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Let Yourself Go: The Lives of Fred Hersch

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.

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