Fred Hersch, Breath by Breath, review: a masterclass in mindfulness

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At 66, the self-taught Jazz pianist Fred Hersch is still full of ideas. This latest album, inspired by meditation and breathing, is a refreshingly broad concept album that has room enough for the listener to bring their own imagination and interpretations to the fore.

Hersch is one of New York City’s most revered Jazz musicians, proven by becoming the first solo pianist to hold a weekly residency in the city’s legendary Village Vanguard club. His impact on music has been felt as an improviser, composer and bandleader, with more than 70 recorded compositions in his arsenal over a 40-year period.   

Breath by Breath, sees the 15-time Grammy nominee joined by a string quartet and rhythm section – a first for Hersch on a studio album. Violinists Joyce Hammann and Laura Seaton, violist Lois Martin, and cellist Jody Redhage Ferber are four of New York City’s most in demand string players, and make up half of the personnel on the record. Hersch’s core trio provide a light but reliable skeleton for the suite. Bassist Drew Gress – a member of Hersch’s first trio – joins drummer Jochen Rueckert, an in-demand player who’s also collaborated with contemporaries such as Pat Metheny.

Despite eight musicians on the release, Hersch achieves an elastic texture throughout, with his string players – adopting the name of Crosby Street String Quartet – achieving a breath-like swell and release. Hersch is not an artist who demands the limelight – rather, it is by quietly and generously leading his fellow musicians that he shines brightest.

Stand out track Monkey Mind (which is the Buddhist term for being unsettled or restless) is masterfully onomatopoeic. Dissonant plucks from the bass and strings dance around each other mischievously. The execution is light and reactive, balancing that hard-to-achieve illusion of improvisation and impulsivity within a composition.

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