Pianist Fred Hersch has established a reputation for moving between idioms with the utmost ease. But for all his versatility and openness, he continues to be engaged and inspired by traditional jazz styles. Witness his current release, Thelonious: Fred Hersch Plays Monk (Nonesuch). It’s a magnificent interpretative work, with Hersch playing such landmark works as “Round Midnight,” “Evidence,” and “Bemsha Swing” in his own demonstrative, individualistic fashion.
“It was an incredible challenge to play [Monk’s] compositions,” Hersch said during a recent phone interview. “Yet it also allowed me to be more personal in how I approached the music. There are a lot of Monk albums in the bins, and a lot of Monk tribute albums; most of them are trios or combos. I took a different spin; I tried to play against type. For example, with “Ask Me Now,” Monk played that very deliberately. I took a more spacy, pointillistic approach.”
Selecting material for an album honoring Monk, whose catalog is quite vast, can’t be an easy endeavor. But Hersch explains that he simply followed his instincts: “It’s an idiosyncratic response to certain tunes,” he says. “I get as much of the material as possible and play it through without any preconceptions.”
Although he has enjoyed something of a breakthrough in the past couple of years, Hersch has been a superb pianist for over two decades. He has issued 15 albums as a leader, including tributes to Billy Strayhorn and Johnny Mandel, along with a stunning entry in Concord’s “Live at Maybeck” series. This last collection earned him such widespread plaudits that it ultimately led to his signing with Nonesucha highly respected label, but one not known for its stable of jazz artists.
Hersch has played with an impressive array of jazz greats, among them saxophonists Joe Henderson, Stan Getz, Jane Ira Bloom, and Joe Lovano; vibraphonist Gary Burton; bassist Charlie Haden; clarinetist Eddie Daniels; and guitarist/harmonica master Toots Thielmans.
“From the late ’70s to the late ’80s, I was in my apprenticeship phase,” Hersch says. “I learned so much during this time: how to lead a band, put a set together, how to be a sideman. I learned so much, not just about music, but about life. It was a chance to play with many people who were my heroes.”
An honors graduate of the New England Conservatory, Hersch has also played classical music for many years. His 1993 release, Red Square Blue (Angel/EMI), featured his arrangements of Russian classics for jazz trio with special guests; The French Collection, another similar LP featuring works by Ravel, Debussy, Satie, and others, was a top seller and even made the Top 10 of Billboard’s classical albums chart.
“I’ve never felt like it was an either/or situation with jazz and classical,” Hersch says. “With a jazz piece, you sit down and improvise; you usually don’t have much of an agenda. With a classical piece, there’s a question of shaping and pacing; you know what the notes are going to be written down on the page.... The classical tradition is so rich, [but] I’m not going to run out and try to do it enough to win the Van Cliburn.”
In addition to his numerous musical endeavors, Hersch is also a regular contributor to Keyboard magazine and works as a faculty member at the New England Conservatory and at the New School/Mannes Jazz program. Which would lead one to think that he couldn’t possibly find time to do anything else. But on top of all that, Hersch is well known for his role as a tireless advocate for HIV/AIDS education and research.
This non-musical aspect of Hersch’s life is just as crucial to him as his music; five years ago, he announced that he is both HIV-positive and gay. His coming out raised some eyebrows in the jazz world, but it was an empowering moment for many others. “One of the reasons why I came out was that it was very liberating to me artistically,” he explains. “I’m at the point in my life now where I’m not in the least bit worried about what anyone thinks.... It’s helped me in terms of my music, and also my state of mind.”
Hersch performed on and helped to produce Last Night When We Were Young: The Ballad Album, which benefited Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS. More than a dozen major jazz musicians participated in the recording, which has raised more than $100,000 for AIDS services and education. Last year, another benefit record, Fred Hersch and Friends: The Duo Album, paired Hersch with such jazz greats as fellow pianists Tommy Flanagan and Kenny Baron, saxophonists Joe Lovano and Lee Konitz, and vibist Gary Burton.
Hersch takes a philosophical view when asked if the jazz community’s attitude toward HIV and AIDS has changed at all in the past few years. “Since I came out publicly, almost everyone has known someone who’s died of AIDS. It’s troubled everyone. [Being HIV-positive] is not as stigmatized as it once was.
“With the medical advances that have been made, people are living a lot longer. But the war’s not over. There’s still a lot of medical research that needs to be done. A lot of people can’t afford the medicine it takes to sustain yourself. I’m very fortunate that I’m in a situation where I’m asymptomatic.”
For all his current activities, Hersch has no plans to slow down in the immediate future. At the moment, he’s readying another album for Nonesuch, this one a collaboration with guitarist Bill Frisell. “It’s called Songs We Know. It’s standards and tunes we felt like playing. Bill’s a great player, and he’s a great player of tunes and standards.” After that, the pianist’s next tribute will be an album featuring the music of Cole Porter; that record is due to be issued sometime next year.
Hersch will also be doing some two-piano classical/jazz concerts with concert pianist Jeffrey Kahane, and he begins a collaboration in May with Bill T. Jones on a dance score. Then there’s also the occasional trio gig with his longtime comrades, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey.
Always thinking ahead, Hersch says he has plenty of ideas for future projects. “I have some material for jazz trio and orchestra I’d like to record sometime. It’s totally uncommercial, but I’d like to do it. I’d also like to record some classical, probably Bach, even if it’s just for myself.”
And, if his plans don’t change, he’ll likely be passing through Nashville in September on a solo piano tour. Originally scheduled to perform last month at Caffè Milano, Hersch had to cancel the gig at the last minute when scheduling conflicts arose. Local audiences should look forward to his appearance, for Fred Hersch’s musical journey is among the most diverse and engaging in recent jazz history.
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