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Interviews

Fred Hersch: No Limits

By Published: September 28, 2009

Concepts, Projects and Ensembles

Fred HerschAAJ: Your oeuvre is large, diverse and includes many concept/tribute albums [Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
, Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
, Johnny Mandel
Johnny Mandel
Johnny Mandel
b.1925
arranger
]. What dictates the where and when of such an album?

FH: I have done a bunch of them: I have the new one out—the Antonio Carlos Jobim
Antonio Carlos Jobim
Antonio Carlos Jobim
1927 - 1994
piano
album, I did a Cole Porter
Cole Porter
Cole Porter
1891 - 1964
composer/conductor
, 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
Billy Strayhorn
Billy Strayhorn
1915 - 1967
piano
, 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 Nonesuch—I 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 now—other people are starting to record them, too. Norma Winstone
Norma Winstone
Norma Winstone
b.1941
vocalist
, 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 contexts—both 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.


Making History At The Village Vanguard



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?

Fred HerschFH: The previous fall I was playing there with a trio with Nasheet Waits

Nasheet Waits
Nasheet Waits
b.1971
drums
and Drew Gress
Drew Gress
Drew Gress
b.1959
bass
, 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 week—health-wise it wasn't a good week—but 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 John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
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.


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