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DVD/Video/Film Reviews

Let Yourself Go: The Lives of Fred Hersch

By Published: February 6, 2009
We travel with Hersch and witness him variously conducting a master class at Michigan State University in Kalamazoo, conversing in his loft apartment in Manhattan, walking around Greenwich Village, relaxing alone at an outdoor cafe in Amsterdam, on a train ride through Europe, and on various concert stages. Of the latter, the Bimhuis in Amsterdam is striking. A most unusual venue, it combines the intimacy of a nightclub with the seriousness of a concert hall. Hersch is a frequent performer there, and he seems almost to own the stage and the piano. The backdrop is a large window that looks out on the city. This is a place where Hersch can do his solo work with the utmost care and freedom. It would be nice if all audiences gave jazz musicians the respect and attention that Hersch receives at the Bimhuis.

The film is self-explanatory, and Jennifer Jones' narration is simple and to the point, filling viewers in on the details and bringing the scenes together in a coherent story. In addition to the main movie, an extended narrative of Hersch in multiple roles, there are several shorts, each of which takes up one or another aspect in greater depth and detail, and an information section containing images and printed files. The shorts elaborate on his approach to jazz, his life with AIDS, his role as a teacher, and offer excerpts from several of his concerts. The latter include venues in Antwerp, Kalamazoo, and Amsterdam. The DVD features original Fred Hersch compositions: "Gravity's Pull," "Endless Stars," "Valentine" and "At the Close of Day." The information section provides a few still images of musical manuscript material and written details about the DVD and its contents. The audio and video are of excellent quality throughout. However, the information files are very limited in scope, and need to be the supplemented by a visit to Hersch's website. This contains ample biographical material, a discography, and other documents and photos which will give a more complete knowledge of Hersch and his music to date.

About the making of the film

A film of this quality invites curiosity about its creation. All About Jazz contacted the director, Katja Duregger, in her home town of Cologne, Germany, and asked how she became interested in doing the project and how she knew about Hersch. "I heard Fred for the first time on the solo CD Live at Jordan Hall in 1999," says Duregger, "and was deeply touched and impressed. After that I wanted to find out more about him, because I didn't know him up until then, even though I'm a long time jazz fan and I also play piano for myself, though not professionally. After that, I followed his other releases and my adoration grew.

"I soon realized how diverse his musical output is, and I appreciated his depth, his intelligence, and his emotional clarity. All this fascinated me. I also learned that he has been HIV positive for over 20 years and one of the few openly gay musicians in the mostly macho jazz scene. I became curious and wrote him an e-mail, and asked him if he would be interested in working on a movie with me. Open and curious as he is, he immediately replied: 'Why not? Let's meet!' We first met in March 2006, and did the first shooting days together. After that we were together several times either in the US or in Europe to work on the film, and over time we've become good friends."

AAJ asked Duregger about the process and experience of working with Hersch. "It was pure pleasure," she says. "Fred is such a generous, trustful, and loving person that I never felt any difficulty in working with him. He was always supportive and patient with me, even though I know sometimes he can be harsh if things are not going in the way he wants. With me, however, he was always kind and patient. There was also never a subject about which he would say 'I don't want to talk about that.' There were no taboos. And what I also found amazing was that he trusted me with the editing process. He never said, 'I don't want this, keep that out!'

"I know from other filmmakers that artists can be quite stressing when it comes to the editing process, and even during the shooting. Fred was never like that. He gave me space and most of all he trusted me. I found that pretty remarkable. Maybe it was because I also gave him space, which means I never asked things from him that are far from who and what he really is. There was no 'producing' an image, it was always the truth, the real person, what really happened. That's what Fred is all about."

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