The world of jazz is a broad
and often complicated one that is difficult to define. From be-bop to free jazz
to west coast, it has permutations and variations that can boggle even the most
astute music lover. To truly last in jazz and leave a legacy, an artist must be
focused, but also free to explore.
Jewish musician Fred Hersch has been
playing jazz for more than 25 years. In that time, he has recorded over
three-dozen albums as a solo artist, and with his own trio and other groups. He
has also crafted a legacy offstage by overcoming HIV, an illness that for Hersch
resulted in a coma from which many thought he would never fully recover, but
which now gives him a new strength and vigor he brings to each note.
to being a world-famous musician, Hersch is also a leading activist for many
causes, including supporting others with HIV.
“The word ‘jazz’ now
conjures so many different kinds of music,” Hersch tells JNS.org. “There are a
lot of young musicians who only want to play their own music and there are still
a lot of straight-ahead musicians who are more interested in re-creating than
actually creating. I see myself as sort of in the middle… I like to do a lot of
different things and am fortunate that I can pull it off.”
years of training in the classical realm, the Cincinnati-born Hersch moved into
musical theater in high school and even stretched out into the wild world of pop
before deciding on jazz.
“I grew up with mostly classical music and
listening to many string quartets,” Hersch recalls. “I played violin for a while
and sang in choral groups.”
His early fascination with multiple-part
composition and the use of independent voices and musical counterpoint led him
to a deeper study of the theory behind the music he loved. To this day, he sees
this early education as a privilege—one he realizes many do not have these days.
“I was lucky,” he says. “I got good theory and composition training as an
elementary schooler. I had really good building blocks and I apply them to
everything I do.”
Hersch, however, does not see himself as a product of
what he calls “the jazz education model.”
“I still have connections to
the jazz piano,” he explains, citing such influences as Thelonious Monk, Ornette
Coleman, Wayne Shorter and Billy Strayhorn, as well as the many masters whose
music comprises the Great American Songbook. “Typically when I am playing trio
or solo, I include a healthy dose of my own music and sprinkled in there are
songs from other Jazz composers and American popular song composers that I care
about-So there is that link to that tradition, [but] I also do [other]
As he grew up during what he terms the “golden age” of popular
music, Hersch also involves such contemporary influences as the Beatles, Joni
Mitchell and the many stars of Motown he first explored by performing in high
school bands. “I would play that by ear,” he recalls, “and in my own
Given his many influences, there is no such thing as a “typical”
Fred Hersch show.
“I usually decide 5-10 minutes before I go up,” he says of his
set lists, “and I change it as I go often… It depends on where I am
Hersch uses a wide array of his own songs and those of his
favorite fellow composers in an ever-evolving effort to bring new sounds—and new
takes on old sounds—to his listeners. Despite the variety of material from which
he has to choose, Hersch feels confident that his most recent playing is among
“I really like the new CD,” he says of Alive at The Vanguard. “I think
it is some of my best trio playing on record.”
The CD takes material from
all six of Hersch’s nights in concert at the famed New York club, offering those
who were not present for the actual sets a sense of being there. “We recorded
all six and I picked the best stuff,” Hersch says. “We tried to keep the sound
as faithful as we could so they could feel the acoustics of the Vanguard, which
are very particular.”
Outside of the studio and the performance hall,
Hersch says he is a “very committed educator and committed to passing on things
that were passed on to me.”
“I have done a lot of work for AIDS-related
charities—producing albums and running concerts,” he says. “And that is
something I care deeply about as well.”
Still, music is Hersch’s first
“I am very passionate about the piano,” he says. “And I always like to try
Inspired by the success of his musical setting of Walt
Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and a very personal performance piece that Hersch
composed based on dreams he had while in his coma, Hersch is currently embarking
on writing a musical.
“That is something I have never done,” he says. In fact,
Hersch says that since his coma and his own fight with HIV, he feels better than
ever. “I am physically and energetically and clinically better than I have been
in the more than 25 years since I had HIV,” he says. “I am in the best shape
With this sense of vigor, Hersch is also looking at the new
generation of jazz artists for ideas and inspiration.
“I am also opening myself
to interesting collaborative projects,” he says, mentioning forthcoming sessions
with Berklee College of Music-trained guitarist Julian Lage and a project with
French pianist Benoit Delbecq that will involve two pianos, two rhythm sections,
and electronic music.
Some of the new projects “take me out of my comfort zone
and let me continue to grow as a musician,” Hersch says. So while his solo and
trio work may constitute the “hub” of Hersch’s “wheel,” he is always ready to
take a new idea for a spin.
“I am always looking for new stuff,” he says.
“I got into jazz because it’s not predictable. I wouldn’t describe myself as
wanting to settle—I am just not that way.”