‘Floating’ by the Red Sea

New York jazz pianist Fred Hersch and his acclaimed trio will perform songs from their latest album as part of this year’s Red Sea Jazz Festival.

Jazz pianist Fred Hersch (middle) seen here with trio members John Hébert (left) and Eric McPherson. (photo credit: MATTHEW RODGERS)
Jazz pianist Fred Hersch (middle) seen here with trio members John Hébert (left) and Eric McPherson.
(photo credit: MATTHEW RODGERS)
The appearance of Fred Hersch at this year’s Red Sea Jazz Festival (August 24-27) is certainly a feather in the joint artistic director hat of Eli Degibri, who largely takes responsibility for the jazz side of the four-day event. Dubi Lenz is the world music man.
The 58-year-old Jewish New Yorker pianist is considered a preeminent practitioner of his craft, and the fact that he is coming here with his longstanding trio of bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson makes the pianist’s gigs in Eilat, on August 24-25, all the more enticing.
Hersch has been in the business for quite some time. He began playing the piano at the age of four and was composing music by the time he was eight, and winning national piano competitions by the age of 10. The youngster was clearly in a hurry. He studied music theory and composition, and also sang in high school theater productions, although he hadn’t yet discovered the wonders of jazz. His musical epiphany came about when he was a student at Grinnell College in Iowa, when he started listening to the music of such titans as reedmen John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Chick Corea.
Hersch really got the jazz bug when he was on vacation from college and dropped by a Cincinnati jazz club. Following that encounter with “the real thing” the young pianist decided to opt out of formal education for a while, and he paid his dues on the bandstand, playing with established members of the jazz fraternity many years older than himself. It was something of a rite of passage for the budding jazz musician, but it certainly pushed him along in the desired direction.
“Being on the bandstand with those older guys in Cincinnati of the early ‘70s helped me learn from the tradition of jazz,” Hersch recalls. “They were kind but also tough on me.”
Hersch eventually got himself an official diploma when, after 18 months of accruing practical stage experience, he enrolled at the prestigious New England Conservatory (NEC) in Boston, and completing a music degree before relocating to New York in 1977. Today he teaches at NEC.
Once in the Big Apple, Hersch immediately set about making his mark on the local jazz community, and gained invaluable experience filling sideman slots with such acclaimed artists as saxophonists Stan Getz and Lee Konitz, trumpeter Art Farmer and harmonica player Toots Thielemans.
With over 30 albums as leader to his name to date, across a wide spectrum of genres, and half a dozen Grammy nominations, Hersch has clearly made great strides in the interim. He is a highly sensitive player whose work follows strong melodic lines.
Hersch once said that he is “not afraid of tonal music.”
Hersch also tends play to with his eyes closed, so one wonders whether inspirational images emerge while he is behind the keyboard.
“I don’t see pictures or colors as such, but I am very aware of harmonic color and modulation, and creating harmonic rhythm and tension,” he says. Hersch also likes to have his sidemen completely on board in the developmental mix, and have them contribute to the end result. “When I write, I try to leave room for the players so they can add something.”
While Hersch is a consummate and experienced composer he says he likes to leave things loose, and not to dictate exactly how a work is to be played.
“I hear a lot of stuff, these days, that I feel is overwritten and it just doesn’t leave enough room for the players to do anything. All they can do is sort of get through it. I am not really interested in writing that way. I frequently don’t come away from very complex music with much feeling. Music should, of course, make you think but it should also make you feel something.”
Naturally, if you know who’s going to be playing a work-in-progress, it makes it easier to tailor some of the material to their skills and approach to playing, and to leave parts open knowing that your sidemen will bring some added value to the end product.
"John [Hébert] and Eric [McPherson] surprise me constantly. That’s why I have them,” says Hersch. “I don’t really want to have a piano solo with a rhythm section accompaniment. I want it to be interactive.
And, for me, whether a piece is dedicated to a person or not, each work has its own character, and both John and Eric are really great at getting inside that character.”
Hersch admits to preferring the dynamics of live performances to sessions in the cloistered ambiance of the recording studio. He even went so far as to say that he wouldn’t mind having half his discography recorded live. That, of course, is a riskier way to go about getting your material out there, because there are no second takes on the bandstand. But that is typical of Hersch’s envelope-pushing ethos.
Interestingly, quite a few of Hersch’s numbers are dedicated to various people he knows, or has known – and not just people. One number was even written for a dog. The trio’s latest release, Floating, their third together, includes a number called “Far Away,” which is dedicated to Shimrit Shoshan, McPherson’s Israeli pianist wife who died tragically two years ago at the young age of only 29.
Hersch has fond memories of Shoshan, who studied with him.
“When she first came to me she was playing all these very difficult tunes by [legendary jazz pianists Thelonious] Monk and Herbie Nichols, and complicated bebop tunes. I initially thought of writing something [for Floating] in that sort of character, and then the more I thought about it the more thought I should go in a new direction.
Although it sounds like a fairly simple tune, of all the tunes on the record it took me the longest to write.”
That will, no doubt, feature in the Hersch trio’s Eilat sets and, given the pianist’s preference for live work, the concerts should be an experience to remember for the audiences too.
For tickets and more information about the Red Sea Jazz Festival: *9066, www.eventim.co.il and www.redseajazzeilat.com.