Ears Wide Open

Interview with Fred Hersch

Volume CIV, No. 6June, 2004

Pianist and composer Fred Hersch has earned a place among the foremost jazz artists 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 accomplishments include a 2003 Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship for composition and two Grammy nominations for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance. He has recorded more than 20 albums as a solo artist or bandleader, co-led another 20 sessions and appeared as a sideman or featured soloist on some 80 further recordings. His latest CD, “The Fred Hersch Trio + 2,” was released by Palmetto Records in March.

Hersch has been a member of Local 802 since 1978.

Matt Weiers, a multimedia artist in Portland, Oregon, interviewed Fred Hersch for Allegro.

Matt Weiers: How have your aspirations for your music changed over the last several years?

Fred Hersch: My goal when I came to New York 25 years ago was to play with the greatest jazz musicians in the world. Somehow, that happened. I had all these great experiences and apprenticeships with amazing players. I arrived in New York before jazz became an institutionalized art form. It all happened in the clubs where you could hang out at the bar and have a drink with someone like Art Blakey. The world of jazz seemed more romantic then and more below the radar.

I think my goal now is simply “to be a musician.” I do many types of things; I compose and collaborate in a variety of idioms with jazz being my focus and the hub of my wheel, but the wide variety of music that I do is healthy for me. Doing one thing over and over can be debilitating. I think in a way that may be what killed Bill Evans.

Although I’ve been HIV positive for more than 15 years, I continue to travel and be active. But regardless of my HIV status, for someone at my time of life, you learn to say no. I don’t want to be a hero and work as many dates as possible, hopping on and off planes constantly. So I’m more selective about choosing concert dates.

MW: What are some of your observations on making a living as a musician?

FH: Earning a living as a musician is a difficult thing. Society does not reward artists like it does entertainers or sports figures or corporate attorneys or bond salesman. When I first moved to New York, I played in the Catskills, weddings and private parties. I accompanied singers of dubious talent. I learned how to write charts and small group arrangements for people. I wrote some jingles, did some cabaret, did some studio work. Still, all the time I was playing jazz, too. But I did some things that were not art, but commerce.

As I look back at some of the gigs I’ve done, some of them now seem comical and odd, but I really don’t regret doing any of them. Had I taken this elitist path of only doing my own music and taking a day job if I had to, my music might have gone in a very different direction. But one of the things that attracted me to jazz and chamber music or collaborations is that I wasn’t sitting at home alone struggling to write a piece or learn a Chopin etude. I’m making music with people and in front of people and that’s what I’ve enjoyed about jazz. You have a chance to interact with and learn from other musicians in the moment.

What I tell young musicians is that if you want to have a long and interesting career, you need to try lots of things, you need to not be a snob, and you need to be really, really good. I hear a lot of young pianists — you hear them with a trio and they sound O.K., but if you ask them to sit down and play three songs solo, it would be embarrassing. They’ve cobbled together enough information and licks to sound like something, but it’s like a set on a stage, if you peek behind it, there’s nothing there. Sometimes, believe it or not, those people have semblances of careers, but sooner or later, the bottom is going to drop out for them, because there’s not much depth.

MW: How important to you is making recordings?

FH: Jazz recordings are two percent of records sold, which includes smooth jazz and vocalists. So creative instrumental jazz is much less than one percent. To sell 10,000 copies of an acoustic jazz trio record is a big deal. A lot of great jazz albums sell 800, 1,000, 1,500. Even reasonably big labels will sell only a few thousand copies of such a record. So obviously budgets are lower, advances are lower, expectations are lower. But there still are people that love this music and are passionate about it.

I’ve had some records that have done quite nicely. I have never had a hit record or a huge seller. But the fact that I have consistently made records over the years for Nonesuch and now for Palmetto means I guess they do well enough that there’s still some interest in doing them. Mechanical royalties from my compositions can be a nice supplement. But recordings also serve as a calling card. Since I made the “Live at the Village Vanguard” recording, there’s a lot more interest in booking that trio. Whereas before, with the solo recordings on Nonesuch, I was doing lots of solo concerts. The record industry is certainly going through a lot of changes.

MW: Have you found a different audience reception for your music abroad than you find here in the U.S.?

FH: My career has a stronger foundation in the U.S. than abroad. Most members of my peer group can’t get arrested in the States and they only work in Europe. I don’t know why. I seem to be more recognized in certain places in Europe than others, and it seems to be that way for everybody. A rock band could be huge in England and nobody knows them here. Or a big hit in Asia and nobody in Europe knows their name.

And, with the audience it’s always different everywhere anyway. I just finished playing six nights at the Village Vanguard. Friday night I wondered why the audience was there — they were like deer in the headlights. But then Saturday and Sunday they were going wild. It’s not because we were playing any better. It’s just out of my hands. Some nights, they get it, some nights they don’t. Some nights I come off the stand and think, “That was an O.K. set” and the people are going crazy. Other nights I feel like, “Wow, that was so great, I wish we had the tape going,” and the audience is like, “That was just O.K..”

MW: Do you have a particular type of piano sound you are aiming for?

FH: I’ve spent a lot of time working on sound, but it has more to do with my relationship to the piano than to the recording studio. I used to own a recording studio, I do produce my own recordings, and there is a certain kind of recorded sound that I’ve evolved, which changes depending on whether I’m doing a trio record or a solo recording or a duo collaboration. But for me, my sound is in my body and in my ears. I have a certain sound that I want to hear myself produce.

Some pianists are focused on facility, repertoire, or other elements. Sound has always been a very important element to me, since I was a child. But you can’t push a button and just say, “O.K., I want a Steinway D with these two mikes placed there.” Every situation is so different. I have to adapt to the instrument at hand and produce my sound. If you talk to a violinist, I think he’ll tell you the same thing. He’ll say, “My sound is in my bow arm.”

MW: When you are sitting at your instrument and playing, what are your musical goals? What are you trying to do?

FH: I’ve worked with the same piano teacher, Sophia Rosoff, for over 20 years. She’s always said that whatever kind of music you’re playing, there are three things that have to happen. The first thing you do is connect with your sound, then you take that sound and put it in a rhythm. This doesn’t have to be a metric rhythm, it could be emotion or whatever, but some kind of rhythm that makes the sound come alive. And then, you get out of the way. And if you’re doing the first two, if you’re really connected to your sound and doing it in rhythm, you’re going to get out of the way.

So that’s really what I’m doing. I’m connecting with the tone, the theme, and the piece that I’m playing that I’m using as a vehicle. And them I’m musically putting one foot in front of the other, being patient, seeing what happens, going over here, “Oh, that’s interesting, now let’s try this.” And with experience and hopefully some degree of talent and artistry, you create something. Your experience helps you to know when it’s time to move on or change it up. But it’s really pretty simple. It has to do with getting connected with your feelings. What I never like to do is go out there and “present something.” I like to have a starting point and then take the audience with me as I explore and create. It’s more exciting without an agenda when you allow things to unfold and don’t have so many expectations. A lot of jazz now is going the way of classical music. People are working their stuff out and presenting it. I’m no genius, but I can spot that kind of playing in a heartbeat. That it’s not authentic, that it’s not real improvising. That is a complete turnoff to me. It’s anti-jazz.

MW: Can you say more about how you get connected to your sound?

FH: It’s like a “piano embouchure.” The way that I sit, balance myself, the way I connect physically with the keys. And it’s years of thinking about it and experimenting with it. I’m not a big practicer. I don’t get over there four hours a day, never have, never will, it’s not my nature.

Sometimes I see pianists playing and they seem to have a confrontational relationship with the piano. Either they are trying to beat the piano into submission, or coax something out of it, they have tension in their shoulders or jaw, their feet are all over the place. It’s being alert. Where does Andre Agassi’s forehand come from? He does his warm up, but it’s years and years of knowing what that feels like, good training, losing matches and reexamining, having good people around you to give feedback, not thinking about the next point when you’re playing this point.

It is a zone — people talk about “flow” — it’s almost like it’s coming through you, as if you could do no wrong. Athletes, actors, and even cooks talk about this. It’s like being on a great date with a person. You don’t plan out ahead of time what you’re going to talk about, you just look at your watch and say, “Wow, has it been 4 hours?”

MW: What are your highest aspirations for your music?

FH: I try to keep history out of it. If I were to start writing music and think about Stravinsky or Duke Ellington, I couldn’t move my pencil and I’d freak out. Maybe when the dust settles years from now, depending on what I do in the next 10 to 15 years, people might see me as a very personal pianist and composer, a strong stylist, that I brought a certain sound to jazz piano that in some measure wasn’t there before. They might say that, or say, “He was another O.K. piano player.”

I would like to think that most people that look at the things that I’ve done will see that I’ve done things at a high quality level, that I’ve tried to take the high road artistically and that I have a pretty consistent track record. Honestly, at this point, I still feel like I’m getting better. Now that I’m relaxed about things and I don’t feel I have anything to prove to anybody anymore, I’m free to just try things and enjoy the ride.

But what I do really appreciate is that even if it’s one person, the fact is that someone took some time to come to a concert or sit down and really listen to a record or even search out a record and it brought something to their life. It brought some beauty or meaning or made them think about something in a different way. It has also been rewarding for me to mentor young musicians and to raise money for important causes through my efforts. Things are very interesting for me now — I am certainly not bored! It’s nice to be approaching 50 and still be learning and enjoying music.

Matt Weiers’ previous interview for Allegro was with Toshiko Akiyoshi, which appeared in the March issue.