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Fred Hersch: Alive... And Kicking

Fred Hersch: Alive... And Kicking

Courtesy Major Z


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You have to want to have a sound. It's not just the notes. It's what's behind them: the placement, the dynamics, the feeling, and the story you're trying to tell.
—Fred Hersch
Few musicians have shaped jazz with such elegant, instinctive, and intimate variations as Fred Hersch. Constantly. Over four decades, life's ups and downs have not stopped him from coming back, time and again, to performing live. No word other than "alive" can be more suitable for the pianist, and it is no coincidence that he chose it to title his album Alive at the Village Vanguard (Palmetto Records, 2023), where he creates special chemistry with vocalist Esperanza Spalding. This live recording not only captures their dazzling interplay at the storied club, but also proves the pianist's assertiveness in creating truly captivating improvisations, within the tradition. As with previous duet projects with vocalists Norma Winstone and Janis Siegel, or instrumentalists Enrico Rava, Julian Lage and Bill Frisell, Alive at the Village Vanguard again displays his hallmarks of sensitivity and innovation. As Spalding says, Hersch "takes his devotion to the music as serious as life and death."

Working relentlessly in 2023, Hersch continues to craft his artistic identities as a composer, bandleader, soloist and collaborator. A new live, solo piano album will be released on ECM Records in 2024. For the pianist, 2023 has also been a year of heavy touring, beginning with a 20-date tour across the United States to showcase his inspiring duets with Spalding. After the ensuing solo and trio European tours, , Asia was added to his summer schedule, a leg that included stops in Singapore, Seoul, Beijing / Aranya, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Seven years have elapsed since Hersch last set foot on mainland China. In October 2016, he performed with his long-standing trio at Blue Note Beijing (Blue Note Jazz Club's first branch in China). A month previously, the downtown club had just been put into operation. That was Hersch's first time on the mainland, and for the two nights of concerts, he was joined by Johannes Weidenmueller on double bass, and Eric McPherson on drums. In August 2023, he revisited the country, being among the first international jazz musicians to do so following China's lifting of international travel restrictions post-pandemic.

Before his solo concert at JZ Club, Shanghai, the 68-year-old pianist lifted the lid on his unique journey to self-discovery, from his early life before his first solo debut to the recent and upcoming live recordings.

All About Jazz: You often play ballads. Why do you find ballads attractive? What does "ballad" mean to you?

Fred Hersch: I love melody. I love words. When I play a standard ballad, I try to consider the words. I hear the words when I play the melody to bring more feeling to it. To me, ballads aren't about showing off. It's a moment in a concert or on a recording to create some stillness. Almost always in a concert, I play a ballad at the end, and then I finish with something by Thelonious Monk. That's been my tradition for the last 20 years or so. I feel like the whole set leads up to that ballad. Like I said, I don't feel like showing off or being flashy. It's just presenting a tune that means something to me that I want to share with the audience. 

AAJ: Does it sometimes bother you when people link you with the word "ballad"? A word that usually has very little to do with "sophistication."

FH: It has everything to do with sophistication and emotion. I'll just say that many of the more "macho" players were ballad masters: Miles Davis played beautiful ballads. Lester Young, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Bill Evans... I mean, they all played ballads. So, you know, I don't think it has anything to do with macho or not macho. I think you have to have the confidence to play something direct and simple. And I don't think it's a bad thing. Sometimes some of the music I hear now is kind of exhausting. It's just too much information. It's just too much. And nothing to take away, because it doesn't stick. But then you play something, like some beautiful ballad, whether it's something I wrote or something else, you know, that is memorable. So that's kind of what it's about for me, sharing that emotional moment with the audience.

AAJ: That's touching because I still remember that once in an interview, you mentioned that you didn't believe that a musician could play anything very sophisticated before the age of thirty-five.

FH: Yeah, I mean, I didn't make a record of my own till I was thirty. so now kids in high school are doing it. So, different times. There are certainly young players around with enough wisdom for ballad playing, but they may be the exception.

AAJ: But you started very early.

FH: Yeah, but I had been a sideman on a lot of albums before I made my first one.

AAJ: How do you describe your piano sound? How did you find your distinctive sound?

FH: Well, I can listen to recordings, like even my first recording that I did thirty-eight years ago. And I hear the beginnings of my sound, at least my sensibility. I've had two major interruptions in my career. Lockdown---the pandemic. Also, when I was very sick and in a coma for a couple of months. So, when I came back, my physical relationship with the piano was a little different. Also, when you get older, those really fast-twitch muscles, they slow down a little bit. So, I leave all the loud and fast stuff to the younger players!

But in terms of sound, I think to get an actual sound and touch on an instrument, whatever it is, you have to really care about it. You have to want to have a sound. It's not just the notes. It's what's behind them: the placement, the dynamics, the feeling, and the story you're trying to tell. It's all part of somebody's sound.

And of course, playing a solo concert is maybe a little closer to a classical music piano concert. So, I try to use the whole piano and cover a wide dynamic range. And there are some things that I take from classical music sensibility, from all the great composers who wrote for the piano. There are a million. Bach, Scriabin, Revel, Brahms, you know, on and on and on. But I also take a lot from Monk, Ahmad Jamal, Herbie Hancock, Paul Bley, and so many other players too. It's all in my musical soup along with all the moments as a sideman playing with the masters of the music.

And in terms of my own style, most people don't say, "Okay, I'm going to make this my style." I think style happens when you find things that interest you, and then you just keep doing them. The more you do them, the more they become yours, and then the more people associate them with you. But I try not to be a prisoner of my style.

I have a new record coming out next year, a solo album for ECM that I did with Manfred Eicher. He is a great producer, and I'm really stretching out a lot on open improvisation. I think it's another step in my musical evolution. So, I always want to keep moving forward. 

AAJ: It's a certain type of sound that the "ECM sound" tries to deliver, including the piano sound. For example, apparently, there are additional reverbs. Will you be bothered by that certain type of sound preferences?

FH: No. We recorded in a beautiful auditorium in Lugano, Switzerland. It's kind of that ECM sound, but Eicher was also very good at getting my sound. I think it's a blend, not just tons of reverbs. I think you can hear me in there. He's a great producer. The sound is of a great piano in a superb concert hall, just like a classical piano album is recorded.

AAJ: Earlier, you mentioned your use of the piano's wide range. And I remember that you have also drawn a lot of inspiration from Ahmad Jamal's trio records, especially on the upper two octaves.

FH: Yeah, he just opened that window to me about how to use the upper end of the piano. He does it very clear. It's very clear and almost bell-like. It's singing up there. You can also do percussive things up there, which I do, too. But most bebop pianists or post-bop pianists didn't really go up there.

AAJ: They just stay in the middle.

FH: Right. And some people dismissed him as, you know, cocktail music, but I think he was great. I'm sorry that he just passed away not long ago. But he's been an influence.

AAJ: In 1994, you released a live record at the Maybeck Recital Hall. Do you still remember that night?

FH: It was a Sunday afternoon. That was my first solo album. Now, maybe I've done twelve more or something. It was also in front of an audience, basically, no second takes, just that's what it was.

And I was talking to young colleagues over dinners that I released Breath By Breath, a year or two ago, with a string quartet and a trio. I think that's the last album I want to make when I play using headphones. I want to record either live in front of an audience or, in a beautiful auditorium with nobody there. I want to record in a space. I just can't do the headphone thing anymore.

AAJ: Why is that?

FH: I just get self-conscious. I try too hard. I judge myself. I'm not happy. It's like being a film actor versus stage acting, you know? I'm more of a stage actor. So that's why this ECM record, or Maybeck record, with an audience, or without an audience... It was about the space. The Maybeck Recital Hall has a perfect, little fifty-seat wooden recital hall. And it has a special vibe like the Village Vanguard has special acoustics. So, when I make a record there, I wanted to sound like you're sitting in the club, not just it could be anywhere. I want to honor the space.

AAJ: In the Ethan Iverson interview, you mentioned you had done four-part writing and counterpoint, written in various styles, and so on when you were very young. Could you explain some of the styles you were referring to? 

FH: That was when I was a child, starting when I was about eight to eleven or twelve. I had private lessons, in all those things. So, by the time I was eleven or twelve, I did what a freshman or sophomore would do at a conservatory. And that's the only composition I've ever studied in my life. I've never studied composition since. I was kind of self-taught. But I got the toolkit for how Western music works really early. So, I was very lucky. That was a great thing my parents did for me.

AAJ: So the "various styles" refer to...  

FH: Stravinsky, Brahms, Mozart, all those classical styles. I wasn't listening to jazz yet so my improvisations sounded like music by European classical composers: Mozart, Bach, Brahms, etc.

AAJ: Your counterpoint sounds so natural even while you are improvising. How did you develop your sense of counterpoint?

FH: I just kept doing it! It was fun, you know? I mean, I really can't say... Like I mentioned earlier, it was interesting to me, and I just kept doing it, because it was fun. And also because the piano is the only instrument that can really do that. Guitar... maybe a tiny bit, but not like the piano. So yeah, why not honor the piano by doing some of the things that it can do that nothing else can do? You know, we can't bend a note, but we can play multiple voices simultaneously.

AAJ: Is there a popular song that you have been asked to play or reinterpret over and over again until it becomes bland and uninteresting for you?

FH: The songs that I play all the time—I still love to play them. There are three, four, or five encores that I play quite often. Every time I sit down to play them, I enjoy them. I don't feel trapped. And you might think that it sounds the same tonight and that it will also sound the same tomorrow night if I play on both nights. But to me, there are always subtle differences, such as little details, things that I'm changing... which keep it interesting.

AAJ: So you never had that Bill Evans' "Waltz for Debby" sort of moment? Like, when you have to play those several certain songs that are on the top of your repertoire too many times, 85% of what you do ends up the same and gets you jaded, with the rest 15% left to be the wiggle room where you feel like trying out something new and different?

FH: Well, you know, Bill Evans had his periods when he was really great and periods where he was not as good for personal and other reasons. But I think the only thing I might have in common with him is that we tend to find a way into a song that's pretty consistent. But then, what happens after that is up for grabs. So certainly, the way that he worked with his trio was very polished. And I have a certain degree of "polish," in the way that I present compositions. But once that's done, it's really whatever happens. So, I don't know what percentage is improvised or not. But when I am playing, after the melody is over, I do feel like I am really making up everything that comes after.

AAJ: Still, you have built a remarkable career on your emotionally rich sound. Among all top-tier jazz pianists in our day, you are one of the few who stay away from electronics: keyboard devices, technology, sound effects, sidemen, genres and styles, and so on. I have learned that you even write music on paper and you have written full scores by hand, without software. Is it all unintentional or is it supported by a particular belief about the musical process?

FH: I had a dabbling in the 1980s playing keyboards, because everybody was playing keyboards. I played the DX7 and that kind of stuff, because it was expected. But I never loved it. And I wasn't good at the technology. I'm not a very left-brain guy. I'm not a very "techie" person. But the most important thing about writing with pencils is that you have an eraser! If you are too fast to put it into the notation program, it looks very nice, but it's hard to change it. If it exists on paper, you can keep changing it until you feel like you're absolutely happy with it.

AAJ: Simple as it is. But that's not what most musicians are doing nowadays.

FH: No. Well, for some larger-format pieces, I write on paper, then I have somebody put it into the computer---if I'm writing classical piano music, and then I can edit it. Once they put it all in there, I can put phrase markings and correct notes, or do some basic things---nothing too fancy, but enough to catch mistakes and things like that. Or my copyist and I do a Zoom call and figure it out together. But everything starts with the pencil, yeah? And I only use one kind of pencil. I'm very specific about the pencil that I use. It's called Blackwing Palomino. That's the best pencil in the world for sure! Their slogan is "Half the pressure, twice the speed"!

AAJ: By the way, your attitude towards music criticism has drawn my attention. In 2018 interview with All About Jazz' Victor L. Schermer, you mentioned that you would actually order albums and check them out according to DownBeat and JazzTimes' positive reviews. How long have you been subscribing to jazz magazines?

FH: Jazz magazines? Wow, I don't know. I guess I've been getting DownBeat for a long time. Forty years or something. I don't get any of the other ones. I used to get JazzTimes for a while, but not anymore for some reason—I have cut down on magazine subscriptions in general. I mainly just look at them to see who has a new album out, something I might want to check out. Sometimes there's an interview with somebody that's interesting, but usually, it takes 10 minutes to look through it. In the old days, you could be out in the clubs and you'd hear from people directly what they were doing. You could go to Tower Records, you could go through all the bins, or ask the floor staff for recommendations, and find what was new. But now that culture is gone. I also want to support it. I want to have a subscription and pay for it. 

AAJ: What's your take on music criticism, especially in our time?

FH: Well, I think jazz writers, most of them write a lot because they love jazz and they want to support the music. But also, you don't really have to have any qualifications to be a critic. You don't have to be able to read music. Nobody says you have to know this or that. So when I see a review, and I don't recognize the name, it could be just somebody, you know, they were given $50 to and are told, "Write about this!" And maybe their opinions don't mean as much as I would think from a more established writer. So, between musicians and critics, there is always love and hate.

AAJ: Is there anything else that you would like to share with us?

FH: Well, I'm going to be 68 in a couple of months. This year for me has been maybe the busiest year of my life. Really, as a bandleader, soloist, and collaborator. My health is good, and my energy is good. But I hate to travel. Especially the summer has been a nightmare!

AAJ: In Shanghai?

FH: Europe, everywhere. It's been a nightmare—I even lost my passport in Rome and had my luggage lost in Serbia. But I am sure as of right now I'm going to keep playing. The only reason I would ever stop playing is if travel really became absolutely impossible, or if I felt like I was not giving a good concert. If I couldn't get up there, and deliver a concert that I would feel good about, if my skills start to go away, or I get bored, or... then I would probably stop. But I see no reason to stop. And I want to keep moving forward as much as I can.

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