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The Many Keys of Fred Hersch

The pianist gets intimate, on stage and in his latest albums

Fred at the keys. (Photo by Roberto Cifarelli)

Behind Fred Hersch there’s a view of Central Park. Billows of lush trees buffer the bright, sunny green of the Sheep Meadow, bracketed by the scaffolds of two skyscrapers-in-progress. It’s a lovely slice of New York summer. Except that it’s a few days before Christmas, and Hersch is speaking (via Zoom) from his apartment in SoHo—some 60 blocks from the Park.

“This woman I went to high school with named Susan Wides, she took this photo,” the pianist explains. “It’s like an extra window in the apartment. I have a lot of art, and 90 percent of it is people I know. Everything on the tables or on the wall has a story.” 

He holds up a wooden sculpture of a cartoonish bulldog: crazed eyes, filthy snout, tongue lolling out. “That’s like, essence of dog,” he says. “I’ve got about seven carvings by this guy.”

The symbolism of Hersch living a life surrounded by art is obvious. Still, the fact that most of it is the work of friends and acquaintances adds another layer to that symbolism. There’s already a kind of intimate exchange between an artistic creation and its consumer, which can only be amplified when one has a personal relationship with the creator.

Intimate exchange is Hersch’s own creative focus these days. Three of his four most recent releases—including his current one, Alive at the Village Vanguard, with esperanza spalding—have been either duo or solo recordings. (He’s slated to make another solo album in May for ECM Records.) The fourth, last year’s Breath by Breath, featured seven musicians but proffers an intimacy of its own: Hersch’s regular trio with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Jochen Rueckert joins the custom-built Crosby Street String Quartet for a quiet, sensitive piece of chamber music that explores Hersch’s psyche (via his meditation practice).


“Fred encourages ideas, and the beautiful thing is that he liked to be provoked.”

Breath by Breath is also the only studio album in the bunch—indeed, his only studio album in the last decade. “Everything I do is live now,” he says. “I don’t play well in the studio. I don’t like headphones; I feel self-conscious; I never feel like I can just be free and let it all rip.” Hersch is performing the music live at least three times (in Toronto; Princeton, New Jersey; and New York) in 2023. He has no intention of doing sessions again if he can help it. “I’m not into that. It’s a chore. It’s gonna be live or nothing.”

Here, again, is an example of intimate exchange, one with symmetry to Hersch’s apartment full of photos and sculptures: the exchange between artist, art, and audience.

Hersch’s love affair with duo playing began during his mid-1970s studies at New England Conservatory. Back then, making music one-on-one was less about intimacy than necessity: He couldn’t find a good rhythm section. 


“I would be practicing in the piano area, and people would walk by and I’d say ‘Come on in, let’s play a duo!’ ” he recalls. “It could be another piano player, or a sax player, a vocalist, whoever. It just began this interest in duo playing, which I still find fascinating.”

The fascination for Hersch was in discovering that limiting the personnel to two doesn’t limit the creative capacity. “I can behave as counterpoint for the duo partner,” he says. “I can behave as a big band or orchestra. I can use the entire width and breadth of the piano. Or I can just comp. I get to play solos, and some of my duo partners, when I’m playing, they accompany me. So, it’s not just duo, then solo, then duo.”

“It’s like a never-ending sea of possibilities,” says clarinetist Anat Cohen, one of Hersch’s recent collaborators. “He encourages ideas, and the beautiful thing is that he likes to be provoked. I could play one little trill, for example, and that will provoke him to take that trill off to some new world. Playing duo in general is very flexible, but with Fred, it’s so rich.”


Even after he moved to New York and began apprenticing under Billy Harper, Art Farmer, and Joe Henderson, the pianist nurtured his affection for duos. For a while he all but lived at Bradley’s, the storied Greenwich Village jazz club and musician hangout, where he could jam with New York’s great bass players. (It was through this process that the legendary Sam Jones became a mentor.) A month before he recorded his leadership debut, Hersch co-starred on a session with soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom. Later he hosted a longtime annual duo residency at New York’s late, lamented Jazz Standard and has made a dozen more duo albums, with collaborators ranging from guitarist Bill Frisell (1998’s Songs We Know), to trumpeter Enrico Rava (2022’s The Song is You), to Cohen (2018’s Live in Healdsburg) and spalding.

Hersch links the projects with Rava and spalding—his two latest partners—because of the organic way they both materialized. He and Rava were only supposed to play a handful of European concerts in 2021; the musical chemistry, Rava recalls, was both immediate and profound. “I’ve played with some beautiful piano players, but I don’t think I ever had rapport like this,” the Italian trumpeter asserts. “When I play with Fred, I feel that he’s invited me on this flying carpet, and wherever we go, we go. It’s always something unexpected, it’s always something very inspiring.”

Rava casually mentioned to ECM Records head Manfred Eicher, an associate of 50 years, that he had done some concerts with Hersch. “Even before he heard anything, he said ‘I’d like to record that,’ ” Hersch says. They had to wait for Rava to have a surgical procedure on his lung; after he’d recovered, they set up camp at a hall in Lugano, Switzerland. “Beautiful piano, these pristine ECM conditions. We’d had a rehearsal the day before, and Enrico hadn’t played with anybody in three months; he played the trumpet, and it just sounded awful. He didn’t think he could record. Then we got in the hall, he played three notes, and it was like, ‘Wow. This is gonna be great.’ And we did the record in like four hours.” 


He met spalding when the bassist-vocalist came to see Hersch at the Village Vanguard in 2018. “She just came up to me and said in a little soft voice, ‘Hi, I’m esperanza,’ and I said, ‘Yes, I know,’ ” he recalls. (spalding declined to be interviewed for this story.) “I said, ‘Would you like to play with me at the Standard?’ And so we did a weekend.” 

Enrico Rava and Fred Hersch. (Photo by Luciano Rossetti / ECM Records)

The success of the weekend at the Standard inspired Hersch to include her on his next weeklong run at the Vanguard. spalding played the last three days (Cohen played the first three); the pianist decided on the spur of the moment to record. “It all happened in a very easy manner,” he says. “It wasn’t like, ‘OK, we’re gonna make a record this week.’ It was very natural. I think those three nights are pretty off-the-hook great, so the decision was to put them on an album.”

Hersch was in considerable pain at the time, about to have a hip replacement; spalding (sans bass) was dealing with family issues. Yet the music all but bursts with joy, from their playful interaction on “Dream of Monk” to spalding making a running bit out of sneezing spectators. It’s a stunning example of intimate connections, both pianist-to-singer and artist-to-audience.

More to the point, it met Hersch’s high standards. “Fred is very picky with the sound, with the piano, with the playing; he needs to feel comfortable with a lot of elements,” Cohen says. “So, if Fred Hersch says you can put the music out, you can put it out!”


Hersch’s solo work is as prolific as his duo work, at least on record: The forthcoming recording will be his 12th on unaccompanied piano. He’s obviously comfortable in the format. However, like his early duo experiments, his most recent solo album—2020’s Songs from Home—was a question of necessity. As the title suggests, it was literally produced at Hersch’s house in the Poconos during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. He began the lockdown performing a song every Friday over Facebook Live; he soon decided to make an album on that living-room “stage.”

Thus Songs from Home became a chronicle of the times. “We were all struggling with isolation,” Hersch says, “And I wanted to just reach out to people. You put that album on, and you’re in my living room and Fred’s just doing some nice tunes for you. Maybe making you happy.”

None of its 10 tracks came from Hersch’s webcasts; there was no “live” audience for them, remote or otherwise. He nevertheless regards Songs from Home as a live album: a set of first takes, unedited (more than can be said for many “live” albums), made outside the clinical studio atmosphere with a real, albeit sequestered, audience in mind. 


Nor will there be an in-person audience for the (currently untitled) ECM album. But it will be recorded onstage in a European concert hall, just as the album with Rava was. As Hersch tells it, the fact the halls are empty is all but irrelevant.

“The pianos are fabulous, and you’re getting that love back from the acoustics,” he says. “And in the duo, I’m basically playing for Enrico and he’s playing for me. Yes, we want the audience to love it, but we’re in it for what we can create together.” Similarly, when he’s playing solo, he’s playing for himself. Yet he’s far from self-indulgent and navel-gazing: “I try to take my ego out of it. None of that ‘shredding’ stuff, or overwritten compositions that are endless and not memorable. To me, if music doesn’t have emotion, I’m usually not that interested. 

He does have a plan in place, though, to keep the situation lively and off-the-cuff. The template for it came last summer, when Hersch produced a solo album for Sullivan Fortner. The 36-year-old pianist from New Orleans is a protégé of Hersch’s, having taken private lessons from him while a student at Manhattan School of Music. 

“He asked me to just write down however many tunes I thought I might want to play,” Fortner recalls. “I called him and gave him a list of like 400 songs, he picked 30 of them, and the session was basically him calling songs from the control room. I’d play whatever he called, and we did everything in one take. We narrowed it down to nine tunes, got it mastered, and that was it.” 


Hersch proposes to do the same on his album, with Eicher calling the shots. “I’m just gonna give him a list. He might not even know what a tune sounds like because it’s a new original; for him it’s just a name on a list,” he says. “So I don’t have to think about what the next right thing is to play. He’ll say, ‘Play blah.’ And I’ll put my hands down and do it without thinking about it.” 

Mapped-out spontaneity is the jazz musician’s credo—the kind of thinking that has served Hersch well over the years. “Fred is definitely always planning things ahead of time, but he’s definitely about being in the moment too,” Fortner says. “Going with the flow, allowing things to happen, not just micromanaging everything.” 

esperanza spalding and Fred Hersch at the Jazz Standard. (Photo by Chris Drukker)

Breath by Breath, Hersch’s work for piano trio and string quartet, makes it tougher to be in the moment. The string parts are through-composed and arranged, and they aren’t mere backgrounds for Hersch’s trio. “He has a distinct melody line in his writing, and passes it around amongst all of us,” says Joyce Hammann, one of the violinists for the Crosby Street String Quartet. “Harmonically, it’s rich and very dense, and it’s very closely written, so intonation is very tricky and important. But oh my god, it’s just gorgeous writing.” 


Hersch does indeed improvise over and around the strings; however, he notes, “what I play is compositionally tied to what I wrote. And, of course, that’s why I wanted to do it live with the strings. ‘Yeah, I know I wrote that, but in the moment, how am I gonna react to it?’ That’s the fun of it.” 

If anything, he hopes to emphasize the writerly orientation of Breath by Breath, especially in live performance. “I want people to see these kinds of pieces because it’s more than just Fred-as-a-player. They’re compositionally driven. And I’m just very proud of this piece.” 

On its face, this kind of musical relationship might seem less communicative: There’s an improvising musician, but his accompanists are constrained by the written note from responding to his serendipities. But it’s not quite so static. “Rhythmically, we have to stay very, very steady,” Hammann admits. “But we can respond dynamically [i.e., through shifts in volume] to what he’s doing. If it’s not rhythmic, it’s more of long tones, then we would be responding emotionally, expressively, to what he does.” 


There’s also close communication between the string players—violinists Hammann and Laura Seaton, violist Lois Martin, cellist Jody Redhage Ferber—all of whom are otherwise improvisers. “A string quartet is like a four-way marriage,” Hammann says. “The four instruments do become one larger instrument. There has to be a certain unified heartbeat, and an understanding such that I can just look over at Lois or Laura and they know what I’m thinking. Or Jody can look over at me and do something with her head and I’ll know, OK, we’re gonna accent this next note.” 

Thus, their sensitivity to each other allows them to become a single unit, which in turn can communicate as one with Hersch: meta-intimacy. 

“I don’t play well in the studio. I never feel like I can just be free and let it all rip.” 


The idea of intimate communication is an important one for Hersch. For his tours with spalding in January and early February, he planned to do his best to extend that intimacy to the audience. “When we perform on a big stage, I came up with the idea of having an oriental carpet, a funky floor lamp, the piano and the stool, and then lighting that makes it seem intimate,” he says. “So, it’s not just two people on a big stage with a wash of big lights. We’re going to make it as much like a living room as we possibly can. 

“I’m not worried about the music or the energy being in any way compromised, whatever the venue is. It will translate.” 

That’s not to say this is Hersch’s overriding concern. He’s had plenty of large-scale ensembles (his 2019 album Begin Again teamed him with Germany’s WDR Radio Big Band) in plenty of large-scale venues. Smaller, closer, personal contexts happen to have converged in his current projects, but they don’t define him. 


“He’s very complicated,” Fortner says. “Most piano players, we’re a bunch of layered, crazy motherfuckers, and I would say that Fred has definitely a lot of layers to his personality. That makes him complicated, but it’s also what makes him interesting. And I think that’s why people are constantly drawn to him.” 


Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.