In conversation with fred hersch
During the decade-and-a-half before 2008, pianist Fred Hersch's documented musical production was second to none in the jazz world. His pace slowed in 2008, however, and at year's end, he sent a harrowing letter to his wide circle of friends explaining why. The missive described an "extraordinary, challenging, and scary year," in which he had been comatose or semi-comatose for a total of eight weeks, suffered a seven-week bout of "full-blown AIDS dementia," lost his voice, and, to cap it off, spent a week in the hospital with pneumonia and a gall bladder infection. In summary, Hersch wanted to reassure the jazz community that he was ending 2008 in 'much better shape' than he had been, and hoped to "put all of this behind me."
In mid-April, Hersch demonstrated the great strides he had made towards achieving that stated aspiration with a five-night run at Manhattan's Jazz Standard. The gig featured a new ensemble, the Pocket Orchestra, featuring Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Jo Lawry on vocals, Richie Barshay on percussion, and, of course, Hersch on piano. The group performed the ten originals that comprise Hersch's latest release, The Fred Hersch Pocket Orchestra Live at Jazz Standard on Sunnyside. That both his speaking and musical voices are back in play was evident throughout our conversation, held the afternoon after closing night.
On a purely aesthetic level, let's talk about the dynamics that led to this new body of music.
I've had a trio since the mid '80s, and of course, I've done a lot of solo concerts that have been sort of a specialty. I have a Trio+2 as well. I had performed in England with Kenny Wheeler, Norma Winstone, and a percussionist, Paul Clarvis, about eight years ago. The band was called 4 In Perspective. (I never liked the name, but it wasn't mine.) This band [the Pocket Orchestra] allows me to play solo, since I'm the orchestra and I'm responsible for the texture. I can build things, or I can take it dynamically or texturally anywhere I want, but I also have the fun of playing with Richie Barshay as a duo most of the time, so I'm not totally out there alone.
The other thing is that my catalog as a composer of jazz or jazz-related material has grown considerably, and this particular configuration—with Jo Lawry being able to sing lyrics superbly and also is a great improviser and a good team player (unlike many singers)—it enables me to do songs that are almost contemporary art songs that I've done with different poets. [It] allows me to do a lot of my tunes that Norma Winstone added lyrics to, and it also gives Jo a chance to be a member of the ensemble in a wordless way. Ralph Alessi is incredibly quick and creative and intelligent and challenging. For the run at the Standard, he was not available, so we had Avishai Cohen, who fit right in—wonderful player, great vibe; he really got into it. Then, Richie Barshay—who is sort of a new person for me to play with—is one of those rare people who really can play a drum set and also Brazilian percussion, African percussion in a very authentic way.
I've been writing some new pieces. The CD is largely things that I have recorded before, in different contexts. Some are first recordings. There's one piece called 'Free Flying' that's new. That's a dedication to Egberto Gismonti. 'Valentine' I've recorded ('A Wish,' it's known as) with Norma, with words. Jo re-records that. 'Light Years' is a setting of a poem by Mary Jo Salter. She and I collaborated on a song cycle about photography that we never finished. So this piece is about light and memory, and it's half-spoken, half-sung. So to be able to present that alongside something like 'Stuttering' or 'Lee's Dream,' which is really jazzy, or also things that are very Brazilian-sounding or African-sounding ... I couldn't do that in a normal configuration with a bass player. On the other hand, other than one Monk cover, this band does my compositions exclusively. When I play with the trio, I play Monk, Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter—those are the big three for me—and I play my own music and the odd standard.
I got CDs of a recording of my first gig as a leader at the Village Vanguard with a trio of Tom Rainey and Drew Gress in about '97, and it was very interesting to look at the play list. There were very few originals, mostly standards and rearranged standards and other jazz composers.
At the time, hadn't you just recorded a date for Chesky where you did one tune by each of ten composers?
The kind of jazz composer hit list. No, that was probably around 1993. At that point, I was recording with Nonesuch, which was my label from 1996 to 2001. But it's interesting how my confidence in my own music has grown. I enjoy playing standards and I enjoy playing Monk tunes and everything else like that. But I feel like an evening of my own stuff, there's enough things that are accessible, enough things that are challenging, hopefully enough things that are memorable, that I don't feel compelled to prop it up with totally familiar things.
You now have more than two-dozen recordings as a leader cited on your website, and another dozen or fifteen as a co-leader. Did you first record as a leader back in 1984 or so?
Yes. The first one was for Concord Jazz. It was called Horizons.
And you had been recording as a sideman on Concord dates with Art Farmer and ... well, Joe Henderson didn't record for Concord.
No. It's one of my great regrets that I never recorded with Joe. But I did two with Art for Concord and two for Soul Note. I played with Joe off-and-on for ten years, and we never recorded—because Joe wasn't recording then. I mean, nobody was recording then, hardly. The Blue Note record label was basically defunct—it hadn't restarted yet. Verve was also not restarted. Columbia was just getting into Wynton, into the putting money into jazz thing. So people didn't have 'record deals,' other than Miles or Stan Getz, people like that. The climate is, of course, very different now. We went through that period where every kid with a nice haircut was getting a 'record deal.' Fortunately, for the most part, we've gotten past that, although there's certainly some of that going on.
I didn't make a record on my own until I was 30. I had a lot of seasoning, playing as a sideman in the studio and on the road. From people like Art Farmer, I learned about programming a set. His book was unusual. It contained a lot of interesting and obscure tunes, and the way he put a set together. He encouraged me to write. He recorded my first compositions. So I've really been through a lot of apprenticeship. Sam Jones was a very important apprenticeship, just in terms of how to play time, and how to rhythmically connect, and how to be patient as a player. He was tremendous. I never really recorded with him, which is also a shame. But the young players I hear and have taught ... I taught Brad Mehldau, I taught Ethan Iverson, I've taught a lot of the young and not-so-young players, like Bruce Barth and Rachel Z ... It's very hard to tell when somebody is very young, obviously, where they're going to go.
I look at, say, the career of Joe Lovano as more of a model for me. His was just a general snowball, until all of a sudden, it was the year of Joe Lovano—whatever year that was. The Grammy, the cover of Downbeat, the artist of the year. Everybody looked around, the dust cleared, and there was Joe Lovano. I'm not sure if that will happen to me. It may, if I hang out on the planet long enough, which I plan to do. But I can say without being an egomaniac that what I do is distinctly different than what anybody else does. Nobody would be putting out this kind of music but me. I think I have a defined style as a leader-composer-conceptualist. I don't think anybody would have done Leaves of Grass, or that it would sound like that. This new Jobim album that's coming out in August on Sunnyside, which was actually recorded for Nonesuch in 2001, and it was to be the fourth disc of the three-disc set, Songs Without Words ... I'm glad that it's coming out now on Sunnyside. If I was a young player, this would not be the first statement I would make, but I think it's a very nice addition to my catalog.
I was wondering when you'd recorded it, because the technique and playing is on such a high level, and you've been ill over the last year.
Yes, but I'll tell you. The Pocket Orchestra CD was recorded last May. That was before my big bout of physical illness. I was suffering from dementia early in 2008, and that took me off the grid for a couple of months. The AIDS virus basically attacked my brain, and I was pretty psychotic. But when I went in the hospital with pneumonia, I was essentially in a coma for two months, and when I got out, I had to learn how to walk, how to swallow (I had to have throat surgery, because they paralyzed one of my vocal cords when they stuck a tube in my neck), and I've had to learn how to play again. But I feel that I'm really playing pretty much at full strength, and many people have commented that I actually have more energy and more focus now. Sometimes you go through a trauma, and all of that ... having to lie in a hospital bed for weeks at a time, or having to endure various medical insults .... They say the shit either kills you or makes you stronger, and I think in this case it made me stronger.
Well, let's go right there. In the new film, Let Yourself Go: The Lives of Fred Hersch, you address your health and existential condition full-on. You say you were diagnosed in '86.
Which coincides with your first recording as a leader.
So it would seem that this full-on confrontation with your mortality, with all the existential ramifications entailed, has been part and parcel of your documented career as a musician/composer/leader—of your musical maturity, we could say.
You could sort of look at it that I've had this cloud hanging over me for a long time. Fortunately, until 2008, which was a year from medical hell, I'd been basically able to do anything I wanted to do. Certainly, there have been times that I've been very rundown. I've been hospitalized for minor ailments, and I've had various difficulties in terms of just day-to-day quality of life, some due to side effects of medication, other things. But I feel the worst of it is behind me, and I'm in better health now than I've been in many years—according to my blood numbers, my weight is stable. I have projects to look forward to. Things are really good right now.
Well, it's a very healthy way to lead your life.
Sure. I always like to look to the next thing. I'm already looking ahead to the summer. I have trio concerts and Trio+2 concerts in Europe. I have a duo concert with Norma Winstone in Europe. I'll start teaching seven times a semester at New England Conservatory, starting in the fall, going up by train, spending the night, then coming back. That's something I really enjoy doing.
The movie is intelligently structured. I like the idea of having the main content, and then modules which delve into the different 'lives' more thoroughly. I thought we could frame the discussion around each of the modules. I'd like to start with 'Hersch The Jazz Musician and Composer,' which is very nicely treated. Let's recapitulate the path by which you went from ... I don't know if you'd call yourself a child prodigy or not, but from a child in Cincinnati who was studying classical music and so forth—certainly someone who recognized as having a gift—into someone who became obsessed with applying that gift towards jazz expression.
Who knows whether I'd consider myself a real prodigy or not. But I do know that when I got out of school and arrived in New York at age 21, there were not tons of music schools turning out schooled jazz players.
Although you had gone to New England Conservatory, and there was a cohort of students there who were interested in jazz.
Oh, sure. Now they call them jazz 'programs.' It was the Jazz Department, and it was there because Gunther Schuller believed that jazz should be treated equally with every other kind of music—ethnomusicology and classical music. So he put together a faculty with Jaki Byard, George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, various other people. I predominantly went there to study with Jaki, I ended up studying with him and with a classical piano teacher, and playing in a bunch of different ensembles, and getting lots of great experience. So when I came here to New York, I was ... Now there are kids, a dime a dozen, who play great, who have all this knowledge, who have already composed a lot of music. But I was a rarity then, and especially since I knew a lot of tunes. Being around Cincinnati, I really learned tons of tunes. You had to.
When did you start playing publicly or professionally in Cincinnati?
When I was 18 or 19.
On summer vacations.
I started school at Grinnell College as a freshman at age 17 ...
Where Herbie Hancock and Gary Giddins matriculated.
I know. I hardly knew who Herbie Hancock was, let alone that he'd gone there. I did have one Miles Davis album, Miles Smiles, which I bought chiefly because I liked the cover, but even to this day there's stuff on that album that I can't figure out. I only lasted a semester there, and so, when I was 18, I moved back to Cincinnati, took an apartment, went to the conservatory to appease my parents, although my heart wasn't in it, and I started hanging out in clubs, playing my first gigs, and getting tough love from the older players. Back then, nobody read charts or had arrangements or had fake books. It was just like, 'Ok, let's play this. What do you want to play? Let's play that.' So it was kind of sink-or-swim.
There was a great used record store, Mole's Record Exchange, and I still have dozens and dozens of LPs from there that I bought for 2 or 3 bucks. Basically, I took all my money and kept buying sides. There were a couple of older (I say older; maybe five years older) jazz musicians, one of whom is on the New York scene—Barry Ries, who is a trumpet player and drummer. I knew him as a drummer. He was roommate with a bass player named Bob Bodley, who ended living in New York and playing with Art Farmer. Now he's passed away. They were sort of older brothers. Each of them were married, they had this great house, they had tons of record collections, they had great weed. So basically, I just hung out with them as much as I could. They were very generous. We'd spend all night listening to sides and getting high—it was fabulous.
That was '73, '74, '75 ...
Sure. It's the peak. Then I realized at a certain point that if I didn't get out of there, I was never going to get out of there. I wanted more. So Boston was a really great halfway stop. I got used to public transportation, what it's like to live in a big city on my own. I got an incredible education at NEC, and made some lifelong musical friends, mostly Michael Moore, with whom I still play, and Marty Ehrlich, who's a buddy, and Jerome Harris, who's a buddy. I was there at the same time as Anthony Coleman, but we didn't have too much to do with each other. So it was a really great bunch of players, and everybody shared everything with everybody else. It wasn't like a jazz program where you have to take all this Jazz 101 stuff. You were just sort of allowed to partake of the conservatory in whatever way we chose.
I read an interview on the Web where someone was trying to discuss influences, and you were reluctant to go there. But let me try. During these years in Cincinnati, were you patterning yourself after one or two people, or trying on different hats at different points, then picking and choosing? How did vocabulary accrue for you?
I didn't have a jazz teacher. So I just kind of checked out everybody. Herbie, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Earl Hines, Erroll Garner, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Keith, Chick, McCoy Tyner, Bud Powell, Teddy Wilson. What I would do—it sounds kind of stupid now, but maybe not—is I would get into one particular player for a while, listen to a bunch of their stuff, and then, when I played, I would try to channel them. I might play a tune that I'd heard them play, or that I had on a recording. I was just trying to think the way they thought, that's all. In the case of pianists who have a great sound, I'd say Ahmad Jamal has had a profound influence on me, just in terms of here's a guy with an incredible touch. Those early trio records ... just the sound that he got was remarkable. Sometimes people would pass through town. I met McCoy Tyner, spent an afternoon with him. There was a jazz club in Dayton that brought people in. I saw everybody from Sun Ra to Teddy Wilson to Bill Evans. There was a local kind of ghetto lounge called the Viking Lounge, and there I saw a lot of great organists—Shirley Scott, Jack McDuff. I actually saw McCoy with Azar Lawrence and Billy Hart. I saw Yusef Lateef with Kenny Barron. So there was enough going on.
There was still the urban circuit.
Yeah, there was still an urban circuit. Like I said, the older musicians were very good with me. I was probably a pain in the ass, but there weren't that many young kids wanting to join the club, and they seemed to realize that I had a gift, and encouraged me to get my time together. That's when I first began the tiny little process of trying to arrange things ....
There weren't really any singers to work with. That came later, and that's also become kind of a specialty, collaborating with all kinds of vocalists. Frankly, when I got to New York, I got a lot of calls from singers and learned how to do that. Working with singers, in terms of creating an environment for them to do their thing, is very interesting. Also with singers, you learn a lot of tunes that you're not going to learn if you're playing with just horn players. You play in odd keys. Things like that. So it's good training. I recommend to all my young pianists that they get a chance to do that.
Can you pinpoint why jazz was appealing to you?
I can tell you exactly. I liked the environment. I liked the club environment. I liked the socializing. I liked the fact that I was spending time with people my parents definitely did not approve of. The pianist Ed Moss. There was a bass player named Alex Cirin, who called himself the Dancing Bear. I just thought that was cool. Cal Collins, a great guitar player, who started recording for Concord and playing with Benny Goodman. He was what I called 'swang with a twang.' So I loved the social milieu. I loved the fact that it was music played with people, in front of people. Playing classical music alone is obviously solitary, and I prefer to play with people and in front of people. Not that I don't play a lot of solo concerts. But that appealed to me.
Also, I was freed from the tyranny of some sort of imagined technical standard. You must play the Chopin Etudes, all of them. You must learn this-or-that concerto. I improvised, though, from the time ... I was composing in third grade, so I was always an improviser. In high school I used to kind of improvise on James Taylor tunes or Joni Mitchell tunes or Motown tunes, play them by ear, kind of my own way. I used to improvise stuff that sounded like classical music, because that's what was in the house, for the most part, other than show tunes or cast albums. So the combination of the scene and the fact that I ... of course, I worked at my jazz playing, but I was doing it for me. I wasn't doing it to win a competition or get into a Masters program or give recitals. That didn't intrigue me. I think fundamentally I'm not that disciplined. I'm not a big practicer now. I've gone through periods where I have been. But at this point, I feel if my hands are working right and I'm engaged in what I'm playing, something will happen, and it will be fine.
So you got to New York in '77.
June 1, 1977.
Right after school ends, here you come.
Like, one week later.
Did you set yourself up? You had a place?
Yes. I had a loft on 11th Street between University and Broadway, conveniently around the corner from Bradley's.
That's how you found Bradley's.
Well, I would have found Bradley's anyway, if I lived in the Bronx. But it was very convenient, and I was there many nights a week.
Let's go into a little detail on these Bradley's years. Do you remember your first night there?
Yes, I do. I actually had come down from Boston, and I read about it in the New Yorker, the little 'Goings On About Town' thing, so I went. The upright piano was still there. Paul Desmond had not yet willed his piano to Bradley's. Peggy Stern was playing with George Mraz, and frankly, no disrespect to Peggy, I thought, 'Hey, I can get a gig in here; she doesn't play that much better or worse than me.' So I started hanging out incessantly. Jimmy Rowles was very kind to me, taught me by example, and showed me some great tunes and let me sit in now and then, and sometimes on a Sunday night he would be too hung over to make it, so I'd go in and play with Major Holley or Bob Cranshaw or whoever it was. But basically, I approached getting a gig in there very tactically.
By hanging, sitting in. I sat in once, and played with Red Mitchell, and Red was the one who said to Bradley Cunningham, 'Really, you should give the kid a gig.' At that time, there were no young players playing there. I was maybe 22. So I had either the good fortune or good karma to hire Sam Jones, and from that second set of playing with Sam, we were just hooked up til the day he died. Sam recommended me to Art Farmer. Through Art Farmer, I met Joe Henderson. So-on and so-forth. Once you worked at Bradley's, you could work at the Knickerbocker, one thing or another. Of course, it was a great showcase, because every musician in town would come by late for a drink. They'd hear you play. You were kind of on people's minds. So I started to get a lot of sideman work. I was definitely a regular. I spent many early mornings in there. There was a lot of bad behavior of all kinds, but it was all pretty harmless. Once again, it was the scene. It was just interesting to me. At a certain point, when everybody is drunk or high or both, it's like I'm talking to Tommy Flanagan, and I forget that he's fucking genius. He's just this really nice guy who's drunk and hanging out. It's kind of the common denominator ...
It melts away.
It melts away. I met Roland Hanna there. He was very encouraging; he encouraged me to develop my solo piano playing. Joanne Brackeen. I played in there with Buster Williams, with Ron Carter, with Charlie Haden, with George Mraz.
Was there a Bradley's style? Was it the sum total of the people who played there?
It was funny. The first set was the dinner set, so I wasn't supposed to play Wayne Shorter tunes or Billy Strayhorn tunes. We had to play what Bradley called 'fifty-dollar tunes'—Cole Porter, Harold Arlen—for the people eating dinner in the back. Then as the night grew on, it turned more and more into a jazz club as the kitchen closed down. It was hard work. You played four sets a night, six nights in a row. That's 24 sets in a week. Of course, the pressure was the greatest on the last set, when every musician and their mother was hanging out there. You'd look down the bar, and, oh, there's Art Blakey, and there's George Coleman, Joni Mitchell is in the corner with Don Alias ...
Sam Jones very nicely took me aside one night when Mingus was wheeled into the club (Bradley had suggested he come down and hear me), and I freaked out. It was like God was in the house. I flipped. I cut the set short, and barricaded myself in the office. Sam came back there and he said, 'Look, all these people that come in here, nothing you do or I do is going to blow them away. They've heard it all. So think about this. This guy came out of his house in a wheelchair to hear you. Go and talk to him. And moreover, just do what you do. Don't worry about who's who and whether or not you're being judged. Just do what you do with all your heart. Some people are going to like it, and some people won't. Not everyone is going to come up to you and say, 'Hey, man, you sound great,' partly because they might be insecure, or they might feel you're taking their job, or they might just not like you because you're white. Who knows. But don't take it personally if you don't get a lot of juice from these people. Just be a nice guy and play your ass off, and that's all you can do.'
As you mentioned, you were a white musician involved in a predominantly black scene, and although Bradley's kept an integrated booking policy, race was impossible to avoid. It could be said that you were operating as an outsider on two levels, first as a white musician, and then also, as a gay musician who probably had a parallel life.
Definitely. By the time I was working at Bradley's, I had a lover. I had moved into this loft. I've been here thirty years, since June 1979. I was living with my first lover, and I had another life. You're absolutely right about that. There was certainly a tension between one life and the other life. That was probably more of a tension than being white. I felt very accepted by the older black musicians. I mean, a couple gave me an attitude, that was ok. Look, once Sam Jones gave me his stamp of approval, I was totally cool. I was in within that kind of scene. A lot of the music that I play today sounds recognizably like jazz. A lot of it doesn't. But at that time, I was playing jazz with a capital J. I had not started composing much yet. But I was learning tons of tunes, with sometimes Tommy Flanagan or Kirk Lightsey showing me changes to this or that Billy Strayhorn tune. It was like grad school. It was fabulous.
So I spent most of my twenties, up until '85-'86, serving apprenticeships. I did all kinds of crazy stuff. I worked in the Catskills. I played private parties. I accompanied singers of dubious merit. I took odd arranging jobs. I didn't do anything that was horrifying, but ... That's another thing about young musicians. They get right out of school and they think they're going to get a record deal and be a jazz star. When I was living in Cincinnati I went on the road with a Mexican family circus. I wore a sombrero and a poncho. All of these crazy things that I've done for money and just to do them, and to stay busy, I don't really regret any of them. Certainly, when I play at the Village Vanguard or Zankel Hall or whatever, I'm fully cognizant of and grateful for what I have now—not that I haven't worked my ass off to get to where I am both musically and on a business level. Those experiences helped form me.
In '86, you do your first recording, and in the '90s you begin to record prolifically.
I can give you the basic chronology. I did Horizons. Then my second CD, which I sold to Sunnyside with me and Joey Baron and Charlie Haden, called Sarabande. I recorded a duo album with Jane Ira Bloom for JMT. Then my third trio album for Sunnyside with my then-trio with Mike Formanek and Jeff Hirschfield. I recorded a Bill Evans tribute CD [Evanessence] somewhere in there. Then I got signed to Chesky. I did three discs for them, got my first Grammy nomination. Then I floated for a year or two, got a Grammy nomination for a solo disc of Johnny Mandel tunes [I Never Told You: Fred Hersch Plays Johnny Mandel]. Then I signed with Nonesuch in 1996, and I was quite prolific. I did six projects in five years for them, including a three-disc box set and a duo with Bill Frisell [Songs We Know]. Then with Palmetto I did also six discs in five years. Now with Sunnyside it will be two discs this year.
The Nonesuch projects seemed primarily devoted to repertoire, and the Palmetto dates more devoted to original music. I'd like to talk about the way you address repertoire. I recall reviewing one of your Nonesuch records, and I wrote that it seemed each interpretation seemed akin to performance art, that you had a distinct point of view on each song.
Well, I've done Bill Evans, Johnny Mandel, Cole Porter, Jobim, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Monk, Strayhorn. I don't think it's any less creative to play great material by somebody else. It doesn't have to be an 'original' piece. Although when you write something, you bring a certain something to it. To me, I'd like to study whoever's work I'm about to record, go through lots and lots of tunes, and find the ones that speak to me, and then find my way in. Sometimes it's through the lyric, sometimes it's through the harmony, sometimes it's by an arrangement that I do, taking a faster tune and slowing it down, or changing the meter, or putting it in another key—so that it resonates with me. I don't feel that I'm in any way compromising when I do that.
I do think that Bob Hurwitz's vision for me at Nonesuch was repertoire-driven. He was not interested in recording my trio. He just said, 'We don't really make jazz records here.' At that time, that was true ... unless you call Bill Frisell a jazz musician, which he is sometimes and isn't sometimes. I mean, he is, but ...
Well, it's Bill Frisell music.
Exactly. So when I got to Palmetto, we started with the trio, Live at the Vanguard. It was a new trio with Nasheet Waits, and it really took off. I hadn't done kind of a more meaty, muscular, get-on-into-it disc in a long time, and I was ready for that. Matt Balitsaris at Palmetto has been tremendously supportive, even taking a chance on Leaves of Grass, which for a small label was a very big project, [and] which actually did very, very well. But he's always believed in: What do you want to do? Let's see if we can make it happen. My projects for him have varied. There's been the [Fred Hersch] Trio, Trio+2, Leaves of Grass, In Amsterdam: Live at the Bimhuis, which got me an Instrumental Composition Grammy nomination for 'Valentine'—that made me very happy. So I have a pretty diverse catalog from Palmetto.
Likewise, Francois Zalacain at Sunnyside is very supportive, and we have a long history. Not only did I do those two trio albums for him, but I did duos with Norma Winstone and Jay Clayton. Also, MaxJazz did the duo with Nancy King.
At this point, is there a difference between playing repertoire and original music for you?
I'd say there's not that much difference. In each case, I want to be responsible to the composer, whether it's me or Monk. I want to play his music from the inside, the best way I know how and in my own way. So I don't think there's any substantial difference. The main thing is that whatever I'm playing, I just need to be connected to it. Sometimes it can be just 'jazzy' more than others. But I like a lot of different kinds of music. I grew up heavily with Joni Mitchell and James Taylor and that kind of singer-songwriter music that was so incredibly great in the late '60s and early '70s, and the beginnings of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye and Motown. All that music really formed me, in addition to my lifelong study and appreciation of classical music.
And all of those flavors certainly come forth on this new Pocket Orchestra record. It's an interesting vehicle to bring forth all the food groups that comprise your tonal personality.
Right. But the thing I'm most proud of is that, yes, there are all these different kinds of music, but I think they live together well. There's a through line, so that it doesn't sound like a pu-pu platter …. But I think it shows really the range of this kind of ensemble, which I am very pleased about.
You've had working trios, trios you've kept fairly busy for quite a while.
Busy is relative. But there have been four, basically. The first was Marc Johnson and Joey Baron—we didn't work very much, but that was the first one. There was Mike Formanek and Jeff Hirschfield, when I was first starting to tour as a leader. Then there was Drew Gress and Tom Rainey for quite some time, and then Drew Gress and Nasheet. John Hebert has been stepping in for Drew a lot of the time, because Drew is insanely busy.
Your trios are very interactive. There seem to be feedback loops going on all the time, tridirectional playing—very independent. Can you speak to what you're looking for from your musical partners, not just vocabulary, but the intersection of personalities?
Well, if we're just talking about trio, which I think is a good thing to talk about, the first thing I look for, especially with a bassist, is the sound—the sound they get from their instrument. Of course, where they place the beat. Also, I don't want to play with musicians who would look down their nose at playing a slow version of 'Mood Indigo.' I don't want to play with players who think it all has to be in seven and a science project. I want people who are bringing their wisdom and experience to whatever kind of music I choose to play, and, whatever it is, really playing that. I also look in a bass player for whether or not they've done their homework in terms of harmonic understanding, and I need somebody who really understands my phrasing. The drummer … I look for a sound, and also quick response. Of course, where they place the beat is very important. Nasheet and Tom are certainly very different drummers. At the time I made the switch, I felt that I wanted to go in a really different direction. That was important to me. Nasheet has a great grasp of the tradition and is a very strong stylist. Drew is completely remarkable. He's a first-rate composer and really a great jazz bass player, I think among the very best, and he's got a fantastic sound. John has a good sound, too.
The other thing that is important to me with everybody I play with is who they are as people. When you're on the road with people, and eating meals with them, and schlepping them around and having to deal with their emails and the schedules... I need people who responsive, responsible, and nice to be with. It's really nice when you can feel that your personal attraction is continued on the bandstand, instead of it just being the gig, so there's a flow between the bandstand and the personal relationship.
Are you looking for them to surprise you on the bandstand?
Absolutely. I do love to be surprised. That doesn't mean I want things to be trampled on. I want them to play whatever I choose to play from as deep a place as I am. That requires maturity and depth. With horn players, it's the same. I want players who are going to really connect and take it somewhere. There are certain trios that are working a lot right now, and some are very manicured and some are very loose. I feel like I fall somewhere in the middle. I think I have definitely leanings toward the left, but I also love to play melody. I don't mind playing a ballad or a standard or a cover.
Another major component of your activity is solo performance. Perhaps your solo recordings are the most consequential source of your reputation in the broader musical market.
You did a Maybeck …
That was my first solo album.
But I don't think you were really thinking of yourself as a solo pianist then. Though I guess playing all that duo at Bradley's would have been excellent preparation.
I've done a lot of work in duos. But I played my first formal concert up at Saratoga for what was called the Kool Festival, around '82. So I've been doing it a little while. The Maybeck think I still feel is a very good album. Frankly, I think it's one of the best in the series. That certainly encouraged me to go further in. Particularly Nonesuch's support of my solo playing ramped that up.
Do you see solo playing as an exploratory medium? Are you subject to different influences in your solo playing?
Certainly. That's definitely true. I still pretty much operate within the world of tunes or song, song forms. Most of my music is song form or tune form; that is, it repeats, with variations. And I am comfortable with that, with theme-and-variations. So in solo concerts, I do tunes, or pieces. When I play with a trio, I obviously have two people to react to, and I also have the audience. When I play solo, since I need something to react to, and audiences are unreliable, I'm more attuned to the acoustics of what I'm playing and the particular sonority of the piano, and sonority and sound is something I've worked hard for. People say they know me very much by my sound, the way I get a tone out of the piano.
That's something I work on a lot with students. Pianists are often very intent on pushing the levers down and playing very fast, without really thinking about how to use sound as a tool—that it's not just slick harmonies and lots of stuff. People who taught me about sound were people like Jimmy Rowles, who got an incredible sound. Ahmad, as I mentioned. Certainly, in my early days, comparing the sound of Keith and Chick and McCoy and Herbie. They all had the different eighth note, a different attack, a different rhythmic sense. So I encourage young musicians to really study their eighth notes, just like a drummer would study Ed Blackwell's cymbal beat, versus Billy Higgins', versus Jack DeJohnette's, versus Tony Williams'. The eighth note and the sound is our signature. I can spot Tommy Flanagan pretty much nine times out of ten because of the way he plays his eighth note. I can almost always spot the big guys, and I can also usually spot Brad Mehldau, and a lot of piano players, just by the way they play eighth notes. That's something to which I've devoted a lot of time and thought.
And with solo piano, just building up sound and creating a soundscape is really for me what it's about. I'd never consider myself a chops player in the traditional sense. I don't play burning single-note lines. But I have a technique that enables me to play the piano perhaps more like a drum set or an orchestra with lots of things going on rhythmically and harmonically, and moving parts, and kind of complex things that might seem even, hopefully, more ... I hate to use the word 'amazing'... that people who know would understand more. I'm not like your flashy, put-me-on-a-jazz-festival-stage kind of piano player, even though I do that sometimes.
On his website, Do the Math, Ethan Iverson gave you and Christopher O'Reilly, who you play piano duos with, a quiz, and one question was about your favorite rhythmic feel. You just mentioned Higgins, Blackwell, DeJohnette, Williams—but to that question you responded Stevie Wonder, Peter Gabriel, and a Brazilian thing as the rhythmic feels you like the most. Not a jazz feel.
When it comes down to it, I like music that makes me want to move. Sometimes jazz music does that. Sometimes it's cerebral. With Earth, Wind & Fire or Peter Gabriel or great Brazilian music, it makes me want to get up and dance. In other cultures, music is very natural and a part of everyday life, and of course, there are professionals, but there are a lot more amateurs in the true sense of lovers of music. Here and in the West, if you have talent, you go to music school, you do this-and-that-and-the-other. But I think that rhythm is sometimes not emphasized.
Sophia Rosoff's genius as a teacher is that everything is about rhythm, and when you're looking at a piece of classical music, you outline it and find the basic underlying rhythms and then fill in the details. Well, that's what jazz musicians are doing with chord symbols. That's an outline. A melody and a chord symbol is an outline. So we're outlining it and filling in more and more detail. I've used the analogy that what I do, or what jazz improvisation is, is if you take the analogy of a tune being like a glass mixing bowl, you can put rocks into it, take out the rocks, put a goldfish into it, take out the goldfish, put in jello, take out the jello—but the container stays the same size and it's transparent, but it's solid. That's what tunes are to me.
My love of non-jazz rhythm might have surprised a lot of people. I could have said Miles Davis' Live at the Blackhawk, Wynton Kelly—that's pretty slammin' rhythm-wise. Or Sonny Rollins' Alfie or Night at the Village Vanguard ...
Four to the floor.
I recommend every piano student of mine buy Sonny Rollins' Night at the Village Vanguard and Way Out West. That's jazz improvisation at its highest level, in my opinion, when you're dealing with tunes.
There's also your art music—the music you perform on Thirteen Ways, or your duos with Norma Winstone, or what Jo Lawry does on Pocket Orchestra. It's very much coming out of cabaret traditions and lieder, modern classical music with voice. It surely places you firmly as a contributor to what used to be called Third Stream.
First of all, to me, music is music, and each set of words that I work with, if I'm patient enough, it will tell me what to do with them. Like, 'Light Years,' for instance, ended up being half-spoken and half-sung, just because I lived with the words and that seemed like the best way to express them. The same thing with 'Leaves of Grass.' It took me months and months to whittle down 'Leaves of Grass' into a manageable text.
You've described the process. You typed them all out, put them on the floor, and cut and shuffled them.
Right. Once I had that, I wrote the music very quickly. 'Cabaret' is kind of a dirty word, especially for a gay jazz musician. Look, I've worked with some of the great 'cabaret' singers—Sylvia Syms and people like that.
Did you work the gay circuit at all in the '70s and '80s?
No, and I never sang. So I didn't do the cocktail bar thing. I never needed to. I think it's possible that I decided not to sing just so I wouldn't end up as a typical gay ...
Gay pianist as opposed to pianist who is gay.
Right. But I feel the same as with my classical music. My album Concert Music 2001-2006 is through-composed piano pieces, virtuosic piano pieces that I don't play, and a piano/violin/cello trio. At this point, it's kind of what I call Fred Music. You talked about Bill Frisell Music. This is Fred Music. I'm not competing with Stravinsky or John Adams. I'm writing from my heart and what I think, and hopefully with good technique and craft and taste. I don't feel any pressure. Likewise, when I write songs, I don't feel any pressure. I'm not trying to be the next Stephen Sondheim. There's a part of me that figures, 'Oh, I should write a musical.' That's something I haven't done yet. But it's not strong enough. I wouldn't say no to it if I had a great collaborator and a great set of words. I've been to some recent Broadway musicals, and they're frankly crap, and I think if that's the level, I could certainly do better than that.
In the education module of the film, you're shot with a piano student, and you say something very interesting, which I'll paraphrase, to the effect that even though you might wish that you were operating at a certain place, you have address with exactly where you are at the moment. You're not there, you're here, and you have to deal with that reality. It seems that this could equally well be extrapolated to your philosophy of life outside of music.
Is that remark in some way emblematic of a philosophy of jazz?
I believe so. When I teach, I use a lot of tennis analogies. Like, if you're in the back of the court and you've hit the ball, and the opponent drop-shots you right over the net, you can't say, 'Hey, stop, can you hit it to me.' You have to be prepared to get there. You can't wish you were there, because your opponent is trying to hit it away from you. Jazz and tennis are both reactive things, and a tennis player can't think two shots ahead. You can think maybe one shot ahead. But if you start thinking about the score and you're up 5-2 in the third set, then you lose. A match can turn around in no time. One sloppy game, and the guy gets back into the set against you.
With jazz, I don't play stuff that I've figured out in advance, for the most part. Particularly for young players …. Look, it's basic Buddhism. Being in the moment; this is the only moment you have. For instance, when you're playing, if you get all wrapped up in what you played two phrases ago that sucked, then you're not able to concentrate on playing what you're playing now. So according to Thich Nhat Hanh, who is my favorite Buddhism guy, a Vietnamese Buddhist priest, he says, basically the only hope you have for a better future is taking care of the present and doing things mindfully and whole-heartedly, and when you're playing … if I'm way up here, well, yeah, I can move down here, but is that necessarily the best choice? Where my hands are, I try to just … well, like a chess match. You want to move your pieces in some logical way. Maybe that's not the best analogy.
Well, in chess you are thinking three or five or eight moves ahead.
That's true. It's easiest for me to compose when I have a framework. In the case of 'Leaves of Grass,' the words were the framework. Or if I say to myself, 'Gee, I need to write a ballad,' I make myself an assignment, and whether I write it that day or the next day or the next week, my subconscious is thinking ballad. I just plant the seed. Then when the opportunity is right, something will come out. It may not be great, but something will come out. Jazz is very much in the moment, and when I'm playing with the level of players that I play with, who are so alert and present, that's even more incentive for me not to get wrapped up in my own shit, for all of us …. To me, the greatest thing in jazz music is for all of us to be kind of spontaneously composing together, to take something somewhere and take the audience with us. That's like the pinnacle. If my batting average is even .300, I'm thrilled.
Within the film, you reveal yourself full-on in a way that I've never seen in a documentary about a jazz musician. Why did you decide to be so open about the nitty-gritty of what you've been going through? This is different than coming-out.
Yes, I came out in a big way in '93. A big, big way—about having HIV and being gay. I think at this point, I feel like to be open and honest is the best thing for me psychologically, and it's also something that other people might find hopeful or inspiring, to say, 'Yes, I deal with this every day,' 'No, it's not a death sentence,' 'Yes, I take a shitload of medications every day,' 'Yes, I have side effects,' 'Yes, I've had a terrible year of health problems'—having to completely rebuild my body. I think it would be dishonest of me not to talk about things.
The filmmaker, Katja Duregger, is a gay woman who is a jazz writer and documentary filmmaker, and she sent me an email that said, 'I've really been following your music; I know you're gay; I would like to make a story about you and your music and your health.' I said, 'Yes,' and then we started. I think, if anything, the film, to me, focuses a bit too heavily on my health. I don't think it presents as wide a variety of my music as I would probably like. Part of it was due to rights clearances—it's very expensive to have Monk or Vernon Duke or whatever on a DVD. They couldn't afford it.
That's why it's all original music.
Right. The other thing that I think would have been helpful would be to have had an Ethan [Iverson] or a Brad [Mehldau] as a voice to plant me in the jazz world. Not just my engineer and my piano teacher, but somebody from the jazz world—maybe a critic, maybe a musician, maybe somebody I taught—to assess my position in the jazz world. I'm probably not destined to be everybody's critics' poll winner, although stranger things have happened. But I think—and I thought as I was lying in rehab, unable to walk or eat, with a tube coming out of my stomach, very dark times—I thought, 'Well, if this is how it's going to be for the rest of my life, I don't think I really want to live at all.' But even more, I thought, 'Well, if I never play again'—and that seemed a very real possibility, either for mental reasons or physical reasons—I thought, 'Well, I think I've made an impact' … as a player, as a composer, as a teacher, as a role model in some ways. I think I've made an impact. At least I felt good about that. Of course, now that I'm back at it, I want to keep doing even more and more. I don't think I'm being egotistical in saying that. There are a lot of amazing musicians on the planet, and I pay all due respect to them. But I think I have a certain thing that's mine.
You were mentioning that the Fred Hersch moment might arrive, as it did for Joe Lovano. If health reasons inhibit your touring, it might hinder that level of recognition. But it seems to me that you've attained a very privileged position over the last 10-15 years. You have a lot of records, you're able to do what you want, and to anyone who's aware of jazz, your name is quite recognizable.
Ironically, for years and years (I think I said this in the film), I just wanted to be heard, to be sure that if I hopped off, I wouldn't be forgotten, that I'd left something behind. So every record I was doing was my last record …
Because of AIDS.
Yes. I think I've achieved that now. Now that I care less and less, actually more things are coming to me. I'm the subject of a very large Times Magazine article that David Hajdu is doing, which is four pages and a gigantic picture. More and more, I'm playing at the big festivals. I think when the dust settles, if I live long enough into my sixties, I become sort of an old master, and I think I have more than enough opportunities. I don't want to be a road rat, but I don't have, for some reason, the high-powered management behind me that a Joe Lovano does or a Brad Mehldau does or a Bill Frisell does, who would get me those high profile gigs. I work plenty, and I do lots of other things that I enjoy besides playing jazz music, so there isn't a whole lot that's lacking in my career right now.
Are there ways in which being identified as gay has been injurious to your career? What are the pros and cons, business-wise, of being out, of being a gay jazz musician?
Well, in some cases, it's an incentive for people to hire me. I'm sure people have said things behind my back that are probably not that nice. They haven't gotten back to me, so I don't know what they are. But the bottom line when you're working for a presenter of any kind is whether or not you can put the butts in the seats. They don't care who you sleep with.
And you do that?
Yeah, I'd say I do. So that's the bottom line really. If your music is good and you're easy to work with and you keep coming back with different and new interesting projects, and people show up and pay their money, then that's really all it's about. I've been doing that now for a while. So I've got to think that it's going to at least continue at this level, if not get a little better. It's a non-issue. Being gay is about as interesting as whether or not you wear glasses. It really doesn't make any difference. Now, it's not like I walk up to somebody and say, 'Hi, I'm Fred. I'm gay. I'd like to be known hopefully as a good person and a good musician who happens to be gay—and incidentally has AIDS. That's kind of how I'd like to …
And who, incidentally, is out and very forthright about it.
Right, and I consider myself an activist, and I've raised lots of money and I do benefits, and I work with organizations and do what I can.
I should also mention my partner, Scott Morgan. We've been together now for almost seven years.
A central theme in the film is your relationship with Scott.
Right. During these three months of the summer of 2008, I was literally helpless. I was in a coma for two months and rehab for a month, and he just dealt with everything so magnificently. He dealt with my two months of being completely psychotic earlier in the year, which he said was actually scarier, even though I was in no danger for my health—it's just he never knew what to expect. I was really nuts. But he's not only thoroughly competent and with a great sense of morals and decency, but to be in a relationship with somebody who I care about so deeply, who so deeply cares about me, and would do pretty much anything, is an incredible blessing. I've never had that before. He's seven years younger than I, so he's 46. To get involved with somebody who has HIV (he's HIV-negative) takes some … well, you've got to think about that, the potential of having to deal with what eventually he had to deal with. And he did not flinch once. He has just an incredible character. He's very musically astute, he has an excellent ear, and we go out to clubs a lot together. When we had our commitment ceremony, we got our picture in the New York Times Style Section like everybody else. I'm as married as I need to be. I suppose if New York City legalizes gay marriage and our accountant thinks that it would be an advantage for us to file taxes together, we'll get married. But as far as I'm concerned, I'm married, and we are protected by the City of New York Gay Rights Ordinance, and we have powers of attorney for each other. But I would also get married if I thought that my getting married would make some kind of statement. If I could somehow have an impact. If, for instance, they found that a lot of people were like me and Scott, not getting married, even though we could, I would go down to City Hall and do it, and then go out to dinner.
You seem to be very conscious of your public position. I get the sense that a good chunk of your decision to come out had to do with your sense of yourself as a role model, as well as the fact that a certain honesty is needed to play jazz, or to improvise, that …. It probably would be even harder for someone who does what you do to be closeted than for someone else.
That's a very good point. I realized early on that you cannot be honest on the bandstand and dishonest off it. It's very difficult. And the further you get into it, and the more creative you get, and the choices that you make, whether it's who you play with, or what kind of music you write, or where you play, or how you live your life, you have to be honest. As I said, that doesn't mean that I throw anything in anybody's face. But the price of being in this closet is just too heavy.
It was very heartening, actually kind of overwhelming, the concern and everything from the 'jazz community' when I was so ill last summer. Obviously, I didn't know it, because I was completely out of it. People called, people sent letters. This was not long after Dennis Irwin had passed, which was just a completely unnecessary thing—it didn't have to happen. I'm lucky that I have insurance, and that I have a great doctor, and that I stay on the case and I take my meds, and I don't do recreational drugs. So I take care of myself the best that I can.
What does the remainder of 2009 and 2010 hold? Perhaps we can tie that to the notion of thinking of the future, as a person with AIDS.
Well, I certainly think at least a year ahead. At this point, I'm 53, and all things being equal, I fully expect to be 60. The longer I stay with my medications, the larger chance there is that I'll die of something as a result of all the medications—a heart incident, or my kidneys will go out, or my liver. It's hard to know what's just aging, and what's the disease, and what's the drugs. But I have a busy summer. I'm playing Vancouver and Halifax with the trio. I'm playing Paris with the trio. At Northsea, the Trio+2. Ghent with the Trio+2. Amsterdam with the trio, and we're going to show the film, because the Bimhuis is part of it. Then a duo concert with Norma Winstone. At the end of June, I'm bringing in Nancy King for a weekend at the Kitano. In the fall, nothing is really set, but in December I'm hoping to go to Argentina and Uruguay for the first time, and then I'm supposed to be part of a big event at Disney Hall in L.A., which is Jazz and Beat Poet evening. So I may be doing some things with Kurt Elling … it will be kind of an all-star thing with Christian McBride … John Adams programmed it. It's part of their East Meets West series. Plus teaching at New England Conservatory every other week, and being a Visiting Professor at Western Michigan University twice a year.
It's a busy schedule.
It's a busy schedule, and I make a very decent living, and I have a nice, cheap apartment, and Scott and I have a lovely place out in Pennsylvania—it's good.
Ted Panken interviewed Fred Hersch on April 22, 2009