Close Your Eyes and Listen
Transcript of Interview with Fred Hersch
“Forward Motion” up and under…
Fred Hersch: I’m Fred Hersch. I’m a jazz pianist and composer.
And when you have the U.S. Government basically saying, "Okay, what you do is interesting and we want to support it," that means a lot.
“Forward Motion” up and hot, under.
That was a very interesting experience. It was the first grant I had applied for. It was the NEA grant, and that's back when they were giving individual grants for special projects. And I'd been diagnosed with HIV in '86 or something, and I just kind of didn't know how much longer I was going to be around, frankly. So I wanted to do something big. I had done some kind of classical crossover albums for Angel records, using French classical music and Russian classical music. nd I wanted to do this with a jazz trio and chamber orchestra, and I wanted to do a concert at Town Hall. So I talked to a friend of mine, the drummer Joey Baron, who had gotten an NEA grant for a project. And I said, "Joey, how did you do this?" He said, "Keep it simple. Tell them what you want to do, and why their money is really going to help you do this, that I could not achieve this without the help of your organization." So it enabled me to pull off this concert. Subsequently I played these arrangements and added more to them many, many times over the years.
Bach’s “Watchet Auf” performed at Town Hall in New York City.
That was something that I've always dreamt of doing, so I was able to achieve that.
I know for myself, at 56, I still feel like I'm getting better, and I'm still engaged in it. I've always admired people who've had the long career, because there'd been a lot of flame-outs, I mean, for a lot of reasons. I mean, back in the old days a lot of it was drugs and alcohol, and just society making it difficult. Not everybody is really cut out, and every year there are a few young musicians who kind of get anointed as the next blah, blah. And I check them out, but then I say, "Let's see where they'll be in five or ten years." Because I think that's one of the things I'm proudest of is the length of my career, and the diversity of my career. I think that's what keeps me going. And certainly after my illness, I was diagnosed with HIV when I was 29, so fully my entire career as a leader has been with this kind of cloud over me. And in the early days, of course, it was, "Oh, God, this is the last record I'm ever going to make." And I went through that for a while. And I kind of tortured myself with trying to be perfect about it. And then I went through a serious health crisis four years ago, and a two-month coma, and subsequently long rehab.
“Whirl” up and under
After my illness, I'm much more willing to really let it go when I play.
“Whirl” up, hot and under
Fred Hersch: When I play the piano, the first thing I connect with—first of all, I close my eyes. I almost never open my eyes when I play the piano. So the first thing I do is I connect with the instrument through the actual physical making of the sound, the physical sensation of the keys. And then I put this sound into the rhythm of whatever piece that I'm playing. And I found that the human brain can only handle a couple of things at once. I mean, maybe geniuses can concentrate on three things at once, but most of us can't walk and text at the same time. It's not very easy. So if you just are concentrating on connecting with the tune you're playing and being connected with the instrument, and for me with my eyes closed I can just—I hear the sound almost like I'm making a record. It's like listening to a record, except I'm making it. When I listen to music a lot, especially early on in my life, I listen with my eyes closed, try to hear the space in the music. But it's really the touch and the connection to the piece that I'm playing that really get me into it.
“Whirl” up again
Fred Hersch: I have a two-disk live trio set from the [Village] Vanguard coming out in September, and I think maybe it's the best trio playing I've ever done in terms of looseness, and where the band is that. Maybe it's kind of coming on to be my time. A couple of Grammy nominations this year, and for a solo album, which is really unusual and very gratifying.
“Work” up and hot
Fred Hersch: One of my, I think, biggest honors is having my picture on the wall of Village Vanguard. It's next to Coltrane, and Bill Evans, and Scott LaFaro, and Paul Motian. And it's actually a very prominent place, right next to the tuba on the wall; very well-lit. That's like a Grammy. That's a big, big deal to be associated with kind of arguably the Carnegie Hall of jazz clubs.
When I'm playing and I'm in my zone, it's the greatest thing in the world, when you're not judging, and it's really flowing, and you feel like you're right there with it. You're not thinking ahead, or regretting anything past, you're just doing it.
“Work” up, to the end. Applause and cheering. Fades to black.
Adam Kampe:That was pianist and composer, Fred Hersch. In this piece, you heard:
Excerpts of “Forward Motion” composed and performed by The Fred Hersch Group from his album, Forward Motion.
Excerpt of the Aria from “Wachet Auf” by Bach, arranged and orchestrated by Fred Hersch, and performed by The Fred Hersch Trio with the Concordia Orchestra, conducted by Eric Stern.
Excerpt of “Whirl,” composed by Fred Hersch and performed by The Fred Hersch Trio from their album, Whirl, used courtesy of Palmetto Records.
And an excerpt of:
“Work” composed by Thelonious Monk and performed by Fred Hersch from his album, Alone at the Vanguard, alsoused courtesy of Palmetto Records. The composition used by permission of Thelonious Music Corporation.
All other music composed by Fred Hersch and used by permission of Fred Hersch.
Special thanks to Don Sickler from Second Floor Music.
For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Adam Kampe. Thanks for listening.