A couple of weeks before the release of Whirl, Fred Hersch was the subject of a long and chilling New York Times Magazine piece by David Hadju. The article related that in late 2008 Hersch, who has suffered from HIV/AIDS-related illnesses for years, had been experiencing symptoms that gradually took his motor functions away -- he became delusional; he couldn't swallow, eat, or drink; and he fell into a coma and began to experience the shutting down of his vital organs. Miraculously, he somehow survived. Apparently, Hersch wasn't ready to die or to stop making music, and Whirl is the evidence, his first recording since recovering from his illness, issued on Palmetto and featuring bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson. The ten tunes on offer here reflect in Hersch something that, while altogether him (his lyric style is always immediately recognizable), is also more open, less formal, and even more adventurous in terms of tune selection, composition, and improvisation. The three cover tunes include a sprightly, involved reading of Jaki Byard's "Mrs. Parker of K.C." Hersch plays the arpeggios sparklingly clean, and yet allows the funkiness in Byard's knotty melody to shine right through them. His solo reflects elements of his former teacher's iconoclastic language while never allowing his own style to be subsumed. Harry Warren's "You're My Everything" reveals Hersch's elegance without excess. The loose swing of his collaborators gives him room to play with "singing" flourishes in the melody and in his solo. "Mandevilla" is a habanera played with restraint and a very conscious use of its rhythmic implications, playing the melody right through the center without using anything extra, though it is full and beautiful. The title track, dedicated to ballet dancer Suzanne Ferrell, is -- as its title suggests -- a flight of fancy yet deeply focused in its leaps and bounds in modes, meters, and harmonic invention. While there are some wonderful ballads here as well -- "Sad Poet" dedicated to Antonio Carlos Jobim, a reading of the forgotten nugget "When Your Lover Has Gone" -- there isn't anything on Whirl that suggests sorrow or caution. If anything, this is among the most most celebratory and energetically intimate records in Hersch's large catalog.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek