Fred Hersch: The Nearness Of You

Ned Washington's lyric to the Hoagy Carmichael song "The Nearness Of You" has always been a special favorite of mine. The thought of a person whose mere presence can be an inspiration speaks to the romantic artist in me. I suspect that Fred Hersch loves these words as much as I do. For even in his solo piano version of this song, the lyric's message comes through.

Hersch opens with an original introduction (not the original verse) and then he moves into the song with great tenderness, using a spare arpeggiated style in his left hand. While the left hand ideas grow in intensity as Hersch becomes more rhapsodic, they are never overwhelming, but are simply there to support the melody in the right hand. Hersch stays in a free rubato throughout the performance, but there seems to some underlying tempo as Hersch's ideas seem to ebb and flow in a rhythmic pattern. Early in his improvisation, he finds a wonderful little idea that he sequences through a number of keys before moving to another thought, which he also develops. He returns to the tune at the bridge and he emphasizes the end of that eight-bar section with held notes at either end of the piano followed by a dramatic pause, which reverts the mood back to that of the beginning.

So, how does all of this relate to the lyric? It's not easy to explain, but I get a tangible feeling that the passion found in this recording has extra-musical roots. The romantic intensity of the lyric is transformed into a spiritual feeling that breathes through every second of this music. Creative musicians live for moments like this, where all of the elements come together and the music is elevated to a higher level. Inspiration and complete mental focus are a big part of the equation, and it's nearly impossible to reach those heights by just going through the motions. Whatever Hersch's inspiration was, he created a very special musical moment on that October night at Jordan Hall. We are fortunate enough to share it.

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments


Jessica Williams: The Nearness Of You

Williams was living in Portland, OR at the time she recorded what became Volume 21 of the prestigious Maybeck Recital Hall solo piano series. While the respect and admiration for her playing was still largely confined to the West Coast, it was perhaps that regional recognition that resulted in her invitation to join the ranks of other better-known pianists who had already performed at Maybeck, such as Barry Harris, Marian McPartland, Kenny Barron, and Hank Jones. In turn, the release of Williams' At Maybeck broadened her exposure more than had any of her previous albums.

"The Nearness of You" is one of the most impressive tracks, and surely turned more than a few heads her way for the first time, creating future loyal fans in the process. Williams begins with parallel modulating figures, dissonant note clusters, and whirling dervish runs, before a semblance of the theme finally emerges. She continues with more subtle embellishments, but still often provocative and unpredictable in the direction and resolution of her phrases. The pianist uses the entire keyboard, as is her wont, dwelling for a time in the upper octaves while maintaining an appealingly swaying rhythm with her left hand. Williams gets progressively deeper inside the tune's harmonic structure with intricate, logical, and always listener-friendly variations. The reprise of the melody features a sprinkling of Monkish "trinkle-tinkles," before a playful yet heartfelt ending.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Roger Kellaway (featuring Stefon Harris): The Nearness of You

When a jazz pianist adds vibes and guitar to the band, comparisons with George Shearing will inevitably come to mind. But there are several strong individuals in this band, so there is little risk of Shearing redux on this 2006 recording from the Jazz Standard. Perhaps the biggest surprise here is Stefon Harris, who plays in a very tasty and traditional style. During the first few bars of the melody statement, I wondered whether this ensemble would find the right groove, but by the time we get to Harris's fine solo, the group's cohesion is admirable. Without a drummer on hand, the music sounds very exposed, but the players seem to take delight in a setting that allows them to bring the dynamic level down to a whisper. Russell Malone plays very little here, but everything he adds is premier cru. Kellaway shows off his pristine touch on his solo, but I especially like the way he comps behind Harris. Clearly chamber jazz is still alive and well in the new millennium.

September 29, 2008 · 0 comments


Warne Marsh: The Nearness of You

Warne Marsh's 1983 session for A Ballad Album seems to promise some lyrical, late-night performances from the celebrated tenorist. But Marsh is more the logician than the romantic on this track, constructing his lines with architectonic precision. Frankly, I wouldn't have it any other way. Few improvisers do a better job of building creative phrases to fit the old chord changes than Marsh, and he is one artist who is at his best when he is the most analytical. This ballad is like a slo-mo replay, in which the tenorist's relaxed approach and the slow tempo give us a chance to savor every little twist and turn. My only gripe is that Marsh doesn't stretch his solo out for another chorus or two.

June 12, 2008 · 0 comments


Norah Jones: The Nearness of You

Almost from the release of her debut CD, critics carped that Norah Jones was not a “real jazz singer.” Students of the music’s history know that this criticism has been leveled at many of the greatest jazz performers of the last century, and is usually a signal that something interesting is afoot. Jones is, in fact, an exemplary jazz singer, and anyone who doubts it should listen to her sing an old ballad with just her own piano playing as accompaniment – as she does on this rendition of a Hoagy Carmichael standard. Her interpretation here is exquisite and heartfelt, and proves that Jones is the real deal whether handling contemporary material or (as on this track) a 70-year-old ballad.

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments


Bennie Wallace: The Nearness of You

Bennie Wallace owns one of the most distinctive styles in jazz. With a full sensuous tone that harks back to earlier tenorists like Ben Webster and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, and arpeggiated, leap-filled phrasing suggestive of modernist woodwinds player Eric Dolphy, Wallace is instantly recognizable. Accompanied by longtime colleague bassist Eddie Gomez and the quintessential hard bop pianist Kenny Barron, Wallace gives a quiet, reflective reading of Hoagy Carmichael’s lovely “The Nearness of You.” Barron and Gomez improvise fascinating double counterpoint behind Wallace’s opening phrases.

November 08, 2007 · 0 comments


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