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Fred Hersch Thrives on Musical Innovation
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Friday, March 4, 2022
 

BY KAREN BOSSICK

When the COVID pandemic swept across the nation, jazz pianist Fred Hersch retreated to his second home in the woods of Pennsylvania.

Stages across the world had gone dark, but he couldn’t not stop performing for his fans. So, he put his smart phone on a stand and started playing a tune of the day on Facebook live.

“I thought, maybe, if I could make people stop or listen and feel happy for five or six minutes a day it was worth it,” he said. “Of course, after a couple months we realized the pandemic was going on much longer than we had initially thought and it began to feel like a job. So, I decided to record an album called ‘Songs from Home,’ instead.”

Hersch is no longer confined to his home in the woods. He’s back on the road on a tour that will place him at The Argyros Saturday night. The concert starts at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 5, and tickets are $20 and $30, available at https://ci.ovationtix.com/35937/performance/10943418//

“The beauty of playing solo piano is that I don’t need to plan a program. I see what I feel like when I get up there,” he said. “I usually have three different sets of material I draw from in my solo performances. One is the American popular songbook, which encompasses music by such performers as The Beatles and Joni Mitchell. Then, jazz compositions written by musicians like Thelonious Monk and Wayne Shorter. Then, of course, my own music.”

A 15-time Grammy nominee, Hersch began picking out tunes from “Huckleberry Hound” and other  cartoon shows on a Lester Baby Grand as a 4-year-old. He was writing music by third grade, his composition skills encouraged by his parents who enrolled him in private music theory courses from third to seventh grade.

By the time he was in seventh grade, he already knew what most music majors study in conservatory. He preferred playing around with his own melodies and rhythms to practicing the compositions of Beethoven and other masters.

At Grinnell College in Iowa he played in a piano, violin and cello trio and realized he loved the camaraderie of playing with others. And, when the school kicked its students out for six weeks to save on the light bills during the energy crisis of 1973 and ’74, he stumbled onto a jazz club in Cincinnati and never looked back.

“I remember buying a bunch of records that had the piece ‘Autumn Leaves’ on them. When I realized none of them played ‘Autumn Leaves’ the same way, I thought: This is music where I can be an individual,” he said.

Indeed, he has shaped the course of jazz over more than three decades as a composer, improviser, educator and recording artist. He’s been called “the most arrestingly innovative pianist in jazz over the last decade” by Vanity Fair and “A living legend” by The New Yorker.

His innovation extends to exploring different sounds in jazz music with the help of a string quartet and bouncing pencils on the strings to create different effects.

After contracting AIDS years ago, Hersch spent six weeks in a coma. He capitalized on it with a performance called “My Coma Drama.”

He Breath by Breath was a musical reflection inspired by his long-time meditation practice. It contains an eight-movement “Sati Suite”—the Pali word for mindfulness or awareness--with the first movement “Begin Again” exploring renewal and “Rising, Falling” creating a sense of breathing in and out.

“It’s not like meditative New Age music at all,” said Hersch. “One of titles, ‘Monkey Mind,’ is very typical in that when you sit on a formal meditation cushion, little discursive thoughts that pop up can be kind of annoying and take you away from being present. Thoughts like: ‘I’ve got to send that email,’ or ‘What’s for dinner?’ ”

Hersch’s new album, “Songs from Home” was his response to the COVID pandemic. It features his interpretation of standards and classics by such people as Cole Porter, Joni Mitchell, Duke Ellington and Paul McCartney.

“I decided to make an album of songs I like—songs I wanted to interpret. It’s light piano music—music that people seem to relate to. It seemed to strike a chord with people. It’s Fred in his living room playing songs he feels like playing. Not anything slick. Call it my bad ass comfort food album played to the best of my abilities.”

Hersch just had a world premiere at Carnegie Hall for a folk song he wrote for pianist Igor Levit titled “Variations on a Folksong.”

“It was pretty thrilling, as it was on a program with Wagner, Liszt and Beethoven,” he said.

Now, he writing new jazz tunes for a future trio album. He will leave for Europe for the third time since the pandemic started following his appearance at The Argyros.

“I’m not busy like I used to be. I tour, then I take three to four weeks off. Then I do another tour,” he said. “I’m 66 now and I can say no to things a little more. I can say, ‘I really don’t want to do that.’ And that’s a privilege. I’m leaving larger holes in my schedule. I was almost too busy before the lockdown—really running around like a madman. My new schedule feels a little more sane.”

Getting to Sun Valley is not an easy place to get to, Hersch noted.

“It’s a full day of travel both directions--flying to Boise with a connection, then renting a car and driving 2.5 hours assuming there’s no weather problems. But I played Pocatello many, many years ago and I remember going to an amazing outdoor hot springs there in winter and my beard getting frozen. Sometimes when I’m on the road I get to do something fun, something cool. I hope I can do that in Sun Valley.”


 

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