June 15, 2024


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Fred Hersch: A new movement in jazz has surfaced over the past few years — a wave of highly expressive music more concerned with emotion: Video

21.10. – Happy Birthday !!! Influential artists sometimes click in the public consciousness only after the rise of the movements they have influenced. A school of creative work emerges — seemingly spontaneously, its origins obscure at first. Then, with attention to the artists in that school comes recognition of their influences, their antecedents and their mentors.

After Pollock, de Kooning and their peers in postwar American art established Abstract Expressionism, the precursory importance of prewar iconoclasts like Kandinsky became clear. After the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and the Clash blurted forth punk rock in the 1970s, a rude vision became apparent in the noise of ’60s garage bands like the Seeds.

A new movement in jazz has surfaced over the past few years — a wave of highly expressive music more concerned with emotion than with craft or virtuosity; a genre-blind music that casually mingles strains of pop, classical and folk musics from many cultures; an informal, elastic music unyielding to rigid conceptions of what jazz is supposed to be. It’s fair to call it “post-Marsalis,” in that it leaves behind the defensive, canon-oriented musical conservatism of ’90s jazz (as both Branford and Wynton Marsalis themselves have done in their best work of the past decade). Among this music’s most celebrated and duly admired practitioners are the pianists Brad Mehldau, Ethan Iverson (of the trio the Bad Plus), Jason Moran and Vijay Iyer. And singular among the trailblazers of their art, a largely unsung innovator of this borderless, individualistic jazz — a jazz for the 21st century — is the pianist and composer Fred Hersch.

Never a grandstander, unconcerned with publicity, Hersch has been a fiercely independent but unassuming presence on the New York jazz scene since he moved to the city at age 21 in 1977. He has made more than 45 albums as a solo performer, composer, bandleader or duo partner since 1991, when he released his first record of original material, a collection of unclassifiable songs composed for jazz rhythm section, tenor saxophone and cello, aptly titled, “Forward Motion.” His body of work is clearly recognizable as a manifesto of contemporary jazz. “Some people think I sound like Fred,” says Mehldau, who like Iverson is a former student of Hersch’s. “That’s because Fred was a major influence on me and on a lot of the players around today. Fred’s musical world is a world where a lot of the developments of jazz history and all of music history come together in a very contemporary way. His style has a lot to do with thinking as an individual, and it has a lot to do with beauty. I wouldn’t be doing what I do if I hadn’t learned from Fred, and I think that’s true of quite a few other people.”

Jazz — a music energized by the tensions between tradition and innovation, between collaborative cooperation and individual expression — has gone through multiple phases over the years since Hersch started playing professionally more than 30 years ago: a craze for jazz-rock fusion; a celebrated rediscovery of the work of iconic masters (chief among them, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, exemplars of swing, orchestral jazz and bop, respectively); a retro lindy-hop fad; an arty “downtown” kick; and a leaning toward world music. Hersch has concerned himself with none of them. Hardly a straight-ahead bopper or a swing revivalist, a player too romantic for the avant-garde and far too serious for the lounges, Hersch is an artist indifferent to genre and unbeholden to musical fashion. The jazz tradition he best connects to is the unshakable iconoclasm of Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and others like-minded in their disregard for like-mindedness. Hersch’s music — luxurious, free-flowing, unashamedly gorgeous jazz — is idiosyncratically, unmistakably a creation of his own. As Ben Ratliff described him in a New York Times review of a Village Vanguard performance in 1997, Hersch is “a master who plays it his way.”

His determination to do things the Fred Hersch way has intensified considerably since the early ’90s, when he made public his diagnosis of AIDS. Indeed, Hersch’s range and prolificacy are such that he has needed half a dozen record labels for as many purposes: Nonesuch for Hersch the solo pianist; Sunnyside for his unorthodox quartet, the Pocket Orchestra; Palmetto for his quintet, the Fred Hersch Trio +2; Naxos for his hybrid jazz-classical concert music; various labels for his duet projects with singers as varied as Janis Siegel of the Manhattan Transfer, the veteran Brazilian vocalist Leny Andrade and the classical soprano Renée Fleming; and Concord for his concert at the Maybeck Recital Hall.

“Fred is one of those rare musicians who can do many things well and never tries to sound like anyone else,” says Seth Abramson, who books the Jazz Standard. “It’s interesting how many other pianists who come into the club remind me of Fred.” That is to say, jazz has come around to doing it Hersch’s way.

While the sensibility he pioneered has flourished, Hersch himself has been heard from only sporadically over the past two years. The reason is that he has, on and off during this period, been gravely ill, so sick from AIDS and a severe bout of pneumonia that the people closest to him — his partner, Scott Morgan, and his brother, Hank, as well as his parents — thought, on the worst of his many very bad days, that they had seen him for the last time. Early in 2008, the H.I.V. virus migrated to his brain, and Hersch developed AIDS-related dementia. He lived for a time in mental and physical seclusion, hallucinating under the delusion that he had the power to control time and space and that everyone around him was plotting his demise. In fact, he came so close to dying that his paranoia seemed practically justified. At his sickest, late that year, Hersch fell into a coma and remained unconscious for a full two months. While incapacitated, he was bound to his bed in St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York. He lost renal function and had to undergo regular dialysis, and he required a tracheotomy. He was unable to consume food or liquids of any kind, including water, for eight months. He could not swallow a thing or speak above a faint whisper. As a result of his prolonged unconsciousness and inactivity, he lost nearly all motor function in his hands and could not hold a pencil, let alone play the piano.

Today, at age 54, after many months of rehabilitation and therapy, grueling effort, effective medical care, an almost irrationally defiant refusal to accept his problems as anything less than temporary distractions from his music and a considerable amount of good luck, Hersch has achieved full recovery. Last year, he released two albums: a concert performance of his Pocket Orchestra CD, issued in the spring, and a solo piano record, “Fred Hersch Plays Jobim,” released (to immediate acclaim) in the summer. He has three completed works as yet unrecorded: a song cycle about art and photographic images, which he wrote with the poet Mary Jo Salter (some pieces of which were performed in a tribute to Hersch’s music at Jazz at Lincoln Center a few years ago); a collection of jazz tunes honoring a quirky range of artists (musicians, writers, dancers) whom he admires; and a suite derived from themes by Tchaikovsky. On top of this explosion of Hersch music, a documentary about him — “Let Yourself Go: The Lives of Fred Hersch,” directed by the German filmmaker Katja Duregger — also came out last year.

In the fall, Hersch began work on a major new project, a long-form work that will deal explicitly with his recent traumas in words and music. The piece is an attempt to make art from the only life he knew for months, to give musical form to the dream images and cryptic narratives he still recalls vividly from his days and nights in a coma.

“I’VE BEEN THROUGH a lot, and I want to make something of it, musically,” Hersch said one afternoon in October. He had just finished giving a private lesson to a young pianist named Jeremy Siskind in the SoHo loft that has served as his professional headquarters and his New York residence for 30 years. For a while in the ’80s, Hersch used the loft as a recording studio. In the corner of his parlor, a tiny, half-octagon-shaped room-within-a-room betrays its past as a drum chamber. He has brightened the almost lightless space by choosing splashy, Southwestern-ish pastel fabrics for the furnishings, and by placing, here and there, whimsical decorations like the toy piano on the top of the bookcase. Seated on the stool of the toy, prepared to play a four-handed duet, are painted carved-wood sculptures of a cat and a parrot. Facing the sofa is a 1921 Steinway grand piano at which Hersch, a jazz cat who has lived several lives, just gave a lesson to one of his many emulators. The piano — the real one — once belonged to Hersch’s paternal grandmother.

“I never wanted to be a classical pianist, because that takes a lot of discipline, and it takes chops, and I don’t particularly like to practice, and I don’t care very much about chops,” Hersch said. “To me, chops are just the ability to spin off and rattle off stuff. When you listen to somebody with a lot of chops, you say, ‘Wow!’ But you don’t really come away feeling very much.”

Hersch looked cheery in a pale-lemon, open-neck, wide-collar sport shirt from the ’50s. He has a thing for vintage clothes, which provide him with a way to dress with flair, economically but without slavishness to the fashions of the season; as such, they connect loosely to his music, down to his work’s winking humor and element of homage to musicians he admires.

Growing up as a child music star in Cincinnati, Hersch was composing little pieces by age 7, and by the time he was 10, he was appearing weekly on a local Sunday-morning kids’ program, “The Skipper Ryle Show.” “The fact that he was on TV and had this prodigious talent gave him a lot of confidence,” recalls his only sibling, Hank, an editor at Sports Illustrated who is about two years younger than his brother. “In fact, he was always a bit of a prima donna.” Also at age 10, Hersch composed a musical play about Peter Pan for his elementary school and rejected the faculty’s demand that he cut or amend the music.

Around the same time, he entered a musical competition and showed up with only a short sketch; he announced that he would play an original composition titled “A Windy Night,” improvised most of it and won first prize. “Fred,” says his father, Henry Hersch, an attorney, “was and is, um . . .” — pause — “a somewhat, I don’t know . . .” — longer pause — “I don’t want to use too loaded a word, but I’d say ‘high-strung’ or ‘mercurial’ or whatever. He has what some people call an artistictemperament.”

After a term in general studies at Grinnell College in Iowa, Hersch dropped out and moved back to Cincinnati for a year and a half. He concentrated on his jazz education, gigging around town with local players, learning the music and its culture. Invigorated, he went back to college for music, enrolling in the New England Conservatory, where he studied under the jazz pianist and composer Jaki Byard. Graduating with honors, he moved to New York for the postgraduate education of sideman life.

Few jazz musicians in Hersch’s generation rose as fast as he did. “Fred was way out in front,” says the tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, a fellow Ohio native three years older than Hersch. “A lot of the giants were still on the scene, and it was the great dream of the young cats like us to play with them, and Fred was one of the first ones to make that big jump.”

When I first heard of Hersch, in the mid-’80s, he seemed to be in all the best places a jazz pianist could be — playing one night with Joe Henderson, another night with Stan Getz or Lee Konitz or on his own at Bradley’s, the club on University Place where many of the most respected pianists in jazz played and congregated to hear, support and pilfer from one another. Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Jimmy Rowles all used Bradley’s as their base, and each of them was at least 25 years older than Hersch. “Fred is unique among pianists his age as a musician who really paid his dues as a jazz player,” Ethan Iverson says. “I can’t even imagine what it was like to play night after night with Joe Henderson or Art Farmer and to play at Bradley’s in front of the most horrifyingly heavy judges, juries and executioners. The way that pianists of my generation have learned about the music is through the sort of artificial world of records and scores, and not really natural assimilation. Fred absorbed the whole jazz tradition in the deepest possible way, and that’s only the foundation of his playing. It was just his starting point. For a lot of other pianists, that would be the end point.”

What I recall most vividly about Hersch’s playing from his early years is its striking technical facility; I found him impressive — though not as moving as I would find him years later. Over time, the physics of Hersch’s musicianship inverted; he gave up impressing and worked, increasingly, to move. “Jazz musicians didn’t have stylists and publicists,” Hersch said, sitting straight-backed on the sofa in his loft. “You could hang out at the bar, and there was Art Blakey, smashed and hitting on the woman next to him. I wanted to play with the greatest players in the world, and I was probably pushy, but that’s how I achieved what I did.”

While he worked closely with other musicians, as jazz demands, he labored to protect the secret of his homosexuality. “I was leading a dual life — being gay and being a jazz musician and not knowing how those were going to meet,” Hersch said. “Jazz music, by its very nature, is intimate. You’re trusting other people — there’s an intensity and shared emotion of creating something together, and I felt that if people knew that I was gay, they would mistake my intensity for sexual attraction. I didn’t want it to stand in the way of achieving what I wanted to achieve. If you were sincere and you had talent and you’re the kind of guy people want to play with, they didn’t care what color you are — you could be purple — but gayness was a different matter.”

Around the time Hersch recorded his first album as a trio leader, “Horizons,” for Concord, in the mid-’80s, he found out he was H.I.V.-positive. “So my whole career as a leader has had this cloud over it,” Hersch said. “I was in that who-knows-what’s-going-to-happen? land. A lot of my friends” — many of whom had full-blown AIDS — “were hopping off.”

One afternoon, Hersch had a rehearsal scheduled with Stan Getz in Hersch’s loft. After Getz rang Hersch’s buzzer, Hersch found himself scooting to his bathroom to hide his boyfriend’s toothbrush. “That’s when I realized, What the hell am I doing?” he recalled. “This is my home. This is my life. I decided I was going to open up about everything and just be myself, and the period of coming out was the beginning of my gaining confidence as a composer. I felt like I had to get it out there while I still had time.”

Hersch paused abruptly, and said, “Hold on — I need to keep hydrated.” He took a long gulp of iced tea and swallowed, with a bit of difficulty. “I thought every album I did was going to be my last album,” he went on. “Being sick and knowing my time is precious has made me want to be totally myself in my music. I decided that I wasn’t interested in playing hip music for hip cats. So I don’t pander to an audience. I’m completely comfortable with what I do, and I just don’t care what other people are doing.” He coughed a bit of iced tea into a paper napkin.

“It’s kind of a miracle that I’m here at all,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s interesting — I had to learn to work with a more limited palette, technically, as a pianist. At the same time, I felt stronger than ever, creatively. I found that I had more interesting things to say musically. I had more to express, and what I had to say didn’t require pyrotechnics. The way I deal with the disease is, even though it has the power, I am not going to acknowledge that it has the power to mess with me.”

In October, Hersch started working intently on what he sees as his “most personal and probably most ambitious” effort: “the coma project.” As he conceives of it at this early stage, it will be a concert-length piece with words, music and perhaps multimedia elements, to be performed by a midsize ensemble of a configuration to be determined as the music takes shape. Hersch is developing the new work with Herschel Garfein, the librettist and sometime composer best known for his collaboration with the composer Robert Aldridge on the opera “Elmer Gantry.” “I was still alive for all that time I was unconscious, but the only life I had was in my dreams and nightmares, and they were incredibly strange and sometimes horrifying and sometimes beautiful,” Hersch said. “I was in a lot of physical pain and discomfort. I found out later that I had been restrained — I was strapped to the bed, and the dreams I had were unbelievably weird and mysterious. I’ve been trying to come to terms with what I went through, and the best way I know is to try to express it in music.”

What form will that music take? “It was an incredibly bizarre and sometimes terrifying experience,” Hersch said. “There are no words to describe it. I’m hoping music can.”

To many jazz fans, Fred Hersch is perhaps best known as a gay jazzman — or the gay jazzman, despite the fact that the jazz world, like every sphere of human endeavor in and out of the arts, has always had a homosexual population. Indeed, Hersch’s identity as a gay man — and one with AIDS — has shaped the way his music has been perceived by many people, including his own partner, Scott Morgan. On a cool Saturday morning last summer, Morgan relaxed on the deck of the nice vinyl-sided house he and Hersch have built on the side of a hill in the Pennsylvania woods, and he reflected on Hersch’s image as a gay artist. “One of the reasons that I was attracted to his music was not just his music but the fact that he was an out, gay musician early on — I had him on a pedestal as a musician and as a person,” said Morgan, who has studied both piano and voice and can play standards in the manner of a good rehearsal pianist.

“It impressed me that he was willing to go against the grain from a career perspective,” Morgan went on. “He’s got this incredible core of what he wants and who he is that is kind of amazing to me. I think Fred’s music has an expressiveness and a lyricism that is his own. People say that’s because he’s gay, and I see how people can read into that and say, ‘Well, I hear this sense of emotion, this depth, this lyricism’ — you hear some of that in some of his compositions. Clearly, we are gay, but our lives are not defined by the ‘gay community’ or by being gay.”

If anything has inhibited the ability of Hersch’s music to achieve the broader acceptance that, say, the work of the Marsalis brothers has achieved, it may be the subtlety and sheer loveliness of it — its warmth, its quality of melancholy, traits that Americans conditioned to equate “edginess” and “darkness” with gravity can be slow to take as seriously as music that hits the ears more assaultively. His openness as a gay man is no help here and has surely conspired to feed hoary stereotypes of Hersch and his music as light stuff. As the pianist Jason Moran points out: “Because Fred’s playing is so beautiful, some people don’t take it as seriously as they should. I think some people hear only flowers, but there’s deep soil there. They don’t really understand everything that’s going on. Maybe if he gyrated and groaned and squinted his eyes and made it look hard when he played, they would get it. But Fred doesn’t go for theatrics. Fred at the piano is like LeBron James on the basketball court. He’s perfection.”

Hersch, among the most sensitive of jazz pianists, is acutely sensitive to the proposition that his sensitivity makes his music “gay.” I took up the subject on a walk with him along the gravel path behind his country house. We heard hummingbirds in the beech trees and got to talking about nature and the conception of beauty as a value in gay culture. “I wouldn’t quite say that’s bull, but it’s a very dangerous idea,” Hersch said, slowing his gait. “The compliment I get the most often is, ‘My, you sounded really beautiful.’ I used to think, I want them to say something else, because I felt like that was a kind of, Oh, yeah, you’re gay — so of course you play lyrically and you’re one of the great ballad players. Of course. But now I just don’t care at all what people think. I think music should be beautiful. There’s nothing wrong with beauty. I’m attracted to beauty and lyricism, but I don’t play the way I do because I’m gay. I play the way I do because I’m Fred.”

If his music is sometimes mistaken for soft, its composer never is. Among musicians and other professionals in jazz circles, Hersch’s clarity of purpose and fierceness of will have contributed to his reputation as a fearsome taskmaster. Jo Lawry, the Pocket Orchestra vocalist, remembers as the “foundation stone” of her relationship with Hersch his phone call to her the day after he first saw her sing. Hersch told her that the way she swayed to the beat onstage was a distraction from the music and that she was “jumping all over the place” in her improvisations rather than fully developing her musical ideas.

At a Pocket Orchestra rehearsal in his loft, which I attended early last summer, Hersch ran the group through a piece called “Free Flying” at a vertiginous clip. The piece called for Lawry to precision-scat a wildly complicated melody in unison with the piano, and she flew through it. “Now let’s do it at a preposterous speed,” Hersch announced; the group did, and Lawry got through it surprisingly well. “Now, let’s do it even faster, and I’m not going to play the melody with you anymore,” he said, and Lawry survived being pushed beyond reasonable limits.

Janis Siegel, with whom Hersch has recorded several albums, has come to rely on Hersch’s scrutiny and candor. “Fred has pushed me to become a better musician, a better singer — in ways, a better person,” she says. “He doesn’t have time to goof around. If I want some straight-ahead feedback, I go to him. People will tell you what you want to hear, or they’ll be not-quite truthful, because they don’t want to hurt your feelings, but Fred’s allegiance is to the music.”

In the recording studio, “Fred always knows what he wants,” says his longtime engineer, Michael MacDonald, with whom Hersch has made more than 40 albums. “If you ask him a question, he’ll never say, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ He always has an idea.” Twenty-five years ago, MacDonald says: “Fred was a petulant, stubborn, incredibly talented egomaniac eccentric who would dominate a recording session. He was always playing brilliantly, but it was a whole lot more egocentric. Since his illnesses, he’s matured musically and also emotionally, in saying, ‘Everything I do has to have meaning and has to be my best game, because I don’t have a lot of time.’ I’ve seen a huge change in him with the illnesses — just the stop fooling around, stop wasting time.

“Fred’s ego is enormous,” MacDonald adds, dragging out the word. “But when he’s sitting at the piano, you don’t hear the ego. You only hear his humanity.”

HERSCH PLAYED a handful of gigs in New York last year as he grew stronger, and one was a run at the Jazz Standard with the Pocket Orchestra, to introduce the group’s first CD. In addition to Hersch’s piano, the instrumentation of this orchestra includes trumpet, percussion and voice. Like a great many things in Fred Hersch’s life and work, the Pocket Orchestra defies expectations.

“He looks good,” said Fred’s brother, Hank, who left a busy late night at work to go to the Jazz Standard with their mother, Flo Hoffheimer (who is divorced from her sons’ father and remarried). Now 80, she flew in from Cincinnati that day for the occasion. The club was packed. Twenty or 30 people without reservations huddled outside the entrance hopefully, and the house manager waved some of them into the bar area as Hersch shuffled onto the bandstand with the Pocket Orchestra.

As he took his seat at the piano, Hersch fluffed the back of the silky mushroom brown shirt he was wearing, so the bottom of the fabric draped over the bench as the tails of a tuxedo would. He glanced at the audience for a second when he did this, and gave a little smile. He shook his shoulders loose and wiggled

his bottom into a position he liked. Then he began to play, constructing a tight pattern of dense, repeating chords. He lowered his head slowly till it hovered just half a foot from the top of the piano, and he appeared to shrink into his clothes. Hersch, slim all his adult life, was about 15 pounds under his usual weight. His cheeks were hollow, and his skin was gray, though his eyes were bright and his playing was strong. In fact, in its emotive urgency, expressive range and beauty, Hersch’s music had rarely been so potent.

After the second number, a lightly bopping composition called “Lee’s Dream,” which Hersch wrote in tribute to the alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, Hersch’s mother leaned back in the corner banquette where she was sitting with Hank and a few others, and she said, to no one in particular, “Fred was such a fat little thing.”

At the end of the set, she elaborated: “When Fred was a boy, he was the most beautiful, chubby little thing you ever laid eyes on — he was a blimp with appendages. And one day when he was 3 years old, I was pushing him around in a cart in the grocery store, and a woman — a stranger, I had never met her before — saw Fred, and she stopped in her tracks, and she looked at Fred, and she said, ‘And who do you belong to?’

“And Fred looked at her, and he said: ‘I don’t belong to anybody. I belong to myself.’

“That was Fred,” his mother said, “and it still is.”

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