by Aristea Mellos
By 9PM on May 7, I found myself one concert into the evening, almost 100 blocks south of my first engagement, and in a large and stagnant line that started at the mouth of the Jazz Standard and stretched down 27th Street. Pianist Fred Hersch was about to open his week of duos at the club with guest performer Anat Cohen, a clarinetist whose recent New York Times profile ensured a sold-out show.
The set opened with a Hersch original dedicated to jazz trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, with Hersch’s rich and warm tone on the piano matched by Ms. Cohen’s throaty chalumeau register work. As the piece fired up and impish improvised passages were passed between the two artists, it was immediately evident that Ms. Cohen has complete technical and soulful command of her instrument.
An upbeat rendition of Fats Waller’s "Jitterbug Waltz" (whose sequentially descending theme brings to mind a child begrudgingly practicing Czerny piano exercises) instigated frivolous fun between Hersch and Cohen. Flights of fancy were replaced with soulful sass in Antonio Carlos Jobim’s "O Grande Amor." Hersch opened the tune with his signature sparse syncopation, over which Cohen played soft and dulcet long tones.
Perhaps in no other piece were the differences between Hercsh and Cohen’s performance styles more evident: Whilst Hersch maintained inscrutable composure at the keyboard, making minute movements from his fingers, Cohen embodied the Latin flavor completely. The syncopated rhythms seemed to be grafted to Ms. Cohen’s hips as she swayed and shifted on the stage while beads of sweat poured down her face.
Although Herch and Cohen might seem an unusual coupling, their compatibility was clearly evident in Herch’s "Songs Without Words No. 4: Duet." In the moody but texturally dense work, the musicians seemed to strike a perfect balance, allowing the song to dance lithely. Herch and Cohen teased out lyrical spots and reveled in virtuosic passage work, creating a sense of musical communion.
The final two songs of the evening—Eubie Blake’s "Memories of You" and a spirited Brazilian Ragtime ditty—rounded out the set and served as crowd pleasers. An unannounced encore brought Hersch and Cohen back to the stage for a final piece of musical magic. Hersch opened with his minimalist style, a technique that leaves you imagining the unplayed notes of a tune within the arresting breaths of a song, while Cohen skirted around, expelling shapely tremolos and pouring her magnetic persona into the music.
It is perhaps a sad sign of the times when a jazz legend like Hersch thanks his audience more than once for taking the time and effort to support live music. But with such musical offerings abounding in New York City, it’s hard to imagine why you wouldn’t want to leave your couch and explore the diverse sound world that enriches this city night after night.