Fred Hersch swoops and soars in his high-flying interactive trio. He sets a daunting standard as an exploratory duo partner and creates brilliantly detailed compositions and arrangements for variously configured chamber ensembles. But as an improviser of unsurpassed lyricism and technique he's at his most intimate and revealing in a solo setting. With Fred Hersch Solo, slated for worldwide release by Palmetto on September 4, 2015, the pianist kicks off a creatively fecund yearlong celebration of his 60th birthday with a definitive statement of his solo artistry.
In many ways, Solo distills the essence of Hersch's pianistic expression. Recorded in a jewel-like Catskills church at the 2014 Windham Chamber Music Festival, the set evolves with a compelling internal emotional logic all its own, flowing through Hersch's familiar solo touchstones (Jobim, Ellingtonia, Monk, originals) that turn into vessels for his supremely graceful invention. His 10th solo recording, Fred Hersch Solo joins an illustrious collection of albums that started with his riveting 1994 addition to Concord Jazz's Live at Maybeck series.
He opens the set with a medley of Jobim's "Olha Maria" and "O Grande Amor," a seductive blast of shimmering saudade. His beautifully constructed homage to Robert Schumann, "Pastorale," evokes a country dance on a warm summer evening, while "Caravan" lopes "like camels very slowly crossing the desert," Hersch says. "I was really playing with the acoustic space on that one, hearing notes ricochet around the church." For his juicy standard ballad, he treats Jerome Kern's "The Song Is You" as a slow-blooming epiphany rather than a sprint, which leads to the broken-ground scramble of Monk's "In Walked Bud." He closes the album with a caressing rendition of "Both Sides Now," turning Joni Mitchell's lament for lost innocence into a kind of benediction.
"I firmly believe this may be the all-around best solo album I've ever done," Hersch says. "I liked the piano and the environment of playing in a small wooden church just big enough to get some reverberance. When I consider where I was in terms of the precarious state of my health in 2008 this feels like such a strong and focused statement. Everything has come together going into my 60th year."
Hersch celebrates his 60th birthday (Oct. 21) and the release of Fred Hersch Solo with a weeklong Village Vanguard engagement October 20 - 25 with his superlative trio featuring bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson (documented most recently on 2014's lavishly praised double Grammy®-nominated Palmetto release Floating). The week before he presents the world premiere of Rooms of Light, a new song cycle for the stage featuring words by acclaimed poet Mary Jo Salter. The show explores the many ways that photography has enriched, compromised, and complicated our lives since its invention. Commissioned by Peak Performances, the show takes place at Montclair State University's Kasser Theatre October 15-18, featuring five actor/vocalists, an instrumental octet, a set and lighting design.
Hersch is negotiating a new commission from the Grammy-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, and returns to the Jazz Standard in May for his ninth annual Duo Invitation Series with Brad Mehldau, Miguel Zenón, Kate McGarry, Ravi Coltrane, Kenny Barron, and Regina Carter. He makes his Newport Jazz Festival debut this summer and his Jazz at Lincoln Center debut in January in the Appel Room with the program Fred Hersch & Friends: Intimate Moments featuring encounters with Anat Cohen, Julian Lage, Sullivan Fortner, and Stefon Harris.
For so many things to come together, some commitments have to be set aside. Hersch ends his current teaching stint at New England Conservatory with an Oct. 29 solo concert at Jordan Hall. The recital concert celebrates both his birthday and the 40th anniversary of his arrival at NEC as a student (and the 35th anniversary of first joining the NEC faculty). He's also busy at work on a memoir (working title: Good Things Happen Slowly) for Crown/Random House due in stores Spring 2017.
Born and raised in Cincinnati, Hersch studied music theory and composition as an elementary schooler and sang in high school theater productions. It wasn't until he started attending Grinnell College in Iowa that he turned on to real jazz when he was introduced to the music of John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Miles Davis and Chick Corea. But the jazz bug really bit him when he went home for the holidays and happened into a Cincinnati jazz spot. He ended up dropping out of school and earned his stripes on local bandstands, with veteran musicians serving as his professors. After honing his chops for 18 months he enrolled at New England Conservatory to work with jazz piano legend Jaki Byard and made the move to New York City in 1977 after earning a BM with Honors.
Hersch quickly gained recognition as a superlative band-mate, performing and recording with masters such as Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Billy Harper, Lee Konitz, Art Farmer, Gary Burton, Toots Thielemans, and many others. Since releasing his first album under his own name he's recorded in an array of settings, including a series of captivating solo recitals, duos with vocalists Janis Siegel and Norma Winstone, and ambitious projects. As an educator, Hersch has shepherded some of the finest young pianists in jazz through his teaching at NEC, Juilliard, Rutgers and the New School. A leading force in galvanizing the jazz community in the fights against HIV/AIDS, he produced 1994's Last Night When We Were Young for Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS, an album featuring the likes of Bobby Watson, Phil Woods, George Shearing, Mark Murphy and Gary Burton.
He's gained the most widespread visibility as the leader of a series of remarkable trios. From his first session with Marc Johnson and Joey Baron, he's pushed at the limits of lyricism and temporal fluidity with similarly searching improvisers. He has consistently drawn deeply from the music's most refined players while forging his own approach. He considers his current trio, with John Hébert and Eric McPherson, as his best to date.
"I always say that as a player there are three main threads that come to prominence at different times," Hersch says. "There's the trio, which is a constant, and I love the band I've had for the last six years. I've been doing duo encounters steadily going way back to Jane Ira Bloom in the early 1980s. But I think solo feels equal to the trio in terms of being the hub of my musical wheel. My solo playing feeds my trio and vice versa. In many way it's my most personal form of expression, and I feel like this record is both a summation and a looking forward."