Wednesday, September 7, 2016


Fred Hersch
“Mr. Hersch, with his fluent exposition, his rapturous clarity, and his elegant assurance of touch, leads the way. Mr. Hersch has been making acclaimed trio releases since his debut as a leader 30 years ago.”

“When it comes to the art of solo piano in Jazz there are currently two classes of performers: Fred Hersch and everybody else”.

Those are quotes from respected jazz critics Nate Chinen of the New York Times and Dan Bilawsky of All About Jazz lavishing much deserved praise on the jazz pianist Fred Hersch. No doubt Hersch is one of the more elegant jazz pianists around. His playing in any context has such beauty and warmth. Your best bet to get a clear understanding of his gift is to experience Hersch in a solo situation or a trio setting with his trio bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson.

I Strongly recommend Hersch new live trio recording “Sunday Night at the Vanguard” out last month on Palmetto Records. The jazz trio Gods were hanging out with the trio that Sunday night. Each member is of superior form. The ten track album is the epitome of perfection. Hersch is the album’s star. Since he formed the trio, the focus has been largely on Hebert’s and McPherson’s brilliance.

This time around, Hersch softness and warmth on “cuts such as “A Cockeyed Optimist,” and “Calligram” is what you’ll wake up thinking about the next morning after experiencing “Sunday Night at the Vanguard”.  I Dig Jazz spoke with Hersch via telephone about the album and some other topics dear to him.

I enjoyed your new trio album “Sunday Night at the Village Vanguard”.

Thank you so much.

 I understand it was a special occasion for you,  John Hebert and Eric McPherson making the album, your 60th birthday--

Actually no. That didn't have much to do with it honestly. I'd been toying with making a live record with this band again. I actually made arrangements to record then canceled the recording. Then put it back on, then canceled it again. Then I came in on Tuesday night for the sound check, and I don't know, I said, "I just think we should do this." I felt like we had some nice new material. The band was in a good spot. Friday and Saturday, frankly, weren't all that great. I thought "Okay well, we'll throw some money down the drain here," but Sunday night we just all hit it. Just one of those lucky things that happen sometimes.

 Do you attribute the outcome of this wonderful recording to luck?

Well, luck and a lot of playing together.

. How long have you guys been together now?

About seven years.

Is that typically how long it takes for a band to truly gel?

Sometimes bands can be great at the start, like love affairs, they're great. Then you realize they're not as deep as you thought they would be. This one just seems to get deeper. We just played a week at the Vanguard. We just closed this past Sunday night. We are even at a higher level than from the recording in March. It just keeps getting more interesting.

What do you attribute to that? What do you think is the cause of you guys growing like that?

I don't know. I give the guys a lot of freedom to be themselves. I don't make set lists anymore. I just decide we're going to play, or I'll ask them what do you want to play. There's not a whole lot of control going on. I don't know how many trio records I've made. I've made quite a number going back to 1986. 30 years I've been making trio albums. I think this “Sunday Night at the Vanguard” is among the very best ones. It shows the trio's range and the way we play with each other, just the quality of the playing, and the level of attentiveness to the music.

A lot of trios are power trios. That's one kind of format. That goes all the way back to Oscar Peterson, that kind of power trio. Then there are the conversational trios. I like to play lots of different kinds of music. Stuff that swings hard and stuff that's a little to the left. Some things that are very lyrical. Some things that are, on the surface very simple, but very deep. With Eric and John, I feel like I can play anything.

It feels like breathing up there. It's a wonderful thing.

Especially at the Vanguard. There's no better place to play this kind of music. The acoustics, the history, the level of attentiveness from the audience, the intimacy. You're not going to find that usually in a club somewhere else or in a more formal concert hall setting. You don't quite get that. It's a very special place.

It sounds as if you guys feed off the audience too?

Yeah. People are just so with us, whatever we want to do. It's become kind of a thing. I play there at least a couple times a year, sometimes three. It's sounds like my living room. I'm just so comfortable there. I even have my picture up on the wall. I feel very lucky.

That's a big thing. It's more like the Vanguard's wall of fame.

Yeah, it is. It's better than a Grammy for me to have my picture up there. It means more to me.

How long has it been there? When they first put it up was there a ceremony or something?

It's been there about five, six years maybe. Maybe a little longer. It also happens to be on a great spot on the wall. It's super visible. It's nice they did that.

There are piano players who are very percussive piano players. They hammer away at the piano like they're working out some aggression. You have this very beautifully elegant approach to the piano, almost like a love affair, a genuine respect for the piano. Talk about your style of piano playing?

Everybody has a different physical approach to the piano. Everybody has different size hands. Everybody learns a different way.

I worked for a long time with a particular teacher who brought out certain elements in my sound. I play with a very flat hand. Super relaxed. I have a very active left hand, more than most people. That's just developed over time. It's just something that always interested me, so I just kept doing it 'til I started having some success. There might be guys that play more decibels than me, like physically louder, but I would say that my piano playing is about as clear as anybody.

Sometimes, if you go to a Broadway play, and you see a Hollywood star making their Broadway debut, there's all this hype about this big film star. A lot of times, they don't know how to do that. They end up shouting. Stage actors know how to work their voice so you can be in the back of the theater and you feel like they're talking right to you.

They're projecting. It's technique. I think I'm more of that kind of player. We can certainly get raucous. I try not to make really ugly sounds even when it's a high decibel, I still go for, of course, good rhythm, but clarity. Sometimes people can play a lot of notes and then you don't get the story. You just got a lot of notes. I want to tell stories. That's what I would like to do.

Who were some of your main influences, or some of the piano players early on during you formative stage you admired or wanted to emulate?

Well, a whole bunch. I grew up in Cincinnati. I just figured out playing jazz by doing it with older guys. Bought records in used record shops. I didn't know what I was buying half the time. Certainly, Ahmad Jamal made me discover the very top end of the piano which I also use more than a lot of other people. That top octave or octave and a half. He had a beautiful sound up there.

 Earl Hines who's a predecessor of Ellington and Monk. He's one of my all-time favorites. I was very close to Tommy Flanagan and Jimmy Rowles when they were alive, so I got to hear them play a lot. I've also been influenced by Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, and Miles Davis.

 Do you prefer doing live recordings? Is that a better situation for you to record in as opposed to doing studio sessions?

The last number of years more of my records have been live than in the studio. It's just how it's been. I don't know if it's always going to be that way. The next album that I have planned will probably be a studio album. It will probably have to be a studio album. I'll probably do it in a concert hall. It's a solo project of pop tunes that I grew up with the Stylistics, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Paul Simon, the Beatles. The songs that I knew before I played jazz. I'm trying to revisit some of that material to see if I have a record in there. I'm not sure what it's going to be yet, but we would record in a small concert hall. I would have the feeling of the live performances as opposed to being in the studio with close microphones and more of a dead sound.

Is there any particular challenges recording or playing solo as opposed to playing in a trio, or a quartet, or a larger ensemble?

They're the same in some ways, and they're completely different in many other ways.

Solo, I am the band. I'm doing everything. If I stop, there's silence. It all demands concentration, but solo particularly demands super concentration. I love playing solo. I think I'm kind of a specialist at it. I love all the duos, people I play duos with all the time. I love doing that. I love playing with the trio. Adding some horns is another thing, being more of a band pianist. Even when I play with a quintet, which I'll do at the Vanguard in January, I don't call it a quintet, I call it the trio plus 2. It's still the trio, but it's like an expanded trio, not just a quintet. Sometimes I use the horns just to play melodies and stuff they don't even solo all the time. I just kind of use them as orchestral elements.

I love all of it. Solo, duo, trio are the things I do the most. I get so much from all of them; it's hard to pick.

If I do too many solo dates, then I start to get a little crazy. I need to interact with people.

In 2008 you had, a serious scare where you were in a coma for two months and after you came out of that, you had to learn how to play the piano again.

Yeah, that was tricky. I was very weak, and I didn't have much fine motor coordination, but I was very determined to start playing again as soon as possible, even if it wasn't my best. People close to me seemed to be sure that I could do it. I didn't want to wait for the perfect moment. I just went out there and did it. It wasn't as great at first, but by January of 2009, I was leading a quintet at the Vanguard. I got back on the horse pretty fast.

What was your regimen like? What did you have to do to get your chops back up?

I think it was just playing, not doing so much technical stuff, but just spending time at the piano. I'm not big on practicing. I just spend time at the instrument, but I don't sit and do scales and stuff like that. I don't do that right now.

Coming back from such a terrible experience, I, first of all, had to lower my expectations. I had to say, "Well, whatever it is, it's going to be good enough for now, and it'll get better." I think once I gave myself permission to just not put any expectations on myself; I think I play much better now than I did before I was sick. I think right now; I'm playing the best that I've ever played.

Not to be fat-headed but, going into your 60's it's nice to feel like you're still doing really good work and maybe even getting better. I'm very lucky to have all the opportunities I have to play around the world, and I have a great job.

It sounds as if there was never a time during that period that you believed that you wouldn't play again.

No. I was not going to give up. I was determined in my recovery, physical and mental recovery. I was very, very determined and that's what it takes. When you come back from something you have to. Your life is different, and some things are easier, and some things are harder and also I'm getting older. That was now eight years ago. I was only 52 then. I think certain things get easier as you get older, and certain things are a little harder. Travel takes a lot more out of you now than it used to, but that's normal.

 I've wondered about this for years, is music a form of medicine?

Oh yeah. Music is powerful. The things that make me feel best are after a show, somebody will come up to me and just say they were moved, or it made them think of this person they lost or made them feel optimistic or happy and if I can move people, then I feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing. If it just becomes an intellectual exercise, playing stuff for other musicians to check out, I'm not that interested in that.

 When I was listening to “Sunday Night at the Vanguard,” it put me in a certain state. The playing is just so beautiful, lovely. It just made me feel a certain way that I haven't felt listening to a jazz record in a long time.

I think the sound if you feel like you're there. The way it was recorded is deliberate. I wanted to make it sound like what the Vanguard sounds like. You heard the set more-or-less as it went down. It has the natural arc of what we usually do in performance. It's like you got the best seat in the house. That's the idea.

How are you feeling now physically?

I'm feeling fine. Always playing the lead for the Vanguard, I need a couple of days to recover. Just a lot of energy output. I'm working on a memoir that's coming out a year from September from Random House. I'm out at our place in Pennsylvania working on the book because it's due November 1st, so I've got a lot of work to do.

What are some of the things that you are addressing in the memoir?

Just my life in its entirety. Being in New York in the late 70's as a gay jazz musician, dealing with health issues, and coming out issues, and my thoughts about music and composing and just some of the experiences that I've been through. Good and funny and also not-so-good. It's roughly chronological order with some diversions. It's a heavy lift, but I'm really glad I'm doing it.

It's been about 30 years now since you were diagnosed with HIV.

Yeah, about 1986.

 Did you think that you would be here 30 years later?

No. Not at all. No way. I didn't think I would live to be 40, and 70's looking pretty possible. I just had some bad luck, but I've had some good luck, too. I'm still here, and I can't say the same for many other people I knew who didn't make it. For whatever reason, I've made it. I'm going to talk about it all.

All along the way, the music has been right there.

Yeah, you’re right. Music has kept me going, and back in the dark days, if it was March and I had a week at the Vanguard in June, I'd say, "Well, I've got to be alive to play that week." So I just tried to keep busy, you know?

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