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Fred Hersch

It would seem that Fred Hersch pianist, composer, bandleader, two-time Grammy nominee, Guggenheim fellow has little to prove anymore. He’s been called a "pristine pianist with a poet’s soul" (Boston Globe’s Joan Anderman) who strikes a "beguiling balance between technique, insight and imagination" (critical Ed Hazell). He’s continually received the highest praise in a highly praised field.

Of course, one of the challenges for a successful creative musician is to stay hungry, to continue to set and achieve musical goals for oneself. So not surprisingly, the 48-year old Cincinnati native’s sophomore effort with the independent Palmetto label is yet another daring departure for him. Hersch left the revered Warner-distributed Nonesuch label in 2001 after a critically lauded series of recordings. This was, in itself, a radical move.

"Nonesuch is such a high quality label," said Hersch in a recent phone conversation from his Manhattan apartment. "I mean it has the most interesting artist roster in the industry. And they were incredibly generous to me, amazingly supportive. Bob’s (executive producer Bob Hurwitz) preference, however, was my solo playing."

For Hurwitz and Nonesuch, the tremendous breadth of Hersch’s solo playing and his voracious appetite for the songbook repertoire was what defined him as a unique musical voice. On recordings such as Let Yourself Go: Live at Jordan Hall and Songs Without Words, Hersch’s piano is heard with gorgeous precision, claiming definitive readings of tunes from Kurt Weill and Cole Porter to Billy Strayhorn and Monk, even Joni Mitchell.

Yet even such diversity can be confining.

"When I made the decision to move to Palmetto," says Hersch, "I wanted an introduction record for the other side of me just playing with the guys, doing what we do best at the best place we do it."

The emphasis is on the "we" referring to his long-term collaboration with bassist Drew Gress and recently added drummer Nasheet Waits. "I loved doing the conceptually driven projects," he notes, "but I hadn’t made a trio record in ten years." Of course, the resultant trio recording was last year’s Fred Hersch Trio Live at the Village Vanguard, a critical and commercial (by jazz standards) debut success.

How to follow that up wasn’t as much of an artistic quandary as one would think.

Composing has always been a part of what I’ve done," says the pianist. "So it was a logical next step to record a complete set of my own songs. I knew I had a good backlog of material that I wanted to get down. Most of the pieces are relatively new ones we’ve been playing over the past two years since the trio got together."

Logical to an extent. In the world of jazz where the standard bearers of the trio format the Bill Evans Trio, Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio have continued to mine the Tin Pan Alley songbook for repertoire, recording an entire disc of new music could be perceived as risky. Though Hersch’s compositions have been well-represented on recordings by the likes of Toots Thielemans, Art Farmer and Eddie Daniels, he certainly does not enjoy the household name status in jazz circles of a Cole Porter. Not yet, anyway.

Perhaps a more accurate comparison would be the acoustic work of Jarrett, Herbie Hancock or Chick Corea. Like these pianists, Hersch has a firm foundation in classical studies and often employs such structural elements in his own compositions. Like them, he’s as comfortable accompanying Joe Henderson or Kurt Elling as he is opera diva, Renee Fleming or Dawn Upshaw.

"I grew up with the classical elements," he says. "It’s part of what interested me about music from the beginning the shifting voices, harmonic colors, rhythms, the sound."

Take "Riddle Song", the new disc’s opener. The stately opening theme or head has both an echo of Coplandesque Americana and Sixties era jazz modality. Or "Black Dog Pays a Visit" (named after Winston Churchill’s term for depression): there’s a rousing cadenza worthy of Rachmaninoff, yet it never strays far from the minor spatiality of the blues. There’s a sense of musical mystery to this yin yang tension between the two forms that permeates the best moments on the disc.

What allows that musical tension to truly come to the fore is the last surprise of the new "trio" disc? Hersch has added two horns New York stalwart trumpeter Ralph Alessi and saxophonist Tony Malaby to the mix.

"I knew I wanted to have the focus on the trio," explains the leader. "I didn’t call it the Fred Hersch Quintet for that reason. I wanted to add the orchestral elements that the horns can offer; yet I didn’t want it to be like (Hancock’s) Speak Like a Child with no solos at all. Though that’s a beautiful album, I wanted that textural fabric but with the freedom to allow soloing."

It’s an apt description of the aforementioned "Riddle Song" where Alessi and Malaby seem to be there only to add their effective timbres to the opening theme. But then, just as you expect the piece to wind to a close, the horns take off on a frenetic climax, growling and sputtering in their harmonic interlacing. With Hersch joining the fray and Gress and Waits punching them on, it is masterful quintet polyphony.

It’s the man Hersch call "a force of nature" that drives the above. As Waits does throughout the disc, his snare and cymbal play continually chips away the stately pastoral veneer of the piece until he’s uncovered the piece’s jazz center. The resultant musical arc is the aural equivalent of steam engine leaving the station, chugging, chugging then reaching full power in a distant landscape. The son of McCoy Tyner/Sonny Rollins drummer Frederick Waits, Waits has played with bop legend Max Roach and the cream of the young lions in Jason Moran and Antonio Hart before coming to Hersch’s attention. The pianist credits his new drummer for reinvigorating the trio.

"Nasheet’s addition has given us a new energy for playing," he explains. "He has such a very different feel for time and a wide beat. He’s very color sensitive a superb ballad player. His mentoring with his father and guys like Billy Hart and Max Roach gave him a great background. So he’s got that along with a real sense of being himself and this incredible energy and looseness. And he and Drew (bassist Gress) have such a wonderful hook-up."

"It’s funny," he adds with a laugh. "A lot of people said when they heard Nasheet was going to be playing with me: Is he going to get bored playing in a trio setting?"

Far from it. Seeing the three working through "Black Dog Pays A Visit" at one of the recent Vanguard shows, I was so impressed with how they took the traditional expectation of the piano trio format and turned it on its head. The moments when Alessi and Malaby sat out, one immediately became attuned to the musical chemistry between these three as they roughed up the notion of chamber jazz. As Hersch stepped out on the pounding cadenza, Waits lashed him on with his insistent ride cymbal and Gress’ buoying bass offered steady tether.

It’s this level of musicality that allows Hersch the tremendous compositional flexibility encountered on + 2. From the Americana feel of "Riddle Song" to the Blue Note blues of "Miss B," the Shorter-esque, "A Lark," to the head happy, "The Chase", Hersch offers a confident ear for the eerily familiar melody and an always engaging harmonic alternative.

"The most important thing I find when writing tunes," he offers, "is to understand that they have their own world. As I’ve matured as a writer, I’ve gained confidence in knowing when a tune is finished. Some tunes have a short form and that’s okay. Others have a longer structure. So, it’s knowing when you shouldn’t mess with it anymore. That’s the key."

He also uses his various musical mentors as inspiration. The majority of the pieces were suggested to Hersch by outsized personalities musical or otherwise. So "Riddle Song" a representative overture from Hersch’s full-evening piece Leaves of Grass for octet and two voices is inspired by Walt Whitman. Musicians Lee Konitz, Kenny Wheeler and Bill Frisell even his partner’s former dog Barkley all get the treatment.

"As far as using people goes," he notes, "that’s just a device. It gives you a bit of a center when writing. I’ve written tunes for all kinds of people in the past Charlie Haden, Joe Henderson, even Bill Evans and the most important element was, could I hear them playing this? Would they like it?"

Though I can’t vouch for Barkley, I’d bet money on a positive reaction from the others. The Frisell-dedicated "Down Home" has the guitarist’s signature roots-inflected soul. "Lee’s Dream" takes the Tristano pupil Lee Konitz’s penchant for using chord changes and reinventing the melody to reinvigorate the standard "You Stepped Out of a Dream" in typically iconic Konitz fashion. And "A Lark" alludes to the harmonic inventiveness of Kenny Wheeler’s best compositions. ("I thought it would be something I’d love to hear him play," said Hersch. "And he has and he plays the stuff out of it.")

In the end, however, they are all so distinctly Hersch.

"It’s funny," he continued. "People used to comment on my songbook albums isn’t it less challenging to play other people’s music? And, I’d say, no. When I’m playing Monk, I’m immersing myself in Monk. I don’t want to become a Monk imitator that would be stupid. I want to find my own way of playing his music."

After a pause he adds: "But it’s true you have a different emotional connection when you’re playing something you wrote. No one can tell you how to play there’s nothing preconceived. It’s wide open. Yet, it’s still the same process as playing standards you still have to learn it. Whether it’s playing Wayne Shorter or my own music, in the end I still have to own it."

Oddly, the disc’s most controversial choice may be its one nod to the "standard" repertoire. Some critics have attacked the Lennon and McCartney gem, "And I Love Her," as a sub par choice from someone of Hersch’s standard-bearing pedigree. That the unquestionable song craft of the Beatles can still evoke controversy is more a critique of the stodginess of the jazz establishment to allow pop music of the rock era into the canon.

"The Beatles were part of my childhood," Hersch says in answer to criticism he’s taken for the choice. "They were everywhere. Rightfully so. Take ‘For No One’ it’s such a lyrically deep song. Yet the way it was recorded is almost jaunty. If you slow it down and think of it as you would ‘Body & Soul’, it’s a fantastic tune. That’s what I tried to do with "And I Love Her" make some subtle meter changes and bring out the tune."

The recording makes a gorgeous feature for the beautiful subtleties of this trio (the horns are used n almost a whisper to underscore the call and response effect of the song). What’s wonderful is the pianist’s choice to hesitate so slightly in his statement of the melody (it brings to mind his Jordan Hall exploration of "The Nearness of You"). Hersch hangs back as if to evoke the heartache of loss, of a love past. It’s as if he’s ruminating on changing the song’s title to "And I Love (d) Her."

Fred Hersch sums up his sophomore Palmetto effort with an acknowledgment of his current place in the music world. "I just feel at this point that I’m a 21st Century musician," says Hersch. "I use all of the elements of the past classical, pop - to bear on my music. But the aesthetic is always the same - to use what you know and make it new. All the arts bleed together."

"I’ve always thought that making a record is like making a small film. Putting a set list together is like staging a play. Like planning a menu. It all has to work as a whole."

The Fred Hersch Trio + 2 works just fine.

Other Discs: Fred Hersch Trio Live at the Village Vanguard with Drew Gress & Nasheet Waits. (Palmetto, 2003)

Two Hands, Ten Voices: with vocalists Jane Monheit, Janis Siegel, Luciana Souza and others in a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, 212.840.0770 x 250 (Broadway Cares, 2003)

Songs Without Words solo. (Nonesuch, 2000)

Future Plans: Fred Hersch Trio Kennedy Center, Washington, DC (April 22-23)

With (ex-pupil) Brad Mehldau - Mentor Concert at Merkin Hall, NYC (June 21)

Fred Hersch Trio - Festival Tour: Healdsburg (CA), North Sea (The Hague), Great Neck (NY) and others (Summer 2004)

Leaves of Grass Octet & Two Voices Zankel Hall, Carnegie hall, NYC (March 2005

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Fred Hersch
  • Interview Date: 4/1/2004
  • Subtitle: The Emergence
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