the vocabulary, a mastery of rhythm, a deep knowledge of the song being played -- not just the harmonic changes but the dramatic structure and lyrics. Above all, it has to be fun and fresh, it’s called “playing” for a reason.
From the intricate footwork of “Whirl” to the inspired pastiche of “Dream of Monk” to a variety of mash-up collisions -- notably of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” and Miles Davis’ “Nardis” to the closing return to Monk’s “Let’s Cool One” the trio was an object lesson in Hersch’s approach. Bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson proved a perfect complement to the pianist’s lyrical poetry and precision.