Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Hersch, Fred

Hersch, Fred, born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1955, pianist and composer, has earned a place among the foremost musicians in the world today. He is widely recognized for his ability to reinvent the standard jazz repertoire - investing time-tested classics with keen insight, fresh ideas and extraordinary technique - while steadfastly creating his own unique body of works.  Described by The New Yorker as "a poet of a pianist" and The New York Times as "a master who plays it his way," Hersch's many accomplishments include a 2003 Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship for composition, a Rockefeller Fellowship for a composition residency at the Bellagio Center in Italy, two Grammy® nominations for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance and a 2006 Grammy® nomination for Best Instrumental Composition. He has recorded more than two-dozen albums as a solo artist or bandleader and appears on over one hundred recording projects as a duo collaborator, sideman or featured soloist.

Hersch's career as a performer has been greatly enhanced by his composing activities, a vital part of nearly all of his live concerts and recordings. Hersch recently created Leaves of Grass (Palmetto Records) a large-scale setting of Walt Whitman's poetry for two voices (Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry) and an instrumental octet. The work was presented at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall in a sold-out performance in March 2005 as part of a 6-city US tour. Hersch's dance score for "Out Someplace," commissioned by the Doris Duke Foundation's Millennium Project for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, was premiered at the Kennedy Center in 1999. Hersch has also received commissions from the Gilmore Keyboard Festival, Opus 21 Ensemble, The Brooklyn Youth Chorus, The Gramercy Trio and Columbia University's Miller Theatre. His concert music is published by Edition Peters.

A player who always seeks out new challenges, Hersch's output spans a wide variety of musical settings.  A recent release, The Fred Hersch Trio + 2 (Palmetto, 2004), featured trumpeter Ralph Alessi and tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby -- in addition to Hersch's current trio members bassist Drew Gress and drummer Nasheet Waits -- and was a showcase for Hersch's diverse and provocative compositions. The trio in its various incarnations has been a hub for Hersch's activities since 1986; he says it "feels like home," a place to return time and again. The group has appeared in major clubs and festivals worldwide and recorded a total of seven albums. The New Yorker called its previous outing, Live at the Village Vanguard (Palmetto, 2003), "one of the most satisfying recordings of this superb pianist's career." The disc topped the CMJ Jazz Chart for six weeks and received the "Coup de Coeur" from the Academie Charles Cros in France.  His newest trio release (with Gress and Waits) is Night and the Music, released in May, 2007 on Palmetto.

Although Hersch thrives on the musical dialogue created with his band-mates, he also revels in the demands of solo performance. Hersch's incredible focus translates to spacious soundscapes, from the lushly orchestral to those with breathtaking simplicity.  Solo piano is an unusual specialty in jazz, and Hersch may well have more unaccompanied recordings to his credit than any other jazz pianist of his generation.  February of 2006 saw the release of Fred Hersch in Amsterdam: Live at the Bimhuis (Palmetto Records), a solo CD that features an eclectic program of Hersch at his pianistic peak. Its release led to Hersch becoming the first pianist in the 71-year history of New York's legendary Village Vanguard to play an entire week as a solo pianist. Ed Hazell, writing in Jazziz, stated that "few jazz pianists have ever struck as beguiling a balance between technique, feeling, insight and imagination...Hersch's engagement with each of these songs is so complete that he evokes the sort of secret meanings words cannot."  And the Los Angeles Times said: "There isn't a false note--technically or emotionally...a tribute to Hersch's unerring ability to play music that is as intelligent as it is touching, as virtuosic as it is swinging."  Six previous solo piano recordings include Let Yourself Go, an eclectic recital recorded live at Boston's famed Jordan Hall, and Thelonious: Fred Hersch Plays Monk, which the Washington Post declared "a landmark album."  And The New York Times says, "Mr. Hersch has honed a solo piano concept second to none in jazz."

Hersch's compositional efforts and performance collaborations speak to the gradual erasure of boundaries between jazz and classical music as art traditions. He tours with concert pianist Christopher O'Riley in a program titled "Heard Fresh: Music for Two Pianos." In the past, he has enjoyed musical partnerships with pianist Jeffrey Kahane and violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg as well as with sopranos Renee Fleming and Dawn Upshaw. In addition, Hersch has appeared as a soloist with orchestras across the U.S. and Europe including the Pittsburgh, Utah, Vermont, and Santa Rosa Symphonies; the Toronto Sinfonietta, the BBC Radio Orchestra, Hungary's Mendelssohn Chamber Orchestra, and the Sinfonietta Caracas of Venezuela.  In New York City, he has performed with both the Eos and Concordia Orchestras. 

He has acted as a passionate spokesman and fund-raiser for AIDS services and education agencies, a cause to which he is especially devoted given his own two-decade struggle with HIV. Hersch has produced and performed on four recordings for the charities Classical Action:  Performing Arts Against AIDS and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. The most recent, Two Hands/Ten Voices (Broadway Cares 2003), pairs Hersch with ten outstanding jazz, cabaret, and Broadway vocalists including Ann Hampton Callaway, Luciana Souza, Jane Monheit, Carol Sloane and longtime associate Janis Siegel of the Manhattan Transfer. Acclaimed pianists Marian McPartland, George Shearing, Bill Charlap, Benny Green and Kenny Barron donated solo performances for The Richard Rodgers Centennial Jazz Piano Album. Twelve jazz greats including Diana Krall, Joe Lovano, Jim Hall and Tommy Flanagan joined him for Fred Hersch & Friends: The Duo Album. The very first of these recordings, Last Night When We Were Young: The Ballad Album (1994) has raised over $150,000 for AIDS services and education to date.

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1955, Hersch began playing the piano when he was four years old. Much to his teacher's chagrin, a career in jazz could have been foreshadowed by the young Fred's propensity to improvise on the work of classical masters. Broadway original cast albums and his grandmother's collection of sheet music fed an early interest in the popular song. Hersch's musical journey led him to Boston's New England Conservatory, where he graduated with honors in 1977.  Heading south to New York City, Hersch quickly became one of the most in-demand pianists in town.  He worked as a soloist and in duo settings at the legendary club Bradley's. As a sideman, he appeared with such outstanding jazz artists as saxophonists Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, and Jane Ira Bloom; flugelhornist Art Farmer; harmonica wizard Toots Thielemans; vibraphonist Gary Burton; vocalists Kurt Elling, Norma Winstone and Nancy King; and bassists Sam Jones and Charlie Haden.

Hersch has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning with Dr. Billy Taylor and National Public Radio programs such as Morning Edition, Fresh Air, Studio 360, Creators at Carnegie, Prairie Home Companion, Jazz From Lincoln Center, Jazz Set, and Marian McPartland's popular Piano Jazz. In addition to his Guggenheim Fellowship, Hersch has been awarded grants from The National Endowment for the Arts and Meet the Composer, as well as four composition residencies at the prestigious MacDowell Colony. He is a five-time winner of a Gay and Lesbian American Music Award  (GLAMA) and a Manhattan Association of Cabarets Award (MAC).  He has been nominated three times for a Jazz Journalists' Association Award (in 2005 for Composer of the Year; and in 2006 for Album of the Year and Jazz Pianist of the Year).  A respected educator, Hersch was a faculty member at the New England Conservatory for ten years, and has taught at The New School Jazz Program and at The Manhattan School of Music. He has been a visiting lecturer at the Institutes for Advanced Studies at both Princeton University and Indiana University; and he is currently a visiting professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, MI.

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