The list of excellent jazz pianists continues to grow

By Howard Mandel

A recent New York Times Magazine feature about pianist Fred Hersch, by my esteemed colleague David Hajdu, observed a recent “new movement in jazz [of] highly expressive music more concerned with emotion than craft or virtuosity; a genre-blind music that casually mingles strains of pop, classical and folk musics from many cultures; an informal elastic music unyielding to rigid conceptions of what jazz is supposed to be.” Hersch, who has been on the New York jazz scene for 33 years—recording more than 45 albums of his own work since 1991—is described as a trailblazing, “largely unsung innovator of this borderless, individualistic music—a jazz for the 21st century.”

Gee: Unsung? A glance at the press quotes at FredHersch.com provides raves from the New Yorker, New York magazine, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, the Times (“…a solo concept second to none”) and the major jazz magazines. He’s been on Terry Gross’ Fresh Air, Kurt Anderson’s Studio 360 and NPR’s All Things Considered. A trailblazing innovator? Hersch is a highly talented, accomplished determined and, yes, an “individualistic” pianist/composer. But he is not alone or (to my mind, anyway) leading the field.

Connie Crothers.

I’m afraid the accolades are partly due to extra-musical considerations. Hersch has discussed and acted politically on his hellacious health issues candidly since being diagnosed in the early 1990s with HIV, which developed into full-blown AIDS and has resulted in numerous debilitating complications. Through it all, he has indeed produced a distinguished, admirable and remarkable ouevre, marked by broad variety, and a recognizable if to my ears somewhat brittle touch and consistently penetrating expression. On Fred Hersch Plays Jobim, released last summer, he presses the great Brazilian bossa novist’s well- and lesser-known songs for their ineffable sadness, “casually” improvising Bach-worthy counterpoint, letting his fingers spin through balletic runs that arrive at sambas, ruminating darkly and softly as deepest night. Each rendition has drama, and Hersch’s every voicing is colorful and crystal clear. Hersch creates heartfelt, original, yet not unconventional music. He has a solo concert March 31 at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall.

But New York City has been the epicenter of expressive, genre-expanding, personalized keyboardism since the 1920s, when Willie the Lion Smith, Eubie Blake, James P. Johnson and George Gershwin ruled. Ellington, Waller, Tatum, Monk, Mary Lou Williams, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill, Cecil Taylor and hundreds of others have held forth here. Hajdu cites Brad Mehldau, Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran, Ethan Iverson as exemplifying 21st-century music, keyboard division. These men rave about Hersch, but their own current projects are just as arresting. And at least a couple of dozen other even more unsung keyboardists are establishing their distinctions throughout Manhattan.

Not to cite veterans—Hank Jones, Keith Jarrett, Kenny Barron, Muhal Richard Abrams, et al.—here are some very worthy, mid-career NYC pianists:

Matt Shipp, though 50, is an enfant terrible, boldly claiming his primacy and harshly judging others (see recent interviews in Jazz Times and Signal To Noise). On his new solo 4D, Shipp delivers originals, standards, “Frere Jacques” and “Greensleeves” in a uniquely spidery way. His forays seem alternately random and willful but also genuinely post-modern; he deconstructs, satirizes and rumbles deadpan through clichés. His next local performances are with trio and dancers at the 14th Street Y on March 5 (Vision Collaborations Festival) and guitarist Joe Morris March 27 at B.B. King’s (New England Conservatory’s 40th anniversary celebration).

Geri Allen, more resourceful, respectful of tradition and yet daringly creative, plays beautifully with Trio 3 (drummer Andrew Cyrille, bassist Reggie Workman, saxophonist Oliver Lake) on At This Time. She concertizes March 2 at the Shomburg Museum, and March 4 in the Celebration of African-American Cultural Legacy, curated by Jessye Norman at Carnegie Hall.

Armen Donelian is an elegant composer, soloist, bandleader and educator with classical chops and 35 years of top-notch jazz experience. He also draws from his Armenian musical heritage. He performs in town next with his quintet at Cornelia Street Café April 9.

Connie Crothers has been a freethinking improviser since debuting under Lennie Tristano’s auspices in 1972. Session at 475 Kent, her duo with bassist Michael Bisio, is an intimate recital of open-form romanticism. She and her quartet play at Galapagos in Brooklyn March 28.

Frank Kimbrough possesses sweetly subtle lyricism and generous adaptability, whether solo, with Maria Schneider’s Orchestra, Ted Nash’s quintet (for six nights at Dizzy’s Club in May) or, as on March 26 at 55 Bar, with singer Kendra Shank.

Arturo O’Farrill’s pianistic finesse might be overlooked within the smooth, hot synchronicity of the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra (named for his late father), heard every Sunday in March at Birdland. But it shouldn’t be.

Who else? Cyrus Chestnut, of bounding swing. Steve Colson, an infrequent presence. Bill Charlap can do anything. John Blum employs dynamic clusters. Craig Taborn. Jason Lindner. Marc Cary. The list is long!