Fred Hersch

September 6, 2016

JAZZed_AUGSEPT2016_BluelinesDONE-24by Bryan Reesman

Eight-time Grammy Award nominee and jazz maestro Fred Hersch is having some big moments in his life. It is late May when I speak with Hersch, and the lifelong pianist and composer has just won Pianist of the Year at the 20th annual Jazz Journalists Association Jazz Awards (he also won in 2011) and was bestowed the week before with a Doris Duke Artist Award. On the following weekend, he will receive an honorary doctorate from Grinnell College, where he began his undergraduate studies. On top of that, he feels that his latest solo album, Solo, and the Fred Hersch Trio album, Sunday Night at the Vanguard, are his best works in both of those formats; this coming from a man who has released 32 albums (not including duo or benefit efforts).

Life is sweet

“It’s been a pretty intense couple of weeks here,” Hersch declares as his JAZZed interview commences. He’s particularly stoked about the Doris Duke Artist Award. “Short of the MacArthur, it’s the biggest thing you can get.” The $275,000 prize, which includes $225,000 for unrestricted use, certainly offers some renewed freedom for him to try some new things. “It also gives you a lot of confidence, and it’s a huge honor and very humbling,” he adds. “Henry Threadgill got one this year, and Wadada Leo Smith and Dave Douglas. These are really artists that I admire.”

During the previous week, Hersch played his annual weeklong series of shows with vocalists at the Jazz Standard in Manhattan, including his first ever performance with Cecile McLorin Salvant. This has been a decade-long tradition from a pianist who, unlike many of his purely instrumental jazz peers, likes to play with singers. “I love the sound of piano and voice, I love lyrics,” he says. “I have longstanding relationships with a lot of vocalists – Nancy King and Norma Winston and Kate McGarry and Kurt Elling, Renée Fleming. But I only play with a singer in a duo. I don’t play a trio backing up a singer. I just don’t do that anymore. It’s not something that interests me.”

Consistently the ever-elegant pianist who makes difficult passages sound like second nature to him (they probably are by now), Hersch seems game for good challenges. He prefers duos because he can orchestrate and is not playing somebody else’s arrangements. As much as possible, he wants to be an equal partner with a vocalist. “I love duos in general,” he says. “I’ve been doing this duo series for 10 years with probably 45 artists [in total].”

Enjoying the Ride

Whether working, for example, with vocalist Janis Siegel from Manhattan Transfer in 1989 (Short Stories) or trumpeter Ralph Alessi in 2013 (Only Many), Hersch feels that it is hard to pull off a duo. “You have to dig deep and be very resourceful,” he explains. “You have to listen well, and you have to be compatible. Not everybody I’ve played with it at the [Jazz] Standard in 10 years has resulted a great evening. Sometimes it was cool to play with that person, but I don’t really need to do that again. You take a chance and try something. It’s only two sets. The world’s not going to collapse if it doesn’t work so well.”

This last statement is indicative of a shift in attitude towards his performances over the last few years. Hersch was diagnosed with HIV at age 30, and in 2008 was placed in a medically induced coma after being hit hard with a highly virulent, undiagnosed case of pneumonia. “By the time I got to the E.R., I was in septic shock with organ failure and near death,” he recalls. He was in the coma for two months. It took him a while to fully recover afterward, but he did, which is an amazing testament to his strong willpower. Since that time, he has softened his personal musical approach and chooses not to micromanage things anymore.

“If I play a chord change I don’t like, nobody will die,” he remarks without a trace of irony. “I feel very present when I’m playing – not that I didn’t in years past – but there is really no chatter in my brain right now like there used to be. Judgment chatter. I was trying really hard, and of course in my 30s I thought every record I was going to make was going to be my last and I would be dead in a year. That’s a lot of pressure. Now I’m 60, I’m in good health, and it looks I’m going to be around for a while, so I can just enjoy the ride. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky, and hopefully my luck will hold.”

After the harrowing coma experience, the pianist composed My Coma Dreams with librettist/directed Herschel Garfein, and the live performances featured Hersch, a drummer, a bassist, a four-piece brass and wind section, a four-piece string section, and actor/singer Michael Winther, who played the roles of Hersch, his partner Scott Morgan, and his doctor Michael Ligouri. The 85-minute work, the pianist’s most ambitious to date including an integrated multimedia element, premiered in May 2011 at Montclair State University, and a March 2013 performance at Columbia University was captured for DVD posterity. It combined jazz with a little classical, with Winther’s vocal style echoing his musical theater background.

Performing the piece while Winther portrayed Hersch was “completely trippy,” admits the composer. “There I am, somebody’s speaking my words and playing me three feet away from me, and I’m playing music that by all rights I should not be alive to write. You can’t describe what happens to me emotionally when I do something like that.”

The various dreams he experienced were depicted in different ways; some musical, some theatrical, and one done as a song. Garfein came up with the idea of giving the piece a timeline, specifically from right before Hersch was rushed to the hospital to when he came out of recovery, and he suggested the idea of one person playing both the pianist and his partner. “I was working from his script, but I decided how I wanted to musically deal with each dream and also how to make it an interesting show for people,” delineates Hersch. “It was a fun collaboration and certainly the most personal thing I’ve done. I think Leaves Of Grass was super personal, but this one was closer to home.”

Good Things Happen Slowly

Untitled-2Hersch’s dynamic career and life story make for good life lessons for aspiring young jazz musicians, and both a forthcoming documentary about him (years in the making) and a memoir he is penning for Random House (tentatively titled Good Things Happen Slowly) for release next year will explore that. The acclaimed pianist/composer currently holds an artist position on the jazz faculty at Rutgers University, where he teaches four master classes per semester to the entire jazz department and privately teaches five students.

“Students come in and play, and then we deal with what happens,” Hersch says of his approach. “It’s closer to a psychotherapy session. Of course, I deal with the mechanics of piano playing, sound, connection, and all those kinds of things. I’m not like, ‘Take this, and learn it in 12 keys.’ I don’t really do that.” He also teaches, “a couple of doctoral students in composition, so I’m not just teaching jazz piano.”

Last year, Hersch retired from a position at his alma mater the New England Conservatory of Music [NEC] in Boston, where he taught on and off for 35 years. “It started many, many years ago as every week,” he explains. “Then it became seven times a semester, and at the very end five times a semester. There were also plane flights and longer days.” The NEC experience is far more intensive for jazz students in his estimation. “New England [Conservatory] is arguably the best school for jazz and creative music in the U.S. That’s a whole different level.”

The 60 year-old musician’s own educational trajectory spans his entire life. He began playing piano at age four and started studying theory composition at eight, “so I’ve been writing music for a really long time,” he says. He attended Grinnell College in Iowa in the fall of 1971 where he was initially pursuing a liberal arts education. He played some chamber music and took a music class, but after a year and a half he left and returned to his hometown of Cincinnati where he began integrating himself into the local jazz scene and playing there for two years. He briefly attended the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music as a classical piano major before deciding to enroll at NEC in the fall of 1975. He would graduate from NEC in the spring of 1977.

“There were five schools in the country that even acknowledged jazz at that time,” recalls Hersch. “Of course, [pianist] Jaki Byard was at NEC, so there was no doubt that that’s where I wanted to go.” Once Byard heard some of his work, he was in. It is important to note that much of Hersch’s passion for jazz comes from his love of interacting with the different musicians and characters that he encounters along with the ability to express himself in his own way.

“Even when Jaki Byard was there, I did not go to New England [Conservatory] to learn how to play jazz,” stresses Hersch. “I wanted to hang out with him and broaden my musical horizons. That’s what I went there for, to be a better musician and to open myself up. I was with an extraordinary class of musicians, many of which have done very well – Marty Ehrlich, Michael Moore, Jerome Harris, and Anthony Coleman. We were all in the same class. I learned as much from them as I did from some of the teachers.” Hersch and Moore have done many albums together in the four decades since. The latter lives in Amsterdam, but they still find ways to reconnect and discover new ideas through each other’s evolution.

Hersch has a natural aptitude for learning and exploring. “Until my 95-year-old teacher developed dementia, I was taking lessons,” he reveals. “I still bug people for a get-together at the piano. There’s always stuff to learn.” Even while striving for a good work/life balance, he has stretches of down time where he sometimes wished he had more gigs. “That’s when I’ll invite people over to play or do casual playing or do some gig below the radar just for fun.”

The veteran composer admits that he has absolutely no daily routine. “I don’t sit and practice technical exercises,” says Hersch. “I’ve never done that, not since I was very young. I’ll sit and play a tune for half an hour and see what happens. That’s what I’m more inclined to do. Or have somebody over to play. I don’t practice three hours every day. Sometimes I don’t touch a piano.”

People are not Tough Enough

Hersch has earned the right not to rigorously practice every day having worked hard throughout his career, and he comes from a different background. “I think now there are a million jazz studies programs and a lot of information, and I think the level at a lot of schools is not that high,” he says. “I think they accept people with not particularly high levels of skill or talent. They need to fill spaces. I think jazz education sort of says, ‘Oh, everybody can play jazz.’ I don’t think everybody is cut out to play jazz. I see even sophomore students at music schools still reading tunes out of a real book. If you were a classical pianist at any music school, you’d be playing Beethoven sonatas and Bach fugues from memory. You’re telling me you can’t remember 32 bars of chords? I think it’s ridiculous. I think people are not tough enough.”

The acclaimed pianist has certaily taught well-known players including Brad Mehldau, Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus, Sullivan Fortner, Dan Tepfer, and Adam Birnbaum. He recently received a lesson request from a member of Grammy Award-winning blues-rock band Alabama Shakes.

“I’ve taught a lot of famous guys and still teach famous guys,” says Hersch. “I don’t sugarcoat it. I don’t say, ‘Yeah man, you sound great.’ I try not to make people cry, but I’m super honest, especially when I’m working with someone like Sullivan Fortner, who’s already super, super gifted. Then it’s really fun because I’m working with somebody who’s already really accomplished and already out there. A lot of it is conceptual and technical and a lot of mentoring as well. That’s a big part of it. People mentored me, so I pass that on.”

While he does offer “words of wisdom and encouragement” and tries to find some positive things through teaching, “I also try to, in a gentle way, say that this is really not easy,” stresses Hersch. “If you really want this, you have to be dedicated and passionate about it.” He notes that a student at a school like Rutgers will have a demanding course load of general education classes, required classes, and liberal arts classes, unlike a conservatory environment that is mainly focused on music.

When asked if there is any advice that someone gave him that really stuck with him through the years, he pinpoints a key moment. “One night I was down on myself, and Stan Getz said, ‘Look, did you play something different tonight than you did last night?’” recalls Hersch. “I said, ‘I’m sure I did.’ He said, ‘If you paid attention to that and had some little a-ha moment, and you have one or two of those a week, think of what you would learn in a year. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you play.’ That was a really great lesson. I spent many nights hanging out with Tommy Flanagan, Jimmy Rowles, and Roland Hanna at Bradley’s in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s before the institutionalization of jazz, when everybody was accessible and you could just hang out with somebody you were totally in awe of and pick their brain. Lots of people said great things. You observed things that you learned from. I was so fortunate to be in that place at that time. It was really remarkable.”

Bassist Sam Jones was a major mentor to Hersch, who says he got a lot of cred for working with someone who “was just known as a complete badass.” Jones recommended the pianist to trumpeter/flugelhornist Art Farmer, who then recommended him to tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, who Hersch played with for approximately a decade. “I was young and just thought that I deserved to play with all the greatest players, and there weren’t young jazz pianists crawling out of conservatories or music programs,” muses Hersch. “I was kind of a novelty. I knew a lot of tunes, I could swing, I could accompany, I could write charts for singers, and I could play different styles. The skill set was very different. Now if you’re a young musician you’re expected to use computer notation software and audio technology and produce your own records and write your own complex compositions with your own band. I played so many years with bands where there was no music on the bandstand or just head charts, and now everything is completely different. I was lucky to be in that place at that time.”

Get More out of Less

Times have certainly changed. While technology has made it easier for professional musicians and students to make music, the wide availability of music across numerous online sites has also created a habit of distracted listening with many younger people, who as Hersch notes tend to graze through a lot of music. “Their hand is always on the wheel of the next thing they want to listen to,” he says. “Or they check out two minutes of something and go on to something else. I tell them to listen to one track seven times, just get more out of less. You’re not going to learn anything otherwise.”

Beyond classes and technological know-how, there is a human element that not everyone masters. “A lot goes into a career other than playing well,” stresses Hersch. “You have to be somebody that some people want to work with. You have to be a well-rounded musician, or really have your own voice that’s very clear from the beginning.”

Getting a helping hand is an added bonus. Of course, that can come from the factors just described. Over the years, Hersch has been the recipient of numerous grants, endowments, and residencies. The latter, both in America and Europe, certainly have been quite enriching in terms of artistic expansion. “You’re given four or five weeks in a beautiful place and just told you have this time, and they take care of you and you don’t have to worry about anything,” he explains. “There’s no Internet access in your studio. It’s a little intimidating. Usually the first week or so I spend thrashing around and napping a lot and avoiding things. With some residencies, I’ve gone there and hit the ground running, like I want to write this piece and I might be procrastinating for a couple of days, but I’ve got to put myself on a schedule or it’s not going to get done.”

Hersch has had seven MacDowell residencies, and he says the first one in 2000 changed his life. He believes he was possibly one of the first jazz composers to get one. “You apply, and you’re not submitting a string quartet, you’re submitting something that doesn’t look like that much on the page, unless you’re a jazz orchestra composer or something,” he says. “It was a lot of validation to me.”

The residencies have appealed to him because they offer “the gift of time and the ability to get away from devices and the 24-hour news cycle. My partner and I have a second home in Pennsylvania, and theoretically I could go out there without my computer and make a little mini residency for myself. I’ve done that before. It’s a little crazy-making, but I can do it. Of course, it’s not as fun as when you meet really interesting people at dinner. I’ve made a lot of friendships, people I’ve collaborated with, during the course of all these residencies, so that’s also a great benefit.”

The monetary benefits of his recent Doris Duke Artist Award are certainly allowing him to contemplate some exciting new projects, and it does give him a sense of renewed freedom even though he has already had a diverse career. At the end of the day, his track record does count in getting things done.

“I do have a very devoted following, I have to say,” remarks Hersch. “It’s just great. I’m always touched when people spend their money, come out and hear a show, and say something nice afterwards, that I moved them or they really dug it. You don’t take that for granted. They could’ve stayed home and watched Roku or whatever. The point is they took time out of their lives to come and hear you and expect to get something and be moved and have a good time as well. That’s kind of what it’s about. If you can do that, then you’re doing your job.”

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