Fred Hersch: No Limits
“ It wasn't until I really discovered jazz that I realized that there was this great language for improvising with other people. ”
From the start of his career as a sideman in the 1970s for such jazz luminaries as Joe Henderson, Art Farmer and Stan Getz to his own ensembles and solo projects, there has always been a great diversity and intensity to Fred Hersch's art. Having won a Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship for composition (2003) and having been the first pianist in The Village Vanguard's 70 year history to do a week's solo residency, Hersch has managed to be both a musician's musician and resonate in the jazz public's consciousness without ever compromising his own artistic vision.
- The Start
- New York and Jazz in the '70s
- Journeyman Education
- Bradley's and the State of Jazz Clubs Today
- Concepts, Projects and Ensembles
- Making History At The Village Vanguard
- Leaves of Grass
- Outside Genres and The Self
- Jobim and Dream Projects
All About Jazz: Were you writing fully-realized compositions from an early age? What was the impetus behind that?
Fred Hersch: I composed music from a very young age, from about third grade to seventh grade. I had private music theory lessons, musicianship, notation; the basic toolkit which I use today. I got a good foundation in musical principles.
I wrote pieces in different styles, but I did not write an actual symphony. I did improvise a great deal, and that was usually more fun than practicing Chopin or something. I seemed to enjoy the improvising more.
It wasn't until I really discovered jazz that I realized that there was this great language for improvising with other people. That is what sold me on the whole thing: that it was music that was played with, and in front of, peoplenot some kind of solitary pursuit.
I liked the idea of the nightlife and in Cincinnati, where I first learned how to play, there were a lot of colorful characters around. It was kind of exotic and interestingthe kind of thing my parents wouldn't approve of too much. I took to it pretty quickly.
Throughout high school I played all kinds of music. I played violin in the orchestra, accompanied the choirall sorts of musical dutiesbut I was not focused. I was not playing classical music to the level of being able to get admission to a conservatory. I wasn't good enough yet.
AAJ: Were you at least enjoying the classical stuff while you were doing it?
FH: I would listen to a record of Glenn Gould or Horowitz and basically say, "Why bother?" these people do this much better than me. It was a long time before I found a form of expression that suited me, where I could be myself. Jazz was that for me.
AAJ: Before attending The New England Conservatory (Boston, MA), you went to Grinnell College (Grinnell, Iowa). What were your initial studies?
FH: Just briefly for about a semester. It was just the beginning of liberal arts: art history and some political science. Basically, I chickened out of my auditions for some of the bigger music schools and my best friend was going to Grinnell. It seemed like a neat place to go. I figured that in the middle of Iowa, in the middle of winter, I would have plenty of time to figure out what I wanted to do, and that is kind of what happened.
I listened to some jazz out there which got me on the path. I dropped out after a semester, moved back to Cincinnati and pretty much immediately started playing professionally. There were not that many young musicians wanting to play jazz at that point. I didn't have my jazz chops totally together in terms of my rhythm, but the older musicians could see that I was clearly motivated, and they were very helpful in a sort of tough love kind of way. It was a great way to learn, and I kind of hate that this way of learning doesn't take place anymorethings being passed down more in the oral tradition.
AAJ: Did you find a big difference between the two environments, and how did that affect your art?
FH: Oh yeah! Between Grinnell and New England I lived in Cincinnati and played professionally for about a year and a half. At the time that I went to New England there were only a handful of schools in the country that had any kind of acknowledgment of jazz as an art form. Jaki Byard was teaching at New England, and I love his playing from his work with Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus, and his own records. I basically went up there, played for him and got in.
When I went to New England, I felt like I was pretty well on my way as a jazz player. I just wanted to broaden my musical horizons. That's exactly what happened. I had great interactions with my fellow students and some incredibly inspiring teachers. It was a great creative atmosphere. It was the last two years that Gunther Schuller was president of the school, and there was a certain energy there that was kind of special, I think.
This year coming up is the 40th anniversary of the establishing of the jazz department at New England, which was the first in a major conservatory. Starting next month, I will be teaching there again; this is my third go around. I teach seven days each semester. I have very strong feelings about the school. I think it is a fantastic place, arguably the best conservatory in the countrysuperior creative music.
AAJ: What were the circumstances which found you moving to New York?
FH: I moved one week after graduation from New England. When I was in New England, I didn't really invest in playing locally in Boston. There were a limited number of places to play, and in Boston you're kind of always a student. You felt like there wasn't really anywhere to go. I always knew that Boston was sort of a halfway stop between Cincinnati and New York. It gave me a chance to live completely on my own, deal with public transportation. Just being in an East Coast city with all that it had to offer in way of art and music was a real eye opener.
AAJ: Often the jazz scene of the 1970s is portrayed as not as exciting nor artistically "pure" as the decades which preceded it. Yet during this time you were playing with some heavy hitters like (Lee Konitz and Joe Henderson. What do you remember of the jazz landscape of this time?
FH: The '70s was the beginning of fusion and smooth jazz started then. It was a time when the line between what's jazz and what isn't jazz got a little vague. But it was also a time when the playing field was pretty equal. Major labels did not have a lot of jazz on their rosters. Stan Getz or Miles Davis maybe, but almost the whole time I worked with Joe [Henderson] he didn't have a record contract. This was before Wynton Marsalis and the pursuit of young talent.
In the '80s, and particularly the late `80s, the role of the institution/schools had started to solidify. The '70s were great because at a place like Bradley's you could go up to the bar and end up standing next to Art Blakey and have a drink. If you hung out late at night after they closed the doors, all kinds of people would hang out: Tommy Flanagan, Jimmy Rowles. They would play stump the pianist with each other, they would get into philosophical discussions, show each other chord changes or tunes...really just kind of hung out and played gigs. It wasn't so much about marketing or managers or publicists or any of that kind of stuff. People had booking agents, and that was basically it. It was a more wide open scene.
Also when I came to New York in the '70s, there was the whole loft scene. Sam Rivers had a loft; Joe Lee Wilson had a loft. You could really see some exciting improvised music that was accessible and not expensive. There was a lot of energy on that scene too. I was kind of drawn to that as well and fascinated by it.
Just yesterday I was up at Ornette Coleman's loft playing duets with him, which is a complete thrill. We just sat and played. It was just thrilling.
AAJ: Now there are many more jazz programs and conservatories nationwide, but is something lost to today's up-and-coming players with the death of such a journeyman education?
FH: Initially when I played, and for a very long time, there were never any music stands on the band stands. Someone would just call out a tune and you were expected to know them.
Later on, I started playing with different people like Art Farmer, and they had a book of pieces that they had collected or some that they had written. In Art's case, he wasn't much of a composer but he had a good ear for unusual tunes that we played.
A lot of the younger players now have incredible facility and ease in dealing with very complex concepts and rhythms, but their relationship to the classics of jazz and the great American songbook is very dutiful and tangential. It is not something that interests a lot of them or excites them. So people are more likely to play gigs and play their own music, no longer calling tunes or having simple lead sheets.
You can't say it's better or worse. Things evolve and I still believe in the values of playing songs of all kinds. Songs are great frameworks for me to improvise with and I feel very comfortable with it, but it isn't for everybody.
I think there is a lot of interesting stuff now that has come out of the schools and out of the workshops; that has moved the music in a different direction. Who's to say where it will all shake out?
AAJ: The jazz/supper club Bradley's was your launching pad in New York. You were an up-and-coming artist who often had to play before not just the patrons, but already established players who came in to socialize and have a few drinks. How did you first come by your association with the club?
FH:A bassist friend of mine from Cincinnati and I got a loft on 11th street in the Village. Back then, it was like $350 per month for 2500 square feet. It was right around the corner from Bradley's. That is where I made my big breakthrough just playing at Bradley's and hanging out there. It was a great piano spot and just incredible social scene.
When I got to New York I worked a lot of $25 gigs, played in the Catskills and accompanied singers, played private parties. I did a lot of dues-paying gigs that I think young musicians need to do, before I started at Bradley's and playing with some great bass players.
I used to go down there all the time, sip an orange juice and listen to Jimmy Rowles or Roland Hanna or whoever happened to be playing there. Jimmy particularly was very kind and would let me sit in. I began to meet some of the bass playersparticularly Sam Jones.
One night after hours I played with Red Mitchell, and we really enjoyed playing with each other. Red said to Bradley that he thought I should get a week. At that time, Bradley had never hired a young pianist. He used only pretty much established guys. So I had the good fortune, or dumb luck, to call Sam Jones and we really hit it off musically. Then I started playing with him and his quintet or trio or 12-piece bands. Once I had the stamp of approval from Sam, it kind of meant that I was ok in terms of the post-bop jazz world.
He taught me a lot about the business and about rhythmjust about how to be in the community. Some very great lessons I learned by observing. He was really great to me.
Sam recommended me to Art Farmer who then recommended me to Joe Henderson; then I started serving some long apprenticeships with those guys. I was ambitious and I put myself out there. I came to New York to play with the best players in the world, and that was what I was going to do!
Then I began to play at Bradley's regularly. I played with Sam, Charlie Haden, Red Mitchell and Buster Williams, Ron Carter, Ray Drummond, Bob Cranshaw, George Mraz. When you play a whole week with a bassist, just duo, you really get to know each other.
Bradley's was a late club, so people would get off their gig at the Vanguard or whatever and they would come by for a drink. You would still be playing at quarter to three in the morning.
AAJ: While some of the country's larger cities still have jazz clubs, going to one has become a far more staid affair, with other musicians rarely coming in just to relax or jam. Has jazz lost something in the disappearance of this atmosphere?
FH: I think so. There are a few places in New York where there is a little bit of a hang and where things are loose. Once you play there a few times, they know you and you don't have to pay the cover charge, you can just come in and have a drink. The expensive clubs suck up the energy. There are alternatives: places in Brooklyn, Williamsburg, places on the Lower East Side; many of them unfortunately don' t have pianos, but at this point I am kind of established and playing at the Vanguard or the Jazz Standard. I don't really play in the smaller clubs except Smalls now and then, just to try something new and check out a new player, just to keep my fingers in it between major appearances.
It's a low under-the-radar thing. I try to get together with other musicians and find out what they are listening to or talk shop. I always try to go hear young players that I have heard about and check them out, go out to support my friends when they're playing. One of the reasons I live in New York is to be able to hear live music at any time.
The socialization that took place back then is of a particular time and place. Truth be told, people were high or drunk a lot, and it was just a part of the atmosphere of the late `70s/early `80s. The music was a club music with rare exceptions.
On one hand, it is nice for me to go travel somewhere, play in a beautiful concert hall on a really nice Steinway, whether it's solo or with my trio or some other configuration. The money is good and the circumstances are good, but it is still not as satisfying as playing a week at the Vanguard or playing a few nights in a row in a club. That's, in many instances, where the best music happens because you have a chance for things to develop.
When you are playing just one concert or a festival where you are one set on a double bill, you feel like you have to present something. It's very hard to just kind of relax and let things go where they want to go. There is a temptation to be more structured about the affair. You are conscious of the clock; I'll more typically plan the set, whereas in a club I'll more typically call a song I feel like playing. It is just a different atmosphere.
FH: I have done a bunch of them: I have the new one outthe Jobim album, I did a Cole Porter, I did a Rodgers and Hammerstein. I like getting inside the music of particular composer. I did a Monk record. I try to approach it very respectfully of what they've written, but also try to make sure that it sounds like me. Sometimes that means rearranging things or changing tempos or some kind of device. I did Billy Strayhorn, which was a big one.
AAJ: Have you ever tried a cover or tribute which you liked but others felt just did not work or was too far removed from the spirit of the original artist?
FH: I would say that the one that has done the worst is, or people didn't quite know what to make of it was Plays Rodgers & Hammerstein(Nonesuch, 1996). It was my second product for NonesuchI did Plays Billy Strayhorn (1995) and Passion Flower (1996), and then I did Plays Rodgers & Hammerstein. I think the jazz audience doesn't quite relate to those pieces the way that I do. I think it was a little bit flat.
The Monk album was very well received and most of the subsequent ones have been also. I don't think it is in any way weaker than the others. That material made me play in a certain way that maybe didn't resonate with the hardcore jazz fans.
AAJ: Your body of work features not only many different concepts but various-sized ensembles. Does the idea for an album come first, then the band to fit it, or is it more the Ellington effect, where you find yourself writing for the instrumental voices first?
FH: In the case of this new band, the Pocket Orchestra, I've rearranged and composed some pieces with those particular musicians in mind.
When I write a piece...certain pieces I know are going to be solo pieces; others can work with trio, quintet or even solo. I just tend to write and see where it wants to fit. I have written and recorded 60-70 of my tunes thus far in all kinds of situations.
It's nice nowother people are starting to record them, too. Norma Winstone, the British singer, added lyrics to about 11 of my pieces. A number of singers are starting to do them and record them. I think my music is starting to get out there a little more, which is nice.
AAJ: Do you have a preference for a type of line up live or in the studio?
FH: Studio and live are just two different animals. It is like film acting and stage acting. To me, some of my best albums have been live. I have done two live albums: Fred Hersch Pocket Orchestra: Live at Jazz Standard (Sunnyside, 2009), Nancy King: Live at Jazz Standard with Fred Hersch (MAXJAZZ, 2006). I think those albums that were not really intended to be albums and just happened to be recorded reflect some of my best playing because I was just playing and not really thinking about the idea that the recording was going on.
I love playing in both contextsboth live and in studio. I am very lucky to have access to an incredible pool of rhythm section players and horn players and people that I really enjoy playing with. Sometimes I mix up the lineup and use a different rhythm section or mix and match bassists and drummers that I've played with just to see what happens, keep it interesting.
AAJ: In its 70-year history you were the first pianist to play a week's residency solo at the Village Vanguard. How did this come about, and to what extent beforehand did you conceptualize what the week's sets would be like?
FH: The previous fall I was playing there with a trio with Nasheet Waits and Drew Gress, my trio at the time. Drew was flying back from California and got screwed up. He called in a panic on opening night and said, "I'm stuck and not gonna make it." I called John Hebert and asked if he could come, and he was in California. I told the two of them that whichever one of them got here first got the gig.
As it happened, by nine o'clock neither one of them had shown up. So I just got up on stage and played the first set solo. There was a very warm and great reaction from the crowd. Lorraine Gordon, the owner was there and she really enjoyed it.
The following March I had my live solo Live at the Bimhuis (Palmetto, 2005) in Amsterdam coming out. Shortly after that week in the fall I asked Lorraine if she would consider doing a special solo week to coincide with that album, and to my surprise she said yes.
It was very intense from the energy expenditure but it is something I will never forget. I wasn't feeling particularly well that weekhealth-wise it wasn't a good weekbut when I hit the bandstand most of my sets were really good.
She has kindly put my picture on the wall of the Vanguard which is a great honor for me. I am up above Coltrane and kittycorner from [Charles] Mingus and next to Bill Evans.
I just had a list of the songs that I play. I usually figure out what I am going to start with, but then I just look at the list and see if something jumps out at me. I try to play as much different music as I could so as to try and not repeat myself.
AAJ: Leaves of Grass (2005) is an album you did for Palmetto Records which revolves around the poetry of Walt Whitman. What inspiration, if any, do you draw from art in other mediums?
FH: I am very strongly attracted to visual art, literature and poetry. Whitman has been an inspiration since I was at Grinnell. His poetry has great energy. Philosophically I really agree with where he is coming from about life, being present, and his words are often very much like jazz solos, where you kind of have to hang with him when he goes off on these tangents. But there is no poetry like rhyme scheme.
It took me quite some time to whittle down the five or six hundred pages of the final edition of Leaves Of Grass into a manageable kind of libretto. Once I did that, I wrote the piece in less than a month. I did so pretty much by talking or singing the lines and seeing if there were rhythms. I found a lot of music in the lines.
Other kinds of poetry are so musical that I think actual music would hurt it. I hope that I was able to take his words and add something to it. That was my goal.
I also had the idea of doing it with an octet and to have a female voice. I didn't want it to totally be a voice of man, as man. I wanted there to be a voice of woman to be part of it and balance it out. Even though Kurt Elling gets more airtime, Kate McGarryher contribution is equally important.
FH: I actually had Kurt and Norma Winstone in mind, but Norma was in England which became sort of complicated. So Kate stepped in for the US tour, and for the recording and she is great. I love her singing, and she was a great choice for this project.
AAJ: Aside from collaborating with your peers in the jazz world, you have also done some projects with artists from the classical world [Renee Flemming, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg]. Do you find you must get in a different mindset when working with artists from such different genres, and is there any sort of stylistic compromise, not in the pejorative sense of the word, on your part in how you will play or write during such a project?
FH: I think I have quite a long list of collaborators from the classical world. Some have been where we kind of stepped into each other's territories equally and some they have kind of come into my world more than I into theirs. Generally, classical musicians are non-improvising musicians, and for me it is to get them to try and loosen up and be more spontaneousget away from whatever is on the page and let the imagination go as much as possible. Collaboration with any musician is different; it is always different. Every musician brings something out that's different in both of us, I hope.
FH: The filmmaker, Katja Duregger, is a German woman, documentary filmmaker, who also is a contributing jazz writer to some publications and she is also gay. She sent me an e-mail and said, "I love your music and find you interesting. Would you be up for doing this documentary?" I just said yes for no particular reason.
For two years, she followed me around various places in the United States and Europe and interviewed people and put together this film which is kind of interestingly done. It's a half-an-hour of what she calls the main movie and there are four modules of 15 minutes each: one on me as a musician, one on me as an educator, one on my life with HIV Aids and one module of concert footage (two trio and two solo pieces). It is a neat way to put together something instead of having just one long feature documentary.
I would say that I have some quibbles about how certain things came out. In general, I am very pleased with it. I think it's amazing that she pulled this off basically without financing and just made it happen.
AAJ: Does the "you" seen in the film still resonate with the truth of who you are now?
FH: I think during the period of filming I was dealing with a lot more health issues than I am now. I think that's different. In 2008 I had front-to-back serious, serious health challenges: being in a coma for seven weeks and being psychotic for two months, having to recall my learning of how to walk, eat, swallow, talk and play the piano again. I think when we were filming, my health was beginning to deteriorate. My health is much more stable now, but I think she captured some really good stuff.
AAJ: How important do you feel an artist's persona is in regards to enjoying or understanding their work?
FH: A lot of great composers or artist or writers were not the best of humans. They had serious issues. Who's to say how that affected their art, but what they produced is wonderful and magic and important.
I think with certain artists we have a little too much information. Somebody like Beethovenpeople know too much about him, the whole mythology about him. I think the bottom line is: what's the work and what does it say to you? It doesn't matter what genre you are talking about. I think the more we know about a person, the more we read into the work instead of just appreciating it for what it is.
AAJ: You spent some of 2008 very sick, in a coma for about seven weeks. How did this affect your chops as far as loss or gaining back your artistic facilities?
FH: The timetable for 2008 is that in the fall of 2007 I got very worn down by just doing too muchtouring and traveling. I was not able to keep weight on. In the middle of December my doctor pulled me off my HIV meds, hoping to give my system a break and try to gain some weight. The virus then attacked my brain and by New Year's Eve day, I had full blown dementia. So I was really completely nuts for about two months.
Somehow I came out of that, which was kind of scary, and had this great period of feeling really good. I wrote a lot of music, gained weight and was feeling really good. In June, I was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia, septic shock and near death. I slipped into a coma for seven weeks, and when I got out I had to relearn to do everything.
I had one of my vocal chords paralyzed when they put a tube in my throat to keep me breathing. So now I can talk, but I can't sing (functionally singingnot in public). It took a long time for my hands to feel the way that they used to feel. I went through periods where my hands were swollen, achy or felt weak. I wasn't particularly coordinated but they say that after a trauma like that, the large muscles come back first and the smaller muscles and fine motor coordination comes last. A year from coming out of the coma, I consider that I am back to normal.
AAJ: Does being sick define in any way your identity artistic or otherwise?
FH: It is kind of too early to tell. I have been living with this cloud of HIV over my head since '86 or '87 when I just started to be a band leader. For many years, I always thought whatever project I was making was going to be my last one. Then I had a couple of hospitalizations at various times.
I think that there will be things that come out of this experience whether or not I end up using it as the basis for some compositions or something, but I am sure it is going to find expression somewhere. People have said that my playing is different than it was before, but I can't really be the judge.
AAJ: You've said that your album, Fred Hersch Plays Jobim (Sunnyside, 2009) is a good album, but not the essential one for a new listener to your work. If you had to recommend the "definitive" Fred Hersch album what comes to mind?
That's tough. I think one of the live solo albums like Live at the Bimhuis or Let Yourself Go: Live at Jordan Hall (Nonesuch, 1999). I think they tell you a lot about who I am as a musician. Something like Leaves Of Grass will tell you about who I am as a composer/conceptualist. It's so hard to pickthey are like your children.
It is not that I would say the Jobim album is not a good place to start, it's just that it is very specific. I am playing music that has a very specific theme to it. The Jobim is definitely a jazz record, but it isn't a hardcore jazz record. It is a personal tribute to somebody who I think is just incredibly great.
With all of these sort of song book projects, sometimes the hard thing is deciding which things you want to do and then finding your own personality within them. They are time consuming, and you have to dig deep. With this one, the Jobim was recorded at the same time as the Songs Without Words (Nonesuch, 2002) box set and was to be the fourth disc for that set. We decided the three discs together made better sense on many levels and we just left it at three discs. This just sat in the vault, and then Bob Hurwitz at Nonesuch just out the blue said, "Do you want to do something with this? It is just kind of sitting here." So I listened to it again and said, "Yes I would."
AAJ: Do you have any as yet unrealized dream project?
FH: Certainly there are people I would love to get a chance to play with, like Sonny Rollins. I am not sure what else to say.
I can't think of any kind of burning thing that I have to do that I haven't done.
Fred Hersch, Fred Hersch Plays Jobim (Sunnyside, 2009)
Fred Hersch Pocket Orchestra, Live at Jazz Standard (Sunnyside, 2009)
Fred Hersch, Night and the Music (Palmetto, 2007)
Nancy King, Live at Jazz Standard with Fred Hersch (MAZJAZZ, 2006)
Fred Hersch, Live at the Bimhuis (Palmetto, 2005)
Fred Hersch, Leaves of Grass (Palmetto, 2005)
Fred Hersch/Norma Winstone, Songs and Lullabies (Sunnyside, 2003)
Fred Hersch, Live at the Village Vanguard (Palmetto, 2003)
Fred Hersch, Songs without Words (Nonesuch, 2002)
Fred Hersch, Focus (Palmetto. 2000)
Fred Hersch, Let Yourself Go: Live at Jordan Hall (Nonesuch, 1999)
Fred Hersch/Bill Frisell, Songs We Know (Nonesuch, 1998)
Fred Hersch, Thirteen Ways (Palmetto, 1997)
Fred Hersch, The Duo Album (Classical Action, 1997)
Fred Hersch, Thelonious: Fred Hersch Plays Monk (Nonesuch, 1997)
Fred Hersch, Plays Rodgers & Hammerstein (Nonesuch, 1996)
Fred Hersch, Passion Flower (Nonesuch, 1996)
Fred Hersch, Plays Billy Strayhorn (Nonesuch, 1995)
Fred Hersch, I Never Told You: Fred Hersch Plays Johnny Mandel (Varese Sarabande, 1994)
Fred Hersch, The Fred Hersch Trio Plays (Chesky, 1994)
Fred Hersch, Forward Motion (Chesky, 1991)
Fred Hersch, Evanessence: A Tribute to Bill Evans (Evidence, 1990)
Fred Hersch, Heartsongs (Sunnyside,1989)
Fred Hersch, Sarabande (Sunnyside, 1986)
Fred Hersch, Horizons (Concord Jazz, 1984)