Who says that present-day jazz is cold and calculated, lacking in feeling? Here comes pianist Fred Hersch to prove that notion is a lie.
Hersch, who brings his trio to the Folly Theater on Saturday, plays smart and passionate music that’s fairly described as contemplative, even when it isn’t quiet. It’s direct, always searching for beauty, and fully aware that neither directness nor beauty is easy.
Best of all, Hersch’s music is always concerned with emotional effect — whether he’s playing standards or originals, and even when he’s pushing slightly beyond the usual harmonic and rhythmic comfort zones.
His trio — with, at last report, bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson — is the logical continuation of the trio explorations set in motion by Bill Evans more than 50 years ago, where all three players are equal partners in the discussion. It’s a brilliantly interactive band. And when he plays with it, Hersch, now approaching 60, sounds as if he’s developed into a true master.
In Hersch’s case, the biographical facts almost threaten to overwhelm the art. He served apprenticeships with some of the finest players and singers in jazz before building his own ambitious career as leader and composer. He’s been a Guggenheim fellow and a Grammy nominee. He’s also been an AIDS patient for decades, and a vocal activist on behalf of AIDS services. The disease came close to taking his life in 2008, when he spent two months in a coma.
His comeback has been more than impressive — he’s done some of his strongest work since 2008, including an evening-length theater piece called “My Coma Dreams.” (Remember that AIDS activism slogan, “Silence equals death”? There will be no silence from Hersch.) And his piano work, whatever the context, is as strong as ever.
Hersch doesn’t let anything overshadow the music, and his playing provides one of the most lyrical experiences in jazz today. His trio’s appearance is bound to be one of the jazz highlights of the year.
A lesson in big bands
As an educator, sax virtuoso Hal Melia has been a big help in keeping the Kansas City jazz scene healthy. He left town for other opportunities about a decade ago, but his students are now playing professionally all over town — and it’s great to welcome him back for a guest spot with the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra on Friday.
Melia and the band, under the direction of Clint Ashlock, will explore the “Evolution of the Big Band.” The program starts at the beginnings with Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington, doesn’t ignore the Kansas City evolution of Count Basie and Jay McShann, then blasts off into the territory of Stan Kenton, Thad Jones and Maria Schneider.
▪ Don’t forget singer Marilyn Maye’s gig with the Kansas City Symphony, at 7 p.m. Thursday at Helzberg Hall in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $35 and up. Call 816-471-0400 or visit kcsymphony.org.
▪ Drummer Grisha Alexiev appears with guitarist Ron Carlson’s group at noon Thursday on the Jazz by the Lake series at Kansas City Kansas Community College, in the conference center next to the campus lake.
▪ The Blue Room, 1600 E. 18th St., has singer and multi-instrumentalist Lester “Duck” Warner and his band at 7 p.m. Thursday; the Chicago Black Folk Art Trio, featuring alto saxophonist Dennis Winslett, bassist Darius Savage and drummer Vincent Davis, at 8:30 p.m. Friday; and singer Ida McBeth at 8:30 p.m. Saturday. The Jazz Disciples are in charge of the Monday jam, at 7 p.m.
▪ Highlights at the Broadway Jazz Club, 3601 Broadway, include the smooth-jazz band Dreaming in Colour at 6 p.m. Thursday; a CD release event for the band Shades of Jade and the group’s disc “Fingerprinted Memories” at 7 p.m. Friday; singer Kelley Gant at 7 p.m. Saturday; and the Sons of Brasil at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
▪ Highlights at the Green Lady Lounge, 1809 Grand Blvd., include vibraphonist Peter Schlamb’s trio at 9 p.m. Thursday; guitarist Steve Gray’s group at 8:30 p.m. Friday; pianist Eddie Moore and the Outer Circle at 6 p.m. Saturday, followed by organist Ken Lovern’s OJT plus trumpeter Hermon Mehari at 10 p.m.; the Foundation 627 Big Band at 8 p.m. Sunday; bassist Karl McComas-Reichl’s trio at 9 p.m. Monday; keyboardist Bram Wijnands and his B3 Bombers at 9 p.m. Tuesday; and OJT again at 9 p.m. Wednesday.
▪ The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City performs at 8 p.m. Sunday on the alternative jazz series at the RecordBar, 1020 Westport Road.