Bard’s Sosnoff Theater initially seemed too large a venue for an intimate duet performance with Fred Hersch and Sullivan Fortner, two highly expressive improvisational jazz pianists. It’s the kind of happening that seemed more suited to a New York City loft or jazz club jammed with lively astute fans. The Catskill Jazz Factory, in collaboration with Bard College on October 7, wagered they could find enough fans in the Hudson Valley for this auspicious event and they weren’t wrong. In fact, each of these highly acclaimed artists could easily fill a grand hall wherever they went and on October 7th the cavernous Sosnoff was hushed and full as both men walked on stage. The large audience gave them a welcoming applause, at which point Fred Hersch took a bow and began to walk off stage saying to his partner “I guess we can go home now.”
Whatever prompted this spontaneous gesture, Hersch just went with it. That is the way he likes to play music.
Luckily, they did make their way over to the two facing grand pianos, separate in form only. The sounds that emerged that night were both distinct and indistinguishable from each other. It’s not at all surprising that Fred Hersch and Sullivan Fortner could groove so well together. Hersch is widely understood as being an innovator of what music critic David Hajdu calls a “borderless, individualistic jazz – a jazz for the 21st century –“ and Fortner, along with several other well known practitioners of this “genre-blind” music, were students of Hersch. Fortner describes him as a mentor and a musical father.
It was striking to watch the intergenerational dynamic unfold between them, one which exhibited tremendous sensitivity, respect and inquisitiveness, with Fortner occasionally peering through the uprights at his mentor, searching for clues. Fortner brought a playful mischievous to the music at times, with bold melodic flourishes floating over Hersch’s subtle, steady chord movements, which gave all the pieces a mysterious undertow of rhythmic time.
The pieces played contained many influences, including some classical, which echoed through the music, masterfully camouflaged within original compositions and deftly woven through familiar songs. They played Hersch’s arrangement of the Beatles tune “And I Love Her,” which felt like a gentle undressing of the tune to reveal a beautiful, delicate and essential garment underneath. With original compositions they played a musical relay, interlocking ideas back and forth, with single hands and solos, mindfully revealing their thoughts to each other as if speaking with words.
Jazz has always been conversational. Their playing seemed to get at the inner workings of the mind, treading down familiar paths, but laying new groundwork as they went along, inviting or daring each other with each new thought. They each played an original Ballad, revealing two kinds of romantic sensibility. Fortner’s felt lovely and promising; Hersch was dark and exquisite. Both were an invitation for deep feeling.
Improvisational artists have a daunting task of opening up new territory in an honest and original way. They are the best interpreters of the music they are making, as they are making it. As Hersch and Fortner left the stage after an encore, Hersch said “keep your eyes on Sullivan Fortner.” Nothing better could be said by a musical father, and the elder Hersch was well assured of his own masterful posterity in such a talent as the brilliant young Fortner. A video of Hersh and Fortner playing together appears below.