Fred Hersch: Wisdom for Singers

Pianist speaks with Roseanna Vitro about rehearsals, scatting, set planning, lyric interpretation, recordings and more

Fred Hersch is a Grammy-nominated pianist and composer (he's been cited five times), who loves the company of singers. He provides support and evinces authority as he exchanges ideas with the brightest improvisers on the world stage today. I first met Fred in 1979, when I moved to New York from Houston, Texas. At that time I routinely asked musicians, “Who are the best pianists to work with?" Fred's name topped almost all the lists.

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Fred Hersch and Roseanna Vitro

Fred and I became roommates, residing in a loft a half a block from Bradley’s Jazz Club. We gigged together and recorded three albums. I learned much from him and will always treasure our time together. He is a consummate musician with high standards and expectations - for himself and for those he works with. He is a great teacher, possessing heart and intellect, a giver who openly shares his wisdom and experiences.

Roseanna Vitro: At what age did you become interested in singers? And which singers impressed you or inspired you?

Fred Hersch: Well, when you’re a kid you always have key records. I remember having some Burl Ives and Limeliters records. But my first real accompanying gig was in the 5th and 6th grade when I was a pianist with the Cincinnati All Boys Choir. You may find this amusing, as you know me pretty well, there was a song that the choir used to sing, a sea chanty, song called “Away to Rio”. After I’d been in the choir for a couple of weeks, I came up after the rehearsal on Saturday morning and said, “You know, I can play that.” So I sat and I played the accompaniment to this thing by ear, then they gave me the gig. I was about 10 or 11 and I played for this 80-voice choir. That was my first gig with singers.

In high school, it was all about singers. It was Motown, and it was James Taylor, and Joni Mitchell, and Stevie Wonder. It was rock music. And it was all about songs before I really got into jazz.

RV: So you enjoyed vocal music from an early age?

FH: I like words. I like the sound of the piano and the voice. In a classical context, when I was young I listened to lieder, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and I loved the sound of the piano and the voice. I started playing jazz professionally in Cincinnati at about the age of 19. There were a couple of local singers around, and those were the days when nobody had charts or rehearsed; you just called tunes, and you just had to know them. So I became aware of the art of accompanying in that way. There was a wonderful guitarist in Cincinnati named Cal Collins, who was a total hillbilly. We used to call him “The Swang with a Twang”. He could make any mediocre singer sound great. He just had the knack. He’s the best guitar player I think I’ve ever heard behind a singer, to this day. So I would play various gigs and singers would sit in. I learned a lot of songs. I have a big repertoire and that served me very well in my early days. I accompanied choirs. I sang in shows. I played in shows. I played in pit bands. I took pop tunes and played them by ear kind of in my own way, but it wasn’t jazz. We didn’t really listen to swing around the house.

Then I moved to Boston and went to New England Conservatory and at that time there were no jazz vocals. You know Dominique Eade has been there for years, but there weren’t any singers at the school in the mid seventies. New England was one of a handful that had any kind of jazz. Then I moved to New York. When I was attending school in Boston, I was home for Christmas break working at a club with a local drummer who was the bandleader–a guy named Dee Felice. Jackie Paris and Ann Marie Moss were coming through town the next week, and he asked if I would stick around and play with them. That was the first time I played a jazz show for singers with charts. These were long charts, and they were complicated, at fast tempos. Jackie and Ann Marie were used to playing with the best pianists. There’s a certain class of guys that are accompanying specialists like Mike Abene, Mike Renzi, and Lee Musiker. These are guys who do all the singer gigs. So Mike Abene had written some fearsome-looking charts. I was completely inexperienced.

RV: But you were a good reader, right?

FH: I was a good reader, but not that kind of reader. Knowing how to play out of time with the singer–it wasn’t that common. I was 19 years old. One night Jackie Paris got on my ass about something and was being pretty nasty. He was kind of a little guy and Dee Felice picked him up by his shirtfront and planted him on the wall and said, “Leave the kid alone.” And that was sort of the end of that.

RV: Whoa, I worked the sound for one of Jackie and Anne Marie’s concerts and I can easily imagine that scenario.

FH: So then I moved to New York shortly thereafter and I started writing charts for you and writing charts for other singers and working at Christy’s Skylight Garden. And I started doing some other singer gigs, playing occasionally with Carol Sloane.

RV: Do you recall the vocalist Roberta Baum? We all fell in love with Roberta. She used to jam at our loft before her tenure with Ornette Coleman.

FH: Roberta Baum was great. I eventually was working more with singers in the cabaret genre like Sylvia Syms and Mary Cleere Haran. But at a certain point, I realized that I did not want to become (no disrespect) Lee Musiker or Mike Renzi. I seemed to have a knack for it, but it could become sort of a trap. One could become known as a singer’s pianist, and my artistic interests are much larger than that. Even though, of course, I love it. And then as time went on, I started to develop more duo partnerships with singers: Nancy King, Jay Clayton, and Norma Winstone.

RV: In your early days when you were playing with Carole Sloane, I think that was probably the time you really learned how to play with different types of jazz singers versus horn players. For example, a vocalist might say: “please wait for me on the rubato section or I may need my note voiced in the 4 bar introduction.” Did Carol Sloane teach you some of these finer points?

FH: Well, every Sunday night Jimmy Rowles used to play at Bradley’s, and Carol was his girlfriend. Carol would come in and sit on the edge of the piano bench. Jimmy was one of the great, great accompanists, and I learned from him. I learned from hearing Tommy Flanagan and just listening.

RV: Is there specific advice you would offer to young pianists who want to be good accompanists?

FH: I think one of the most important things for young pianists to know about working with singers is that you need to develop smooth voice leading. My students might bring in a singer for a lesson or I might hear them play for a singer in a master class. I can see that they’re focused on the next hip chord change that they want to play. But they’re not taking into account what note a singer may or may not choose. I see this kind of thing all the time.

And this is true for horn players, too. I’ve played with Joe Henderson and Stan Getz, and I aimed to voice chords in a way that left them room, so that I was not in conflict with them. So for pianists, the key is to understand smooth voice leading, and not to double the melody. That’s a no-no. It’s also important to learn how to modulate your sound to get under a singer. Janis Siegel, with whom I did duos for a very long time, has a really large voice. She has a beautiful soft voice, but she can really crank it up. One of the nicest things that I’ve ever been told is when she said; “Singing with you is like being in a warm bath.” I thought, “Okay, that means I’m doing my job. I’m creating a nice orchestral pallet to support the singer.”

Another thing is that musicians─pianists, guitarists, all accompanists─need to know the melodies, chords, and the words. The great American popular songwriters wrote the words and the music so perfectly matched that the harmony colors the lyric. And they also have a certain peak in the song—classic song construction. If you look at a perfect American popular song of that era like “My Romance”, it’s built on a scale. At the middle of the second part of the song, it goes to its highest note, “Wide awake, I can make my most fantastic dreams come true,” with a great open sound and a great sentiment. And then it goes back, “My romance doesn’t need a thing but you.” It’s perfect. It’s just built on a scale. If you’re a good and sensitive accompanist, you know how to build to that point and how to color the lyrics. And because it’s diatonic, you have a lot of harmonic options.

I did teach a basic class at the New School many years ago for singers and pianists on how not to kill each other. It was very interesting.

RV: Yes! I remember our master class in 1996, “Vocalists are from Venus—Instrumentalists are from Mars”—Basic Skills in Communication. I could have written that from my experience with you in one of our first rehearsals where you jumped up from the piano and started strangling me! I was an excellent button pusher in those days.

FH: Yes, I’m afraid that did happen.

RV: Fortunately, I analyzed why that happened. I was experienced on the bandstand and I was successful, but I was not as knowledgeable as an instrumentalist about theory. The lack of knowledge can cause over-sensitivity, defensiveness, and the feeling that instrumentalists do not respect singers or understand their art. It all comes back to education. There’s a real need in jazz programs to educate the instrumentalists how to play with different types of singers as well as the singers learning their theory. This issue became a cause for me in my own teaching.

FH: I can remember one instance at the New School when a young woman brought in a chart on a standard. It was a tune that I imagined that somebody of my generation and experience would know, but maybe not a sophomore at the New School. She had a verse to the song that she wanted to sing out of tempo. It was actually not a verse that I knew, to tell you the truth. On her chart, she had just written the chords, with no melody or lyrics. She expected the student pianist to follow her as she sang out of tempo. And the pianist didn’t know where the chords moved. So I would tell singers: when you’re playing with a great accompanist, let them do their thing, but to cover your ass. It doesn’t take that much more time to write the melody on the chart instead of having just a chord chart, unless it’s like “Bye Bye Blackbird” in the key of D. It’s a standard in F, so maybe you save people the trouble and you write a chord chart in D, so they don’t have to fake it. But short of that, I think you should write melodies in. It really helps.

RV: Absolutely. I have probably 500 charts with no melodies on them from the days before notation software.

FH: Some of them written by me.

RV: Yes I have some great chord charts written by you in my book. There are many great young pianists coming through the system these days but we need ensemble classes with singers for the pianists, horn players and rhythm section players to learn how to enhance the experience.

FH: For many years I did a residency at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo and they had a very strong vocal jazz program. I think you’re finding the singers and the pianists are playing nice with each other at the better schools.

RV: Steve Zegree was a well known teacher at Western Michigan and they are known for having one of the best vocal jazz programs.

FH: Yeah, he’s now left, but he really made sure the pianists and the singers learned how to work with each other. When I would go out there, I would always give lessons to the singers. They would bring in student pianists, so I would have a chance to address how they were accompanying the singers. And I would address the singers as to how they were communicating with the pianists. At New England Conservatory, where I teach now, some of my piano students actually study half time with Dominique Eade. She is a great musician and a great coach. They are studying with her and learning from her, because they have an interest in songwriting. So I think we are seeing progress in some of the better schools.

RV: Transposition is a great skill that should be emphasized more. Ideally, the singers should have charts in their keys. But it’s rare to find a singer that has charts in B-flat and A-flat keys for horn players. Most vocalists’ keys differ by a 4th or 5th from the original instrumental key. Nancy King is the only singer I know who has developed singing tunes in the original key.

FH: Yeah, she doesn’t really care.

RV: I know. It’s fascinating to learn what makes certain artists tick. I’ve spoken to Nancy about how she developed her style; jumping octaves so seamlessly in original keys. She told me that her improvisation comes from listening, learning solos and playing the drums.

FH: I was talking about a group of pianists that are kind of singer specialists. Then there are also pianists who are very singer-averse. It’s funny. Ethan Iverson, who is a former student and very close friend, said to me once, “Wow, you and Michael Kanan are the only pianists I know who actually listen to singers for fun.” He thought it was some weird thing that you actually would put on a vocal record around the house. There are certain singers’ recordings that I think are the pinnacle of jazz singing. I take great pleasure in listening to them.

RV: Please name a couple of recordings off the top of your head that you love to play?

FH: Well, there are a lot of them. “Better Than Anything” by Irene Kral—that’s one of them. “Inside” by Betty Carter— that’s another one. Carmen McRae singing almost anything. There are some great early Shirley Horn records that I really love. What else comes to mind? All the Billie Holiday stuff, especially with Teddy Wilson. The early stuff from the 30s and early 40s with Teddy Wilson is just great, great, great!

RV: She was in really good voice in those days.

FH: Yeah, and the way Teddy played for her was just great. She just sang one chorus and it was just always off the hook great.

RV: Thanks for giving us a peek at some of your favorites. I’d like to talk about some of your duo sessions. You’ve recorded and played with Jay Clayton, Janis Siegel, Nancy King, and Renée Fleming.

FH: Janis [Siegel] of course, Nancy [King], Norma [Winstone]. Recently I played with René Marie. When I’m playing duo with a singer, I feel like I can really be myself. And this is not meant as a dis to anybody, but just going in and reading somebody’s book is something I haven’t done in years and years. It just doesn’t interest me, even if the arrangements are good. I just don’t feel like I can be myself, or be creative, or really add very much. There are probably 10 piano players that can go in and do that.

RV: So obviously you did a different sort of thing with all of these singers.

FH: Yeah, very, very different.

RV: When you recorded with Jay, what happened with that session?

FH: Well, I’ve known Jay, and she hadn’t made a record in years. I love the way that she sings standards. It’s really very personal. So I said, “Look, let’s book some time when you’re in NY. Let’s go in. Just call some tunes off the cuff, and let’s do an album.”

RV: So you were not reading. You said, “Let’s pick some standards…”

FH: We picked things we know, and did it. The same thing happened with the Nancy King album, which was sort of a found object. She didn’t know we were recording. We had never played together. It just happened. With Janis we created an original body of music, whether it was a tune by Todd Rundgren, the Beatles, Julia Fordham, or Bob Dorough. We developed a repertoire, which involved her suggesting things to me and me suggesting things to her. It was us sitting down and finding a way to do something that was personal.

With Norma, we had done a bunch of concerts with an ensemble I had in England with Kenny Wheeler and a percussionist, and she said, “I love your tunes. Can I write some lyrics?” So she wrote a few. And she wrote a few more. So I said, “Look, if you write four more, we’re gonna have an album.” So then we did “Songs and Lullabies”. And I’ve been really gratified. A lot of singers have been singing these songs. “A Wish”, has had a lot of recordings as well as our tune, “Stars.” They’re modern standards of a certain sort. I think she’s an extraordinary lyricist, and everything sings really well. There’s a knack.

RV: Yes, she is a beautiful lyricist. You can just tell when the lyrics pour smoothly out of your mouth. It just feels right. Some people have a gift.

FH: Exactly. You know, while I love getting together and just calling tunes and that sort of stuff, I also did a duo album with Renée Fleming, which was completely a kettle of fish.

RV: I know you also worked with Dawn Upshaw. Did you record with her?

FH: Yeah, we recorded a Vernon Duke album and a Rodgers and Hart album. And I’ve done some bits of things with Audra McDonald. Then I also made this Two Hands/Ten Voices album. It’s my last benefit album of four for Classical Action: Performing Arts Against Aids. I invited 10 singers to each come and sing a track. No rehearsal. What do you want to do? And that’s the kind of thing that’s just fun for me, when I don’t know what to expect. Ann Hampton Calloway sang a Carole King tune. Jessica Molaskey sang, “Skylark.” It was just things that we knew, no rehearsal, just putting it together.

RV: What direction did you take with René Marie?

FH: She sent me a couple of mp3s or charts. I sent her a few things. We got together here the day before and ran stuff down and then we did it. There were a few things that we call special material, but a lot of it was just things that we know and like to play. I think no matter what you say, with the great American popular songs (which is now of course an expanding repertoire), you can tell whether they have it or not when you sit down with a singer. It’s sort of the benchmark.

One of my beefs with contemporary singers is mushy diction. Classical singers are always going for the vowel, because that’s what carries over an orchestra. That’s what enables them to sing with that beautiful vibrato. But they don’t care so much about the consonants. But if you listen to the great jazz singers, Carmen McRae is not afraid to bite into a word and make a less-than-beautiful sound if it suits the poetry. So one thing that I do when I’m working with a younger singer is when they sing something through, I say, “Okay, now just recite the poem. Just tell the story. Then sing it out of time like you’re telling me the song.”

A pet peeve that I have is with younger singers, when they sing a tune out of time, (which we call rubato—not a great term—but that’s what we use) they do things so slowly. It’s like they’re into, “Dig my beautiful sound.” And they forget the story. And my feeling about it is, if you’re going to do it out of time, why don’t you move it on? Then when you get to the time, you can back-phrase. You can stretch. You can do whatever the hell you want, but present the story in two different ways, instead of slow and slower.

RV: Do you feel that’s because trained singers primarily work to develop the sound and beauty of their voice as opposed to learning about rhythm and a focus on telling the story?

FH: But swing rhythm was really it in the 50s, Ella Fitzgerald was on the Hit Parade. Look at Sarah Vaughan. Then you look at a really great straight-up singer like Rosemary Clooney, who is not a jazz singer, but she had really solid time. She also was fairly imaginative, given the constraints of some of the awful stuff that her producers gave her to sing. In those days, the A&R guys, the producers, would just give you a song and you had to figure it out. And you stood up in front of a band or orchestra and you got two takes. I think these days; singers are punched and auto-tuned to death.

And if you look at those great old photographs of Frank Sinatra in front of this large orchestra, you know that he pretty much had to stand up and sing it. And maybe they could do an edit, but they couldn’t do much else. And looking at just the level of sound in jazz singers, you have a big sound. There are some like you who can actually give you some sound, but a lot of them are very floaty, quiet, and agile.

RV: I’ve noticed a vocal trend recently as a judge in recent competitions, The Sarah Vaughan Vocal competition at NJPAC in Newark and The Monk vocal competition in D.C. today’s influences are not Ella, Carmen and Sarah Vaughan. They’re naturally today’s singers, Gretchen Parlato, Tierney Sutton, Kate McGarry and Gregory Porter.

FH: Yeah, Kate can throw it down.

RV: Yes, I love my fellow jazz singers on the scene today and it makes sense that our students emulate their contemporaries who they hear on the radio. I firmly believe in turning the students on to our jazz history. I’m sure you’ve noticed a parallel with instrumentalists.

FH: Well, it’s the same with guitar. Guitar did not begin with Kurt Rosenwinkel. And jazz piano did not begin with Brad Meldau. But a lot of the young players are taking that as their starting point. And no disrespect to either of them, but you’ve got to go way back in the history to really understand the tradition.

Okay, Billie Holiday said, “All I want to do is sound like Pops.” Everybody has predecessors. But in terms of looking at that kind of classic repertoire and the people who created it, it’s become a little less relevant.

I noticed when you were questioning me about scat singing, there’s a whole class of young singers who barely sing words, like Sara Serpa. There are a number of singers who are just parts of an ensemble as an instrument. I think that’s beautiful. And they have great pitch and agility. They have great time and they can read anything. And I think that’s incredible.

But for me, I’ve always viewed scat singing as sort of the icing on the cake. You know there are a handful of people who can really do it well—really, really kill it. But what I listen for in singers is how they convey the song and their general sensibility. One thing about going back to Nancy and Jay and Norma as three women roughly seventy-ish whom most jazz singers knows about but who never had huge careers─they all improvise really well and completely differently. Norma’s scatting, Jay’s scatting, and Nancy’s scatting are completely different. And it’s really an extension of how they read the lyric.

RV: Absolutely. I’m pleased to hear you say you enjoy their stylistic differences. And I do feel it is an extension of their lyric singing. These days in the school systems, many are starting with the Jamey Aebersold method of improvisation. Then we have scatting horn players like Darmon Meador, who’s improvisation is derived from their horn playing. Horn players have a specific sound and style when they scat. Whereas vocalists like Nancy King, Norma Winstone or Jay Clayton are influenced by their lyric interpretation. It’s the same with Carmen McRae. When Carmen scatted, you wouldn’t mistake her for a trumpet. She wouldn’t go “ba-bop-pa-da-bop.” And nobody quibbled about her scatting. Also Sarah Vaughn sang very much like an instrument. What do you think influenced them that set them apart from the crowd?

FH: Sarah and Carmen were both really good piano players.

RV: Good musicianship is the key. It’s a new day in vocal jazz education with improvisation books like Bob Stoloff’s Scat, Judy Niemack’s Hear It and Sing It, Michele Weir’s series of books and many more technique books are coming.

FH: No disrespect, but I think all that stuff is for the birds. I listen to a singer that I love, like Kate. She’ll sing the tune and then she’ll sing it again and improvise with the words. You do that, too.

In a way I think that’s nicer than, “Okay, start your solo at the sound of the beep and show us all your shit.” If you can take the words—sing it again with different pitches and different inflections and bring out different things—that’s jazz singing. Scat singing doesn’t define the jazz singer. There are people who can do the scat and it’s correct, but it doesn’t do shit for you. It seems like, “Okay, I studied all this stuff, and I know my altered lydian diminished scales.” But I think the best ones do it by ear. They have great ears. They have a good understanding of basic harmony. Their ears and their heart are connected.

RV: Lyric improvisation is one of my causes as a teacher. I feel it’s becoming a lost art. I make all my students improvise with the words. One thing I’ve noticed in my 15 years of teaching teens and college students; for young singers who are studying at the university or conservatory, improvising with lyrics is harder for them than scat singing. This is a technique that instrumentalists who teach singers never think about for the most part.

When a singer improvises with lyrics, they don’t lose the audience and they’re using the same key improvisational elements of rhythm and scale/chord note choices, but they have the story to play with too. It’s specifically singer territory plus it’s fun and entertaining and musical.

FH: Right. Years ago I remember going to Sweet Basil's to hear Chet Baker. This was in the late 70s, early 80s, and he was having problems with his dentures. And he couldn’t play, but he needed the money. So of course, he showed up. And for the whole night, he just scatted. If a tune had lyrics, he’d sing the lyrics. But he just scatted all night. And it was almost indistinguishable from his trumpet playing. It was still the same essence. And I think the best instrumental improvisers are scat singers at heart—a lot of them, anyway.

I know when I’m playing a song with words, (and I insist that all my students learn the words to all the songs they play), when I play a ballad, I really know the words. And it really helps me connect emotionally whether anybody else in the audience knows it or not.

It’s really essential for me to get to the core of that song to know the notes. And when I hear a pianist play a standard or a singer sing a standard, and they’re bullshitting the melody, or they don’t quite know the first ending from the second ending, or they fluff this or that, I bust ’em. I say, “Look, show some respect. The tune we’re working with is not that hard. And go back to the Cole Porter songbook and the Rodgers and Hart songbook. Don’t get it from the Real Book, because the Real Book is just a bunch of notes on a page. And there are also mistakes.”

And the other thing is that iTunes is killing the record business. But for young musicians, if you’re learning a song, you can search by the song title and download 4 different versions of that song for 99 cents a pop. Whereas in the old days you’d have to go through the record bins and find out who did it and buy the LP and all that.

RV: And we had to transcribe the lyrics off the records and still do for the be-bop songs.

FH: Right. So you can get a straight-up version, a more adventurous version, a more highly arranged version, an instrumental version to get your ideas from. But always go to the source, to the actual sheet music. You’re never going to go wrong.

RV: Okay. Are there any books, DVDs or computer programs that you highly recommend for singers or pianists that really helped you in one way or another?

FH: The only teaching books I’ve ever used in the 35 years I’ve been doing this are: The 371 Harmonized Bach Chorales, which are like the Bible of voice-leading, 4-part chorales. And for pianists for technique and being able to understand groove, I use The Charlie Parker Omni book. And that’s it. I don’t know anything about method books or Skype things. I figure that for students who want to learn all that kind of stuff, there are a million things like that out there. Or they can transcribe it.

RV: Do you have “Golden rules to help vocalists with pianists?” If there 2 or 3 things a singer should say to their pianists, what would they be?

FH: Well, try to make them feel like they’re a partner instead of an employee. Know your charts. Take an extra few seconds when you count your tempo and make sure it’s exactly where you want it. Also, learn the different ways of counting a tempo. Your count-off can be a way of communicating. You can be assertive without being harsh. Another thing is, even if the pianist gets lost, never ever turn and look at them like they’ve lost it; never make them look bad. I think if somebody did that to me, I would put them in the key of Z, like, immediately.

RV: There are many tales about singers who messed with good piano players.

FH: Well, look, mistakes happen. In developing my own repertoire of standards and the way that I play different well-known songs, transposition is really important. So something I would also say to singers is, don’t always pick your key by what’s the highest note. A lot of singers pick their tessitura by: okay, my highest note is D, the highest note in that song is F, so I need to move it down so the highest note is a D. Don’t do that. When you’re using a microphone, and especially in recording, try to pick keys that are slightly lower so that you have headroom on top, so that you’re not maxed-out. Give yourself a note or two above the top note in the song so that you can go up there if you need to.

RV: What do you feel makes for a successful and efficient rehearsal?

FH: I think it’s always good to start with a couple of things that are not that difficult to make everybody feel comfortable. Work your way into the hardest material. If you want something different than what’s being played, learn how to ask for it in a nice way. For instance, with drummers, whether it’s sticks or brushes, or whether its 2 or 4 for the bass, there are graceful ways of communicating. Saying it in ways that musicians can connect the dots themselves is good. “Okay, this starts sparse, but then by the third chorus I want it to really get rolling.” That lets the musician kind of figure it out. If they’re not giving you what you want, you can say, “Okay, I want you to do this or that.” But try to let the musicians be a part of it to the degree that you can. Realize that rehearsal time is precious, and some things really don’t need rehearsing. For instance, some easy things, you can do the intro, the head and the coda, and save your time for something that’s more complicated. Just do what I call a Reader’s Digest, and get through the essentials so there’s no train wreck. Leave it for the gig.

RV: That’s good advice. Certainly the better organized you are the shorter the rehearsal. I can rehearse a group for an hour to an hour and half in short order for a concert, especially if the musicians have checked out the mp3’s and glanced at the charts in Drop Box. Through the years I’ve heard things like, “Oh, boy. Singer’s rehearsal. She’s gonna work us for 6 hours when we could’ve done it in 3.” Of course and album is a different story.

FH: Yes. When you’re developing material for an album, that’s a different thing, because you’re saying, how about we do this, or try this—it’s more give and take. But when you’re rehearsing for a gig, you want to be sure the rehearsal is for them and not for you. So you’ve done your homework. And they’re there to learn the music. They’re not there to teach it to you. Another thing with technology is—if you can—if something is complicated, send an mp3 ahead of time. Or send a chart, a pdf. Some people are great players and not great readers.

RV: You mentioned Mary Cleere Haran.

FH: Well, she was great at patter. That was her shit. It wasn’t her singing; it was her patter.

RV: And the same with Ann Hampton-Calloway. She can tell you a little bit about what’s going on, beside the fact that she’s one of our greatest singers.

FH: Yeah, she’s kind of freaky-good, and knows how to introduce a song intelligently. There’s a new book by Ted Gioia called The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire. It’s more than 250 of the most common jazz tunes. It tells you their history, the context, what show they came from, if they’re a bebop tune, who wrote them and when. It’s good if you can say something about it instead of, “I’d like to play a great old standard called blah blah.” You don’t have to lecture people, but now and then it’s nice to know where something comes from.

RV: Okay. If you were a singer, who would you be?

FH: I would probably be a non-singer’s singer like Jimmy Rowles, or Louis Armstrong.

RV: Dave Frishberg?

FH: Yeah, he’s a good honest non-singer’s singer and great lyricist.

James Taylor still sounds good at 70. And people forget how freaky-great a singer Joni Mitchell is, just as a singer. It’s kind of amazing the way she can convey all these complicated lyrics and sentiments and you don’t have to look at the words in the record jacket. She tells the story so beautifully, and never ever an off-pitch note, no matter how complicated it is. Of course, she’s a genius as a poet and a composer. But just as a pure singer, she’s a bad-ass. People could do worse than to emulate her, in my opinion.

RV: I had a very breathy singer at Purchase College-SUNY, years ago who was great at scatting, with perfect intonation. She listened to Joni Mitchell and one day came to class and said, “I want to sing like that. Could you show me how to sing like Joni Mitchell?” The most important element for any singer is the sound of their natural instrument. Developing the instrument takes you to the next level. If you have a naturally light and airy voice, it’s probably not going to sound like Joni Mitchell anytime soon. Developing your head voice, you could build your top end. Joni really had such a very strong head voice.

FH: Yeah, but hearing her sing “Both Sides Now” 40 years later will tear you up, even though her voice is down almost 2 octaves.

RV: It certainly did tear me up. She’s a smoker. And I believe part of her range shift is due to her smoking, along with aging and gravity. A lot of the great singers did not do vocaleses to warm up. Nancy King comes to mind as a natural singer.

FH: Yeah, she just gets up and sings.

RV: Is there anything more you want to say about what a singer should aspire to do in performance? You’ve covered the importance of honoring the melody and telling the story. Is there anything else you recommend for an authentic performance?

FH: What you’re doing is you’re taking a song, and you’re saying to the audience (and it’s the same for me, as a non-singer), “Hey, check this out! This is what I think about this.” You’re communicating something. You’re not just singing “God Bless the Child” because everybody sings “God Bless the Child.” You have a point of view. Also, something that I learned from the great cabaret singers I’ve played with (particularly Sylvia Syms, who is a master), is how to construct a set so that it has a shape and so that you also manage where people solo. For me as a pianist, I’d rather have a few times in a set where I can really stretch out and play a solo, instead of playing 16 bars on every tune. That’s really frustrating. It’s really annoying. Even if you have great players, you don’t have more than one or two bass solos in a set. I know it’s nice to your band to have these great players blow. But on the other hand, you have to be responsible to the audience.

Do you know the term Eleven O’clock Song? That’s a term I learned from Sylvia. That’s the killer ballad you do before the final number that gets you off the stage. So the whole set leads to this really great moment. And then you can do something fun or technical. Then, “Thank you very much!”

So you learn how to vary your tempos, your keys, who solos on what, how to manage the band without being a dictator. Also, for heaven sake, look at the people in the audience from time to time. Like Sarah 101: the first tune, you try to make contact with everybody in the audience. That’s something the best Broadway and cabaret singers do. You can close your eyes and get into it, but acknowledge that there are people there in some way. It’s nice to include your audience.

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I would like to thank Fred for taking the time for our interview. This was great fun to reconnect with my old friend. I still have some of Fred’s handwritten charts in my book that I will always cherish. I learned a lot from Fred and I hope the singers and instrumentalists who read this article will also learn from his heart and love for vocalists and the written word.

Special thanks to Elizabeth Tomboulian, for her help and diligence in transcribing this interview and to Sarah Wickliffe for videoing and her animation in Fred’s ‘must see’ “Coma Dreams”.

For Fred’s upcoming schedule and teaching information, check out his website.

4 Comments

  • Sep 17, 2013 at 05:36AM warrenmason13

    OH, I did so enjoy Rosanna's relaxed and unhurried interview with Fred Hersch. His Nonesuch Records Passion Flower CD is one of my favourite expressions of that sad romantic's music

  • Jun 23, 2014 at 10:37AM ventg99

    Worked with Fred many years ago for a club date office in Nyack NY. I knew I was working with someone special. Fred was wonderful playing for singers. I really enjoyed the experience. I understand just what Janis Siegel said about the warm bath. it's true!

  • Jun 23, 2014 at 10:38AM ventg99

    Worked with Fred many years ago for a club date office in Nyack NY. I knew I was working with someone special. Fred was wonderful playing for singers. I really enjoyed the experience. I understand just what Janis Siegel said about the warm bath. it's true!

  • Jun 23, 2014 at 01:04PM Rebecca Kilgore

    What a terrific, informative article! Thank you!

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