Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Under The Looking Glass. Catching Up With Fred Hersch.

Good piano players are a dime a dozen. If you accept the basic premise that taste is subjective then what makes a great pianist? Entertainers can touch the heart in small increments of predetermined time. Artists touch something well past the soul and do so for a lifetime. It is that ability of inner connectivity between the artist, his or her instrument, and the ability to transfer the most honest and organic of human emotions through the manipulation of sound that separates artists from entertainers. Fred Hersch is an artist. I was fortunate to catch up with Hersch for a quick chat concerning his latest offering and music in general.

To start things off, I wanted to know something about the ability of the trio to play as such a cohesive unit on his stellar release Alive At The Vanguard. Is it as simple as musical chemistry or does it go deeper and was there any conceptualized intent with this release.

F.H. - " As with any live release (and I have done more than a few), the idea is to capture the energy and looseness that we (or I) achieve on the bandstand. I had no idea that it would be a 2- disc set or what tracks would ultimately be on the albums. I just picked the best tracks, tried to put them in two realistic sequences a you would hear in a normal set at the Vanguard and was fortunate that Palmetto was amenable to releasing both "sets." This band has a lot of respect for the jazz tradition yet is able to play more open music equally well. John and Eric think like composers and each brings a great deal of creativity and danger to every gig.

Of course there is an overwhelming comparison to the harmonics of Bill Evans, I asked if that comparison ever got old. Hersch is a master manipulator of meter for creative effect and I asked if he could expound on that as well.

F.H. - "Bill Evans was one of many influences for me. I consider Earl Hines, Monk, Jake Byrd, Paul Bley, Ahmad Jamal, Herbie and others (including Sonny Rollins, Ornette and Wayne) as just as important for various reasons. The press can be lazy - they see "white guy trio plays ballads" and they immediately go to Bill. I am much more of a two-handed pianist. I think I am a stringer solo pianist and my composing has more range. And I perform often outside the trio - something he rarely did."

Some trios come across cold and sterile with the rhythm section a mere afterthought. I asked if younger players are playing to academic and lacking some passion as compared to some more established players of the day. Are the young players lacking emotional connectivity or is it simply that taste is in fact a subjective thing.

F.H. - "I got into jazz because of people who played it and from the feeling I got listening to it. Music should move people, make them feel - as well as think. Art is more transformative than entertainment. Though of course I want the audience to enjoy themselves, at this point I have nothing to prove. Just play the music I want and let the chips fall - and if I am connected and emotionally engaged with what I am playing hopefully the crowd will be with me. My sound is a big part of that, the sound I get out of the piano, and fast and loud has never been my thing. No point in playing hip shit for 3,000 hip cats around the world - I try and reach wider without being dumb about it. And I still like song form - not many young players whose music can sound a bit like a science project!

What makes a good critic?

F.H. - "Good press is always nice! And I generally get good press. But it is more about how I feel about it at the end of the day."

Finally - With such a hectic tour schedule, how do you stay so fresh while on the road?

F.H. - " When you are on the road, the time in the evening that you are performing is usually the easiest part of the day. As Phil Woods said, " I don't get paid for playing - I get paid for traveling!" I just did 9 solo concerts in 11 days in the U.K. and surprised myself by actually enjoying hearing myself at the end of the tour. But I played at least half different music each night and each performance situation was different. With the trio, I never have to worry - they always surprise me!


I want to thank Fred Hersch for his incredibly valuable time and consideration in contributing to this piece. Taking artistry to the next level, Alive At The Vanguard is a must for any collection!