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.
A player who always seeks out new challenges, Hersch's output spans a wide variety of musical settings. "I'm always happiest when I'm doing many different things," Hersch explains. "I love to collaborate. And I live in New York, where the incredible wealth of talent makes it relatively easy to have ongoing special projects."
His most recent release, The Fred Hersch Trio + 2 (Palmetto, March 2004), features trumpeter Ralph Alessi and tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby in addition to Hersch's current trio members: bassist Drew Gress and drummer Nasheet Waits. 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.
Although Hersch thrives on the musical dialogue created with his bandmates, he also revels in the demands of solo performance. "Without those other voices, I really need to interact with the instrument and the acoustical environment," he says. 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. In 2001, Nonesuch released an unprecedented 3-CD boxed set titled Songs Without Words: Volume One features ten dazzling original compositions; Volume Two presents classic tunes by great jazz composers such as Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Wayne Shorter; and Volume Three contains re-workings of songs by master tunesmith Cole Porter. The French Academie du Jazz honored the set as its "Disc of the Year." 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."
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, a large-scale setting of Walt Whitman's poetry for two voices (Kurt Elling and Norma Winstone) and an instrumental octet. The piece was premiered in a handful of cities including Washington, D.C. in 2003; a March 2005 performance in New York City has been scheduled at the new Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall. 24 Variations on a Bach Chorale, a major solo piano composition, was recently published by the distinguished house of CF Peters. 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, Columbia University's Miller Theatre, and the Lucy Moses School of Music in New York City.
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 during 2003-04 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 sopranos Renée 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. At home in New York City, he has performed with both the Eos and Concordia Orchestras.
Despite all of this activity, Hersch often quips that he really should be working harder. 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 17-year struggle with HIV. In fact, Hersch feels that his health has put a premium on the time he has to grow as an artist. He takes nothing for granted.
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, Jane Monheit, and his longtime associate Janis Siegel of the Manhattan Transfer. Acclaimed pianists including Marian McPartland, George Shearing, and Kenny Barron donated solo performances for The Richard Rodgers Centennial Jazz Piano Album. Twelve jazz greats including Diana Krall, Joe Lovano, 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, has raised over $150,000 for AIDS services and education to date.
A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, 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 late, lamented 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 virtuoso Toots Thielemans; vibraphonist Gary Burton; bassists Sam Jones and Charlie Haden. Many of these musical associations were carried forward as Hersch became a leader and could incorporate them into his many special projects.
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, 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 four-time winner of a Gay and Lesbian American Music Award (GLAMA). A respected educator, Hersch was a faculty member at the New England Conservatory for ten years, and has taught at The New School and Manhattan School of Music. He is currently a visiting professor at Western Michigan University.