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Fred Hersch: No Limits

By Published: September 28, 2009

Leaves of Grass

AAJ: Leaves of Grass (2005) is an album you did for Palmetto Records which revolves around the poetry of Walt Whitman. What inspiration, if any, do you draw from art in other mediums?

Fred Hersch

FH: I am very strongly attracted to visual art, literature and poetry. Whitman has been an inspiration since I was at Grinnell. His poetry has great energy. Philosophically I really agree with where he is coming from about life, being present, and his words are often very much like jazz solos, where you kind of have to hang with him when he goes off on these tangents. But there is no poetry like rhyme scheme.

It took me quite some time to whittle down the five or six hundred pages of the final edition of Leaves Of Grass into a manageable kind of libretto. Once I did that, I wrote the piece in less than a month. I did so pretty much by talking or singing the lines and seeing if there were rhythms. I found a lot of music in the lines.

Other kinds of poetry are so musical that I think actual music would hurt it. I hope that I was able to take his words and add something to it. That was my goal.

I also had the idea of doing it with an octet and to have a female voice. I didn't want it to totally be a voice of man, as man. I wanted there to be a voice of woman to be part of it and balance it out. Even though Kurt Elling gets more airtime, Kate McGarry—her contribution is equally important.

AAJ:Leaves of Grass features vocalists Kurt Elling

Kurt Elling
Kurt Elling
and Kate McGarry
Kate McGarry
Kate McGarry

. Did you have them in mind when you wrote the work, and have you tried any of it since its recorded debut with any other vocalists?

FH: I actually had Kurt and Norma Winstone in mind, but Norma was in England which became sort of complicated. So Kate stepped in for the US tour, and for the recording and she is great. I love her singing, and she was a great choice for this project.

Outside Genres and The Self

AAJ: Aside from collaborating with your peers in the jazz world, you have also done some projects with artists from the classical world [Renee Flemming, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg]. Do you find you must get in a different mindset when working with artists from such different genres, and is there any sort of stylistic compromise, not in the pejorative sense of the word, on your part in how you will play or write during such a project?

FH: I think I have quite a long list of collaborators from the classical world. Some have been where we kind of stepped into each other's territories equally and some they have kind of come into my world more than I into theirs. Generally, classical musicians are non-improvising musicians, and for me it is to get them to try and loosen up and be more spontaneous—get away from whatever is on the page and let the imagination go as much as possible. Collaboration with any musician is different; it is always different. Every musician brings something out that's different in both of us, I hope.

Fred HerschAAJ: There is a documentary about you titled Let Yourself Go: The Lives of Fred Hersch (2009). How did the project come about?

FH: The filmmaker, Katja Duregger, is a German woman, documentary filmmaker, who also is a contributing jazz writer to some publications and she is also gay. She sent me an e-mail and said, "I love your music and find you interesting. Would you be up for doing this documentary?" I just said yes for no particular reason.

For two years, she followed me around various places in the United States and Europe and interviewed people and put together this film which is kind of interestingly done. It's a half-an-hour of what she calls the main movie and there are four modules of 15 minutes each: one on me as a musician, one on me as an educator, one on my life with HIV Aids and one module of concert footage (two trio and two solo pieces). It is a neat way to put together something instead of having just one long feature documentary.

I would say that I have some quibbles about how certain things came out. In general, I am very pleased with it. I think it's amazing that she pulled this off basically without financing and just made it happen.

AAJ: Does the "you" seen in the film still resonate with the truth of who you are now?

FH: I think during the period of filming I was dealing with a lot more health issues than I am now. I think that's different. In 2008 I had front-to-back serious, serious health challenges: being in a coma for seven weeks and being psychotic for two months, having to recall my learning of how to walk, eat, swallow, talk and play the piano again. I think when we were filming, my health was beginning to deteriorate. My health is much more stable now, but I think she captured some really good stuff.

AAJ: How important do you feel an artist's persona is in regards to enjoying or understanding their work?

FH: A lot of great composers or artist or writers were not the best of humans. They had serious issues. Who's to say how that affected their art, but what they produced is wonderful and magic and important.

I think with certain artists we have a little too much information. Somebody like Beethoven—people know too much about him, the whole mythology about him. I think the bottom line is: what's the work and what does it say to you? It doesn't matter what genre you are talking about. I think the more we know about a person, the more we read into the work instead of just appreciating it for what it is.

AAJ: You spent some of 2008 very sick, in a coma for about seven weeks. How did this affect your chops as far as loss or gaining back your artistic facilities?

FH: The timetable for 2008 is that in the fall of 2007 I got very worn down by just doing too much—touring and traveling. I was not able to keep weight on. In the middle of December my doctor pulled me off my HIV meds, hoping to give my system a break and try to gain some weight. The virus then attacked my brain and by New Year's Eve day, I had full blown dementia. So I was really completely nuts for about two months.

Somehow I came out of that, which was kind of scary, and had this great period of feeling really good. I wrote a lot of music, gained weight and was feeling really good. In June, I was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia, septic shock and near death. I slipped into a coma for seven weeks, and when I got out I had to relearn to do everything.

Fred HerschI had one of my vocal chords paralyzed when they put a tube in my throat to keep me breathing. So now I can talk, but I can't sing (functionally singing—not in public). It took a long time for my hands to feel the way that they used to feel. I went through periods where my hands were swollen, achy or felt weak. I wasn't particularly coordinated but they say that after a trauma like that, the large muscles come back first and the smaller muscles and fine motor coordination comes last. A year from coming out of the coma, I consider that I am back to normal.

AAJ: Does being sick define in any way your identity artistic or otherwise?

FH: It is kind of too early to tell. I have been living with this cloud of HIV over my head since '86 or '87 when I just started to be a band leader. For many years, I always thought whatever project I was making was going to be my last one. Then I had a couple of hospitalizations at various times.

I think that there will be things that come out of this experience whether or not I end up using it as the basis for some compositions or something, but I am sure it is going to find expression somewhere. People have said that my playing is different than it was before, but I can't really be the judge.

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