Pianist Fred Hersch brings unique style to Jerusalem Jazz Festival

Hersch discovered jazz while attending a liberal arts college in Grinell, Iowa, and soon dropped out of the formal education system.

 FRED HERSCH – playing next week at the Jerusalem Jazz Festival.  (photo credit: Mark Niskanen)
FRED HERSCH – playing next week at the Jerusalem Jazz Festival.
(photo credit: Mark Niskanen)

Fred Hersch is a brave soul in more ways than one. As an artist, and a particularly adventuresome one in a definitively improvisational field, he often dives headfirst into uncharted territory.

The 66-year-old American jazz pianist will pay a return visit to these shores this week to play at the eighth edition of the Jerusalem Jazz Festival, which takes place at its regular berth of the Israel Museum, July 5-7. It is fair to say that solo performances are among the most challenging of live musical formats and Hersch will be on his lonesome – for the vast majority of the time – on the museum stage.

Playing solo means there is nowhere to hide if you make a mistake or if you are working without a safety net – just going with the improvisational flow rather than, say, playing standards – you have to keep coming up with ideas on the spur of the moment.

Hersch sees other potential minefield areas, using a sporting domain as a salient referential point for one of them. “I always say Legendary tennis player Roger Federer doesn’t win every match, but he can come up with shots that are not in the book, something with that amount of talent and that beauty.” The analogy is clear. The inference is that when Hersch is out there on the stage, flying by the seat of his pants, he generally produces the goods, but not always.

There are other hazards that must be negotiated as he wends his way betwixt cerebral, emotional and musical obstacles, snares and rabbit holes. “With solo gigs, I am not, obviously, interacting with any other musicians on the stage, although I am hoping [festival artistic director and internationally acclaimed jazz trumpeter] Avishai Cohen will come and play with me.” That should up the comfort zone ante appreciably. “We have been doing a lot of duo concerts together around Europe,” Hersch explains.

Jazz pianist Fred Hersch (middle) seen here with trio members John Hébert (left) and Eric McPherson. (credit: MATTHEW RODGERS)Jazz pianist Fred Hersch (middle) seen here with trio members John Hébert (left) and Eric McPherson. (credit: MATTHEW RODGERS)

So, where does Hersch get his creative oxygen when he’s up there on the bandstand, doing his thing on his own? It seems there are all sorts of inspirational sources available. “What I am reacting to is the actual action of the piano, the sound of the piano in the hall, the piece that I’m playing – the emotional connection or rhythmic connection to what I’m playing.” We, the consumers, also come into the artistic continuum picture, to a degree. “I can feel the audience, and I want them to enjoy and be challenged and feel something, but I kind of do what I do and I have to trust that the audience will go along with me.”

Judging by the way Hersch’s career has been panning out over the past four-plus decades, that is clearly a given. Basically, he has been there and done that. He started out on his road to jazzy discovery in his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio where he began playing the piano at the age of four. He began writing his own music four years later and was competing in and winning national piano competitions by the age of 10.

Hersch's education

HE DISCOVERED jazz while attending a liberal arts college in Grinell, Iowa, and soon dropped out of the formal education system. However, after a hiatus of several years he enrolled at the prestigious New England Conservatory, in Boston, where he came under the tutelage of stellar jazz pianist Jaki Byard.

In truth, however, Hersch’s educational timeline is a definitively “university of the street” affair. He moved to New York in 1977 at a time when many of the greats of the previous couple of generations of jazz artists were still very much alive and kicking. One of Hersch’s first gigs in the Big Apple was with trumpeter Art Farmer and he soon had the great fortune to land a sideman berth with saxophonist Joe Henderson.

It was a formative time for Hersch and he carries the rewards of that apprenticeship into his oeuvre to this day. “I played with Joe Henderson for 8 or 10 years. 

"For me that was like jazz grad school. It was like taking a master’s degree, to play with someone who was so brilliant for so many years.”

Fred Hersch

Among the many lessons he learned from Henderson was how to recognize an opportunity for creative departure and how to accommodate the downside of artistic pursuit. “I heard him pull a rabbit out of a hat so many times. And also hearing him on an off night. Even the people that are jazz gods, they have off nights or sets when they are not so dialed in,” Hersch notes. “But Joe Henderson with a B minus grade is better than 90% of people at A plus,” he laughs.

The fragility of the artist’s condition and the epiphanous understanding that no one is perfect is part of the enlightening baggage that still informs the way Hersch goes about his work. “I learned a lot about patience from him. I hung around with a lot of piano players. I asked questions and I tried things. I did a lot of listening, certainly in the early days in New York going out every night to hear music and really studying some recordings deeply.”

All that has stood Hersch in good stead as he carved out a stellar career for himself. Thus far he has released in excess of 60 records as leader, contributing to scores more with a Who’s Who of the jazz pantheon of the past half century. Hersch’s own recordings take in a broad gamut of directions, including solo spots, numerous trio sets and even big band outings. There appears to be little he hasn’t tried his talented hands at, maintaining a steadfast emotive tonal and lyrical approach throughout.

Hersch remains a firm believer in finding one’s own way through the byways and highways of musical discovery. “It is possible that I have a pretty distinct style and sound because I didn’t go through the jazz education mill. I kind of play what I play and hear what I hear. It is very different from the under-40 crowd who are highly trained, and do transcriptions of solos and study jazz theory, none of which I did.” For Hersch, it comes from life and the heart. “For better or worse, I have what I have and I care about my sound more than some pianists do, not all of them, but I’ve got a particular sort of sound. Once I’m dialed in with that, and rhythm and emotion, it just takes care of itself.”

Sounds simple enough. Sounds wonderful.

For tickets and more information, call 02-563-1544 and visit www.jerusalemjazzfestival.org.il