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Fred Hersch Interview

Madrid International Jazz Festival



Entrevista: Manuel Borraz

Fotos: Rafa Martín/CNDM

On November second, I had the pleasure of interviewing one of the greatest jazz piano players of all time. After his last duo concert in Hamburg with trumpeter Dave Douglas, Fred Hersch came to Madrid, where he played with Avishai Cohen an intimate acoustic performance at Auditorio Nacional de Música (JAZZMADRID21), playing jazz standards and his own compositions in his unique, buoyant masterful way. 

Well known for his long jazz career, sideman in the past of jazz legends like Joe Henderson, Stan Getz, Bill Frisell… composer and piano bandleader, Fred has contributed to jazz music with an extended creative artistic work with many formations and formats. Despite his complicated life situation due to contracting AIDS in 1984 and coming back from death after a two months coma in 2008, Hersch is still touring the world, creating amazing music and leaving a legacy that will last long. The morning before the concert, in the living room of a hotel, Fred Hersch shared with us some aspects of his approach to music nowadays, his feelings and how is he living the current moment.

In&Out JAZZ – Welcome to Madrid, we are delighted to have you here. How are you feeling?

Fred Hersch – I am good, thanks. I don’t remember now, but I think that the last time I was in Madrid it was with the trio. Something I can tell you is that lately I remember good halls and good pianos around the world, how they work or the difference between them, specific ranges that sound better depending on the model. 

In&Out – You have had a close relationship with the piano for more than 40 years and you are still touring, most of the time in small formations like this concert with Avishai Cohen or by solo performances. What is your relationship with the piano now?

F. H. – I love it and I feel really loose. Since the pandemic, fortunately, all of the concerts where I have played have been with musicians that are in the flow of the music, not much is predetermined. I have played with Enrico Rava, Dave Douglas, now with Avishai Cohen all of them are different but great. I find it hard to play with musicians that are too much inside their heads. I always say to people I love my work. I make stuff up and I get paid for it. It’s a great job.

In&Out – Then… was playing piano solo concerts a natural consequence of your life, due to your needs and loves, or was it a conscious decision?

F. H. In 1977 in New York I was hanging out a lot at Cork Bradley’s, where all the piano players were hanging out. There were lots of piano players and bass-piano duos there, with Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Jimmy Roles, Kenny Barron… I remember Rolland Hanna said to me: «you would be a very good solo player, you should really develop that», and he was a very good solo player, so I did it. In 1980 I gave my first solo concert and my first solo album came out in 2001. I have equal solo albums and trio albums. Playing solo… is very challenging, you can´t take a break for the drums solo! (laughs)

In&Out – You have used many different approaches, textures and creative skills in your performances, we could say that your piano playing has a very sensitive and refined touch, where do you think that this art of playing comes from?

F. H. I played classical music, not so much in public but for me, but I grew up listening to it. I did not listen so much to popular music. When you listen to a lot of great piano players and piano music you can hear the possibilities of the piano, so I never transcribed solos but I got ideas and tried to incorporate all these elements, for example: the piano can be a drum set, an orchestra, a singer, a horn, it can go in opposite directions, multiple directions or play different voices. This is a feature of my playing and I find it interesting to do… You don´t read into the piano but different piano players have their own particular sound, not the notes but the way they engage with the instrument. 

In&Out – The pandemic has greatly affected a lot the sector of music and culture, how did you deal with the Pandemic from the beginning of it until now?

F. H. I actually did not even touch the piano for months during the pandemic but, among many other things, I did meditation -but not Zen. What I do is, I sit everyday for 35 minutes, although is difficult to do it when being on the road.

When I started meditating, I realised that I had been meditating for my whole life with the piano, so instead of the breath as the encore, it was the sound the anchor, how you actually make the sound and how you put this sound in rhythm, this is active meditation. It is not about what you play -a hype chord or something fast-, it is about the feeling. 

In&Out – Also, during the Pandemic, you did one album, Songs From Home, right?

F. H. Yes. That album, Songs From Home, was simply me playing songs I like just to make people happy. So, people could be with me relaxing in my living room while I play songs that I Iike and, in that way, we all have some nice moments together.

In&Out – Talking about the Pandemic and the difficult moment of global health, we know you have been dealing with health issues for years, how did your health situation affect your playing?

F. H. – I was very sick I almost died twice, and when I came back things changed, so there is kind of a pre period and post period. It was 13 years ago, since then I know my playing has changed but I cannot tell you how.

Also, when you get older, your memory is not so great, your repertoire gets smaller and now, after a year without practicing or playing music in the pandemic, I appreciate music more. I have got to the place I always wanted to get to, where on the one hand I care deeply about the music but on the other I just do not care about whatever it happens. 

In&Out – You said tonight, with Avishai Cohen, the main focus will be on improvisation, but also, you have been using composition for a long time. Which area takes precedence in your life?

F. H. Nine of the last twelve albums were live because I do not like the studio so much. I feel that is real jazz, my best stuff is live. But as an artist I’m conscious of my career, and I know you cannot just do always the same thing, otherwise no one would pay attention. 

In&Out – You have been teaching for many years in institutions, and also influenced big musicians like Brad Mehldau, Ethan and Sullivan Fortner… what do you think about the institutionalization of jazz?

F. H. Well, in order to set things to students or to make a model for jazz education, it has to be driven by information, not by theory and transcriptions… In a way I was lucky because I did not have a teacher before I went to New York, and I was an apprentice, that was what everybody did at my time: I played with Joe Henderson, Stan Getz…

I composed my own pieces very late. Now everybody has the goal of having their own band with their own music and I think is equally creative to play something somebody else wrote. Not everybody is a great composer, something great for me is something that sticks, like a Sonny Rollins solo that I can almost sing… I would never write it down, for example, but I sing it. 

In&Out – Did you enjoy being a sideman? As I see you do not do it anymore.

F. H. Lately I do not tour with other people as a sideman, people do not think of me as a sideman anymore, they think I am busy or that it would be too much expensive, aso. There was a time that I was a sideman, when I was thirty, and I learnt from that. But now it is different.

In&Out – How is jazz education now?

F. H. Jazz education consists now of students who do it like a duty, they learn and can play but nothing is personal, it is more craft than art, and then there are musicians who have big influences and take it personally. They take music from other countries or from hip hop or classical contemporary music wherever, so there is not much swing inside so maybe it’s jazz but not jazz, although there are very accomplished musicians who have found a way to speak to their generations and to themselves.

When you suggest playing or writing down what Herbie wrote in 1963 it makes people develop a lot of fear but if it is something new you cannot be afraid of, you just have to embrace it. Also, now we have a group of people who have doctorates but never tried to make a living out of music, so it is very academic, and that fact can make people competent but it does not make them creative artists.

In&Out – How was jazz life back then for you?

F. H. When I went to New York I was 22 years old and it was very simple, you had to be able to know how to swing, how to compose, to read music, have the tools and be prepared to return phone calls… Now everybody is expected to be a bandleader, composer, social media expert… what is expected nowadays is different than before.

In&Out – What would you say is missing nowadays?

F. H. One thing that is missing is listening not only to what happened in the 70s but to the whole history of jazz. Throughout these times there have been and there are amazing pianists.

Man has to understand the different trees of jazz piano. Like, for example, Duke Ellington, Monk, Herbie Nichols, Andrew Hill. That would be one tree, or James P. Johnson, Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Oscar Peterson… that is another. 

Unfortunately, people don’t listen to albums anymore.  We read to the note, aso. Our attention has got shorter due to new technologies, and this is affecting a lot the education we are having.  

In&Out – Is jazz nowadays more skills centered than an artistic expression?

F. H. Most of jazz students want to know: «how can I do this?» but you just have to try things and commit mistakes until you learn… it is not I am going to do this and this and I am going to be a good jazz musician, it is a language and you have to speak it, and so, it takes time.

In&Out – The history of jazz has a very concrete, determined character, geographic origin… but the different paths that it has taken are creating a very thick and lush forest. Jazz is now being played around the world. Do you see a difference for example between European jazz and jazz in the U.S.?

F. H. Before, Europeans and Japanese wanted to know the authentic way to play this music, but now, there are a lot of European players who do their own thing: Enrico Rava, Bollani, John Taylor, Jan Garbarek, aso. You can put a lot of jazz music in ECM category or Avant Garde category, there is some in the middle but most of it is this. There is not so much swing anymore, but more straight 8ths odd meters, aso.

In&Out – I suppose that man learns a lot also playing with great characters of the history like you did in the past. What did you learn from playing with true legends at that time?

F. H. Playing with Joe Henderson for 10 years I learnt a lot. Sometimes he played great but sometimes not so well, or he started okay and at the end got amazing, so I learnt not to panic at a moment of the concert because it is a long trip. The trap I got into once was worrying about what I was not able to play, like young pianists who can do amazing technical things, but they cannot do what I do, so you have to know who you are.

There is no law saying «you have to do that«. So, you just play one phrase, then another, then another, loving them, like meditation… every breath is a little different from each other, some days you are focused and some days you are not. I like to think that I normally do good performances but sometimes I am more inspired. For example, in Village Vanguard, which is my home, I feel like I am in my living room, I do not have to worry about a thing. 

In&Out – It seems that your meditation practice has affected a lot the way you express and conceive your playing, did it influence you as well in the way you listen to jazz? 

F. H. When you listen, you cannot see what are people doing, you can just hear it. In a lot of shows I close my eyes, even in my own concerts, I do not look, I pay attention, it gives me a center. I like to take one track that I like, close my eyes and I listen to it seven times in a row, and each time I listen differently, how do people phrase or deal with harmony, if the drums are ahead of the beat, how do they deal with it…

In&Out – How would you qualify good art then?

F. H. – I always say good playing is like pizza. Basically you have sauce, cheese, dough and when you are playing solo you have rhythm, sound and the way you connect with what you play, these are the three most important elements. We all have had terrible pizza but when you get good pizza it is so great, bad pizza can fill you up, but good pizza…what a difference… wow! You can feel it was made with care and the best ingredients and skills… 

In&Out – So, do you influence yourself from other forms of art?

F. H. – I go to art museums, enjoy visual arts, theatre, other kinds of music, all kind of classical music. I like to explore everything, I like to learn stuff from different artists or periods or cultures and connect with them. You cannot only do jazz, maybe when you are young… but at this point I cannot just practice jazz, the closest I get is taking one tune and playing it for twenty minutes. I search for new stuff if it gets boring, I go to a different thing.

In&Out – How free do you think jazz music actually is?

F. H. – A tune is like a picture frame. It gives you a limit, that is the basic form, harmony, melody, or words… To me, the three great revolutions of jazz were Louis Armstrong, who invented scat, stepping up front of the band and being a really great soloist. Bebop era is the second, this is basically said: jazz is not dance music, it is more complex, virtuosic, people were writing their own things… and then Ornette Coleman, who was like: «I am just going to play on the feeling of the tune or I am not going to play any tune at all«. Of course, there are a lot of amazing great musicians but for me this is where the real innovation lies.

In&Out – How do you see the evolution of the jazz industry? 

F. H. – In the past years classical music and jazz albums sold were rated about 2%. And within jazz there were always singers and guitarists who sold more records than instrumentals, but it has always been a very small percentage of the music industry.

In&Out – In your opinion, why is this percentage so small?

F. H. – In both of those genres, the more you know, the better you feel when you listen, and more satisfaction you get, and you can at least have an opinion about it. In pop, big famous artists and their projects are driven by personality and sometimes it is more entertainment than art. Jazz and classical music, without any willing to be pretentious, is another kind of artistry, but it has always been a tiny part of in the industry…

Some people would say: «I like smooth jazz«, which is not actually jazz of big bands or whatever… and that can be great, or not. You know, there is nothing wrong with entertainment: sometimes you just want to have some fun. But in terms of artistry, not so much. It is another layer… just a deeper one.

In&Out – I guess society has also changed a lot. How do you see the acceptance of the LGTBI movement in jazz nowadays?

F. H. – Let’s say you have 5% of population of gays in the world, just to say a number, and not all of them belong to jazz or are jazz fans. I was one of the first ones to really come out and I like to think that it gives people confidence to say it too. When you play with other musicians it’s very intimate and you don’t want to bring sex into it.

Specially in the U.S. now they are tending towards women instrumentalists and people of color. Honestly, I don’t care what race or sex anybody is when I play with them, I just play with musicians that are compatible with me. When the music starts and I close my eyes, the music is what matters. I went to a multiracial school with no ethnic majorities so I did not think about it much, and then I played with lots of musicians…

A lot of people, for example, would wonder why would Joe Henderson  have a Jewish white gay piano player in his band… but if you are gay and in the closet, it is harder to express yourself also in life and in music. Now we have people who don’t know which sex they are, aso. That’s the next frontier.

In&Out – Now before we end, we would love to know if you have any upcoming projects.

F. H. – I am doing a string quartet plus a trio project. Nowadays this seems fashionable but I just did it in my own way… it will come out in January. It contains 8 movements of a suite and the different movements go together as a unit. They are based in my meditation practice.

Also, with Enrico Rava we will record an ECM album in a couple of weeks. They have a particular way of working and it will be interesting to make it. After Songs from home I realized that meditation could be an interesting subject, maybe I will do something about it or maybe my next project is a live I recorded with Julian Lage, who knows! We are just listening to it, you never know… or a jazz trio album, who knows.

Written by Manuel Borraz

13 de Diciembre de 2021

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