Pianist Fred Hersch whispers where others shout and reaches for subtlety where others overplay.

The sense of balance and proportion in his work often suggests the musical values of a classical pianist, while his touch and tone evoke the French impressionists of the early 20th century. That Hersch leads one of the most sensitive and nimble trios in jazz only enhances the appeal of his art.

And yet an evening-length program of virtually nonstop understatement, reserve and delicacy can become repetitive, as it eventually did Friday night at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts. Amid all this hushed, hyper-controlled music-making, at least one listener wished to hear a fuller range of sound, color, texture and attack that a piano can produce.

Not that there wasn’t much to admire in the intelligence of Hersch’s pianism, the sophistication of his keyboard voicings, the fluidity of his improvisations and the meticulousness of his collaborations with bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson.

Hersch and friends opened with "Whirl," the title work of their 2010 album, an aptly named tune dedicated to the dancer Suzanne Farrell. Its buoyant rhythmic vocabulary and perpetual-motion figures indeed suggested the dance, while Hersch’s glistening right-hand tone and unexpected chord changes kept the music consistently engaging. The transparency of the ensemble’s sound was quite something to behold, each instrument ringing out clearly at even the softest dynamic level.

Hersch’s "Serpentine," from the trio’s recent "Sunday Night at the Vanguard" album, stood out for his silvery tone and winding chromatic lines, this shimmering pianism setting the stage for bassist Hebert’s most intensely melodic solo of the evening. Add to this drummer McPherson’s gently articulated brushwork, and you had a trio that clearly has benefited from its many years of collaboration. In ensemble passages, these musicians functioned as a single organism.

There was pleasure in hearing Hersch’s trio in standard repertoire, too, not so much to enjoy familiar melodies as to hear how these artists transform them. The pianist brought a narrative quality to "A Cockeyed Optimist," from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "South Pacific," telling his story through impeccably shaped phrases and ultra-refined tonal shadings.

But it took quite a while before these players generated real energy and substantive tone, and even then they did so relatively briefly and within certain limitations. Wayne Shorter’s "Black Nile" inspired the band to pick up the tempo and turn up the dial, finally producing something approaching rhythmic drive and tonal edge.

This was a welcome change of pace and might have led another ensemble to build on newly found momentum. But Hersch and colleagues instead turned to "At the Close of the Day," from Hersch’s "Leaves of Grass" album, a chamber-music setting of poetry by Walt Whitman. The composition ranks among Hersch’s most significant, the pianist’s legato lines and nocturnal ambience undeniably appealing. But after so much hushed music-making, this important work carried less impact than it would have in another context.

The opening solo by which Hersch introduced Jimmy Rowles’ "The Peacocks" owed a heavy debt to Maurice Ravel’s suite "Miroirs." And Hersch’s version of "We See," by Thelonious Monk — a composer Hersch long has championed — rounded the edges of Monk’s music.

Hersch is unrivaled within his fragile sonic vocabulary, but it’s a comparatively narrow realm of expression.

Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.


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