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Let Yourself Go: The Lives of Fred Hersch


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Fred Hersch
Let Yourself Go: The Lives of Fred Hersch

Fred Hersch has grown into one of the great modern jazz pianists. He's also a master teacher and a distinctive composer. His historic week as the first musician to perform solo at the Village Vanguard in New York marked his ascension from one of many fine jazz pianists to the ranks of those few who "make a difference." He has earned a reputation as an artist and craftsman of consummate skill and creativity. His solo and trio projects have produced some of the most well-honed, listenable and meaningful CDs of recent years, and his compositions "Leaves of Grass" (based on the poems of Walt Whitman) and the beautiful "Valentine" mark him out as a fresh and innovative composer in the jazz idiom.

Hersch has also made a personal statement of some magnitude. In the 1990s, he came out as a gay man and as someone living with AIDS. He did this in the face of the long-standing "don't ask, don't tell" climate in the jazz profession, and as an act of love and service to all. In addition, through his performances and recordings, he has raised considerable funds for AIDS causes. Hersch has persisted in developing his art despite his periods of illness. It is as if the music has inspired him to live, and the difficulties of his illness have helped him to integrate his life and his music. An individual of little pretense, his presence nonetheless commands respect and admiration.

The recently released DVD, Let Yourself Go: The Lives of Fred Hersch, affords an intimate glimpse of Hersch, his music, his sexual orientation and his life with AIDS. Several "lives" refer to these various personae, but the viewer will find that the same fine individual is behind the diverse masks: Hersch comes through as himself-as-he-really-is throughout. A gentle, introspective soul, he seems to possess great honesty and compassion, and this impression is strengthened by the rapport he has with the camera crew and director, who bring us as close to him as the medium will allow. The man and the film both exemplify the Greek ideal of "koinonia," a combination of friendship and love that includes music, the human condition, students, teachers, family, community, the ardors of sensual love, the rigors of the concert stage, and the learning process within its scope.

The film is multi-dimensional and covers a wide sweep of scenarios and locales in the USA and Europe. One deep and lasting impression is of the way Hersch approaches the music and the people around him. Most importantly, he concentrates fully, almost in a meditative way, on every detail of a performance or situation. He listens, not only to what he and the group are playing, but to the sound of the piano, the ideas and feelings that are emerging within himself, and, in the film, the person who is interviewing him (whom we never see). He takes in everything that is going on, and reflects it back to us as a mirror of ourselves, who we are, and the music that is generated in our own minds. When he talks with students, he is lighthearted and constructive rather than pedagogical and dogmatic. His interest is not so much in criticizing as to bring out the best in them. When he discusses the trials and tribulations of AIDS, his personal medical concern does not so much call attention to itself as it serves to raise our awareness of other people living with AIDS, some of whom have been his friends and acquaintances. When Hersch performs at the piano, he pours himself into the music like liquid into a vessel. He becomes a channel for the expression and development of musical ideas, and he never just bangs out notes—like the great Bill Evans, he is always reaching for something fresh and new.

The DVD includes illuminating commentaries by Hersch's friends, family, lover, associates, and colleagues. The reflections of his piano teacher and mentor, Sophia Rosoff, are particularly affecting. Her brief insights are priceless, as when she says "the music is behind the notes...in between and underneath the notes. It's not on the page. Those black marks are basting stitches, and you get rid of them, and you have the whole music." About Hersch's playing, she says, "It's so lyrical, it's almost classical...Fred does the sound that he hears internally...and he has what we call a basic emotional rhythm...the emotional connection that makes (him) move in a particular way." She explains that there is an "inner playing," and that the true musician is one who can express its essence over and above technique. This idea is not new, but has rarely been expressed so clearly. When next we hear Hersch play, we hear him in a completely different way.

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."

Video filmmakers and hobbyists wishing to emulate the DVD's superb visual quality may want to note that Duregger used Sony Z1 HD (high definition) cameras throughout. But the "living presence" feeling of the film is also very likely the result of the relaxed person-to-person rapport that made the entire video work so well. Furthermore, according to Duregger, "It was a super-minority production—jazz, gay, HIV. These subjects are not of any interest for a producer who wants to make money. But today I'm happy that we did it as an independent film because I'm sure Fred would not have opened up as much as he did if I had brought in a large and costly film team. He's a very private and decent person who can easily get annoyed if people make a big fuss around him. He likes it simple, so this was the best way for both of us."

For public screenings, Duregger has applied to various film festivals, mostly gay and lesbian, in the USA and Europe. The film has been accepted for viewing at the 23rd London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival at the end of March 2009.

Production credits
Producers: Volker Gehrke and Katja Duregger

Director: Katja Duregger

Narrator: Jennifer Jones

In the USA, Let Yourself Go: The Lives of Fred Hersch is available only from www.filmbaby.com


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