Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Fred Hersch: Songs of Himself

Fred Hersch
Fred Hersch
Nasheet Waits, Fred Hersch and Drew Gress

Late spring in lower Manhattan: twilight, taxicabs, the blab of the pave. Downstairs in the Village Vanguard, the Fred Hersch Trio tumbles into a sinuous piece dedicated, the pianist explains, to the late Joe Henderson, with whom he played in this room on many occasions. “Phantom of the Bopera” is a bright-swinging workout, and the group leans into it with abandon. Hersch seems deeply focused, his composure at the piano belying the frenzied tenor of the tune. In semidarkness, dozens of heads bob in time.

It’s hardly an extraordinary scene-the Vanguard has weathered thousands of nights like this one-but for Hersch the gig signals both an overdue reprise and a harbinger of things to come. The pianist, best known for solo interpretations of the American songbook, is introducing a new trio here, and documenting its debut. The results will comprise The Fred Hersch Trio: Live at the Village Vanguard on Palmetto at the start of the new year. And as the group tours exhaustively in spring 2003, Hersch will also oversee the release of Songs & Lullabies (Sunnyside), a selection of his songs with lyrics-and the premiere of his Leaves of Grass, an evening-length suite inspired by the poems of Walt Whitman. “I’ve got a lot of pretty interesting things coming up,” Hersch says, simply and with a satisfied air.

Given the subtle sophistication of Hersch’s recent output (six luminous albums on Nonesuch since 1995), one might be forgiven for assuming that his manner tends toward reticence and politesse. In fact, the pianist is voluble and unself-conscious. This disposition, coupled with a battery of strong opinions (on everything from the output of fellow musicians to the merits of professional tennis players) makes for ceaselessly animated, engagingly discursive conversation. But two weeks after the Vanguard run, at ease in the living room of his SoHo loft, Hersch abidingly focuses on his own career.

“When I was a little boy,” he says, “there was only classical music in the house. I would go to our little Lester baby grand and I would try to get the same sound that [Anton] Rubinstein got, or that Glenn Gould got. I couldn’t do it. And when I was 10, my parents-I spent many years in therapy over this one-bought this Baldwin piano instead of a Steinway. We certainly could have afforded a Steinway in the mid-’60s. From then on, my interest in playing classical music just sank. Because I could never get the sound that I heard.”

Sound would always remain a central component of Hersch’s musical life. (“It’s an actor and his voice,” he says definitively. “Your sound is your sound.”) Brad Mehldau, one of Hersch’s former students at the New School, heard this gospel early on. “In one of our first lessons,” Mehldau recently recalled, “we worked a little bit on sound. One of the things he hipped me to was this idea of dropping your arms on the piano and using more of the natural weight, just using gravity to get more sound out of the instrument. It was too late for me to fundamentally change my technique, so it didn’t really stick with me, a lot of that stuff. Consequently I don’t think I have that kind of rich, warmer sound that he has when he does that.”

Another protégé, Ethan Iverson, praises Hersch’s use of “different palettes for different tunes. One tune might have a certain sonority that is the character of the tune, whereas another composition might be radically different-a drier touch, a more staccato touch, a more liquid touch. You can play any popular standards you want and just the way the chords sound on the piano creates your sonic aesthetic.”

Hersch’s knowledge in this area accrued over the course of many years; it wasn’t necessarily easy for his intuitive understanding to find a technical outlet. “Learning jazz on the bandstand in Cincinnati,” he recalls, “sometimes I would literally break one or two strings a night. I had all this energy, and I didn’t know what to do with it. Then when I got to the New England Conservatory and started hanging out with a lot of different pianists-not just Jaki Byard but classical pianists who were my age-I started really thinking more consciously about sound.” Later, he developed these concepts further with the help of Sophia Rosoff, a peerless piano instructor and president of the venerable Abby Whiteside Foundation (she now teaches Iverson as well). Theory met practice even more literally during a round of apprenticeships that matched Hersch with such elders as Henderson, Woody Herman, Sam Jones, Art Farmer and Stan Getz. Then the pianist stepped out on his own. In 1984, “I made my first record as a leader at 30,” Hersch says, “which is also the year that I was diagnosed.”

Since his arrival in New York in 1977, Hersch has been openly gay-a rare acknowledgment in the jazz community, then even more so than now. And although the realization that he was HIV-positive came to the pianist as devastating news, it hardly impeded his progress as a musician or an artist. His first album, Horizons (Concord), featured bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joey Baron, and marked an auspicious debut. Its follow-up, Sarabande (Sunnyside), replaced Johnson with Charlie Haden; it still stands as one of many high-water marks of the Hersch discography. But it was in 1988, with the formation of a working band, that the pianist really hit his stride. His first trio, with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Jeff Hirshfield, recorded just once (Heartsongs on Sunnyside); his second, featuring drummer Tom Rainey and bassist Drew Gress, lasted eight productive years and played on half a dozen albums. At the same time, Hersch collaborated with such forward-leaning improvisers as saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and multireedist Michael Moore. With Moore and drummer Gerry Hemingway he formed Thirteen Ways, a collaborative unit devoted to mostly free-form improvisation. He worked in the classical realm as well, performing as a soloist in chamber settings and with orchestras both home and abroad. And he influenced a generation of players-Iverson and Mehldau included-as an instructor at the New England Conservatory and the New School.

The great constant throughout these years has been Hersch’s dual commitment to adventurousness and lyrical depth. Rather than parsing his career into opposing fields-outside/inside, traditional/avant-garde-he’s absorbed everything into a coherent whole. The notion brings to mind Whitman’s famous interjection: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Hersch’s multitudes, as it were, would include Ornette Coleman and Cole Porter, Bach and Bill Evans, Johnny Mathis and Ahmad Jamal. And this eclecticism has more to do with personal preference than any sort of ideology. “What attracted me to jazz in the first place is freedom within limits,” Hersch attests, adding that he approaches standards and free playing with the same mindset. “But I don’t like the term free,” he clarifies. “I use the term open. If you’re playing open music, you have to confront yourself. One of the things that I do when I play piano during the day is open improvisation. Sometimes I end up writing music as a result. But I also think it’s just good for me, even to try to make deliberately ugly sounds, or bang a bit. So I’m not afraid of that. But if you’re playing a tune-my tune, a Monk tune, whatever-there’s a frame. You know what you’re doing, you know what the elements are, and within that I feel very free. I like to smoosh the form, not block everything off in choruses. Tell a long story. And I like playing with guys who can do that.”

But for the past half-decade Hersch has mostly played alone, almost exclusively performing the compositions of others. He joined the eclectic roster of Nonesuch with 1996’s Passion Flower, a well-received salute to Billy Strayhorn. Subsequent albums for the label included programmatic tributes to Johnny Mandel, Richard Rodgers and Thelonious Monk. Let Yourself Go, a solo concert recorded live at Boston’s Jordan Hall, featured songbook selections rendered with exquisite freedom; Songs We Know, a duo record with guitarist Bill Frisell, gently reconstituted standards like “Yesterdays” and “It Might As Well Be Spring.”

“I’ve been thrilled being with Nonesuch,” Hersch says approvingly. “Bob Hurwitz is great. But he’s a big fan of my solo playing; that’s what he loves the most. So for the last six or seven years, solo piano’s been the hub of the wheel, and trio and quintet and other special collaborations kind of go around it.” Transition seemed afoot on 2001’s Songs Without Words, a dazzling self-portrait in three colors. While two-thirds of the package featured Hersch’s take on other composers-Cole Porter on disc two and the likes of Wayne Shorter and Benny Golson on disc three-the album’s frontispiece was a striking program of original compositions. And although most of the set consists of solo piano, Hersch included one trio performance, a handful of duets and two tantalizing numbers with a quintet. In a JazzTimes review that praised the album’s “deft balance of architectural discipline and improvisatory freedom,” critic Mark Stryker suggested, “a few more ensembles would have better balanced the set.”

I will not make poems with reference to parts, But I will make poems, songs, thoughts with reference to ensemble.

-Walt Whitman, “Starting From Paumanok”

I felt like: ‘I just want to make a jazz record,'” Hersch says of Live at the Village Vanguard, leaning into “jazz” with an almost physical emphasis. “Kind of a no-muss, no-fuss, just capture what we do. A record that’s about the playing-but also hopefully, if it all comes out right, when you put it on you really feel like you’re there. You should feel like you’re sitting two tables back, just digging the band. I love that.”

He’s seated comfortably in the living room of his apartment in SoHo-a handsomely appointed, high-ceilinged loft that has served as home for over 20 years. During the latter half of the ’80s, Hersch ran a recording studio here. What was once a drum booth is now a small office; the former control booth is a bedroom. In a sunlit corner sits a gleaming grand piano-Steinway, of course. Hersch gestures past the instrument to a window overlooking Broadway. “When I got here, there was nothing,” he shrugs. “All the stores, crowds-I hate it. Can’t stand it. But this is a great apartment; it’s rent-controlled, I can never leave.”

Recalling his week at the Vanguard, Hersch observes: “I was feeling physically off. I go through this periodically. I think I was feeling a lot of pressure. I wasn’t eating, my stomach was in a knot, I wasn’t sleeping very well. But it felt really good; I love playing in that club.” Hearing the trio in action-both in person and later, on record-it’s hard to imagine his discomfort.

Throughout the disc, Hersch plays with surefooted ebullience. His rapport with Gress and drummer Nasheet Waits is seamless and resolute, rooted in a common elasticity of time. Gress (who, coincidentally, was also ill during the gig) elaborates: “For me the most outstanding feature of Fred’s playing is his rhythmic flexibility. And I would say rhythmic daring. The thing is, I don’t think people always realize that about his playing, because it has such refined parameters in other ways that it escapes some people’s notice.”

The new trio, driven by Waits’ earthy percussive finesse, may finally bring those elements of Hersch’s playing to the fore. Which, it seems, would suit Hersch just fine. The pianist observes: “The kind of people I’ve made trio music with-certainly Drew and Nasheet qualify-they’re real improvisers. I mean, there was a lot of pressure on me, particularly years ago, to do a very safe kind of trio thing. The great American songbook. And while I love to play those songs, I just like to take chances too much. If I didn’t want to take chances, I would play classical music or just do something more controlled. I want the guys, without being bulls in a china shop, to bring their personalities to the fore. Especially as a contrast to all the solo piano work. I want to be surprised. I want to learn something.”

The album also spotlights Hersch the composer, in a way that Songs Without Words only hinted at. Six of 10 tracks are originals, ranging in tone from a buoyant “Days Gone By” to the guttural “Swamp Thang.” Given Hersch’s cultivated public persona as a songbook interpreter, the set may come as a pleasant surprise. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that no two of his songs on the record sound alike. “It’s about each piece having its own kind of world, having a character,” Hersch maintains. “Having something that it’s about. A lot of the stuff I hear today, it’s either so complicated you can’t get a grip on it, or at its worst it’s hip cats writing hip shit for other hip cats to dig, but there’s no focus to it somehow. And I realized that I love melody and I love rhythm. At heart, I love tonality; I think I have a really intense sense of harmony. So I’ve started thinking of myself more as a composer.”

His new plate of projects illustrates this point. In November Hersch played a week’s engagement at New York’s Jazz Standard, with a quintet featuring trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and a menu of original tunes. That same month saw the world premiere of Hersch’s 24 Variations on a Bach Chorale, which he describes as “a rather treacherously difficult set of variations for piano on the famous chorale from the St. Matthew Passion.” (Pianist Jeffrey Kahane debuted the piece in San Francisco; Hersch performs it himself at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall in February.) In the months afterward, Hersch will take two dramatic steps forward as a conceptualist and a writer of tunes.

The first, Songs & Lullabies (Sunnyside), finds Hersch in intimate dialogue with singer Norma Winstone. Their repertoire is a shared invention (his songs, her lyrics), lovingly performed. Winstone, an acclaimed English vocalist who has collaborated with Wheeler, Dave Holland and Ralph Towner, treats Hersch’s compositions to an agile, poetic narrative style. Her verses on “Longing” (which appears on the Vanguard sessions as “At the Close of the Day”) are a small marvel of wistful malcontent. On “Endless Stars” she works with an intuitive inner rhyme pattern, closely matching the song’s cyclical cadence. But the focus of Songs is the songs themselves; Winstone’s words, and Hersch’s fluid embellishments, only serve to highlight the strength of the source material. (As do the supporting flourishes of vibraphonist Gary Burton, on three tracks.)

Winstone also plays a central role in Leaves of Grass, Hersch’s forthcoming programmatic suite. But where Songs & Lullabies is a book of exquisite miniatures, Leaves takes shape as a sprawling survey of Whitman’s oeuvre, scored for larger ensemble and presented in multimedia format. “It’s not just going to be a setting of his words,” notes Hersch. “There’ll be visual projections, instrumental pieces, original material.” In addition to Winstone, the program will feature vocalist Kurt Elling, and an impressive octet (with trumpeter Ralph Alessi, trombonist Bruce Eidem, reedists Michael Moore and Tony Malaby, cellist Erik Friedlander, Gress and drummer John Hollenbeck). It premieres at Western Michigan University in March, before concert performances in New Jersey, Washington, D.C. and New York.

Leaves of Grass is by no means Hersch’s first display of poetic affinity; he has collaborated with lyricists in the past, and his Thirteen Ways trio borrows its name from a famous poem by Wallace Stevens. But why Whitman? “First of all,” he explains, “given what’s going on in the world, there’s something kind of important about the message of Whitman. To kind of get out there and embrace life. You read his poetry, ‘Song of Myself’ or something, and there’s this energy and excitement about, you know, an insect or a seashell or whatever it is. And, of course, the gay thing, too. Certainly he writes a lot about the love of men for each other-that kind of comradeship or whatever you call it. But I think there is something really sort of universal. He had a vision of America that I like.”

There are other, more formal reasons to adapt the Good Gray Poet to a jazz setting: his penchant for long, flowing lines, his expansive cadences, his ecstatic rhythms. “Oh, it’s completely improv,” Hersch allows. But, he hastens to add, Whitman also presents difficulties. “He gets into a lot of rhetoric. Some of the language is problematic, and it would be hard for Kurt or Norma to say or sing it convincingly. But basically I can cut and paste whatever I want, and see where it goes. I’ve been plowing through poems and making librettos and crossing things out.” The whole process, as he describes it, seems a labor of love-and a self-made challenge. He muses: “It just feels like time to try something big like this.”

Early autumn in Midtown: the vagabonds lean and loaf at their ease. Downstairs in the Jazz Standard, Fred Hersch opens with Monk’s “Bemsha Swing”-slyly substituting new chords for the old, stretching and bending the backbone of the tune. He plays to a mixed crowd of friends and aficionados, new converts and those who’ve just stumbled in. Eyes closed, head bowed, he seems fully immersed in song-on his own “Sarabande” as much as on “The Nearness of You.”

It’s a perfect moment, in a sense-whatever the material at hand, Hersch is obviously, utterly himself. At the end of the night he’ll greet admirers and friends, then emerge from the club into the night. In that instant, the projects and ambitions ahead resemble Whitman’s immense and diaphanous shadows, and the air tastes good to the palate. And Hersch’s own words come to mind: “I have a lot to look forward to. Balance is where it’s at, in terms of what I want to do.”

Listening Pleasures

György Ligeti Piano Music; Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano

Colombian Piano Music; Teresa Gomez, piano

Steve Lacy (with Don Cherry) Evidence (New Jazz/OJC)

Kenny Wheeler Music for Large and Small Ensembles (ECM)

Luciana Souza Brazilian Duos (Sunnyside)


I own an 1896 Steinway B 7-foot ebony grand; it has a Stanwood-modified Renner action. Originally Published

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).