Interview: Fred Hersch In Paris

How is it for you to come play in Paris?

I love playing in Paris I wish this time I had more time. The last time I was playing at La Villette, Cité de la Musique, big concert. Playing at the Duc des Lombards is nice but it’s not a 9-foot Steinway in a beautiful concert hall,  it’s a different experience. I’ve been coming to Paris for years, since I was a teenager. My very first European tour, we spent a lot of time in Paris in 1979. So I’ve been trying to make Paris a place to play. It’s interesting,  I’ve gotten a lot of awards, Grand Prix du disque etc. But there are so many French pianists that it’s very hard to get in to France. But I think I have some big festivals coming up, Coutance [Jazz sous les Pommiers], and maybe Nice and some other ones that will come next week. So I think my visibility is starting to go up a little bit, so that’s good.

Do you prepare your sets?

No. I just get up there and play.

Do you remember a specific jazz record that was the first one to click for you ?

Yeah, I heard some jazz in high school. I mean I was a piano player so I had a Dave Brubeck album and a Ramsey Lewis album, some albums I picked at yard sales for 25c. But once I started playing I thought ‘ok this is something maybe I can do’ and started inching my way into being a jazz pianist. The records that really sold me, there were three of them : one was Miles Davis’ Friday and Saturday night at the Blackhawk.  Wynton [Kelly]’s playing is so great, the way he plays with Miles… And I love the sound of the album, you feel like you’re in the club and it’s very nice. Then there was a Mingus album, Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus, with orchestrations and everything that is just so remarkable. And then an album by Ellington called Ellington Uptown. But particularly the Miles record really made me wanna say ‘okay, I can do this. I know I can do this. I’m gonna commit myself.’ I dropped out of school, started playing in clubs and really went for it. After I heard that.

Wynton Kelly, huh?

Yeah, it’s really swinging and really accessible. And years later when I was playing with Sam Jones who was Wynton’s bass player. That was something kind of thrilling, to get close to something like that was like. But that was the one that really clicked the switch.

You mention the music being accessible. How do you maintain a certain level of accessibility in your music when you have a well-rounded understanding of the inner works of the music?

Well, I think that in really good music of any kind, jazz or whatever it is, there has to be a story. It has to express a story. You know as a jazz pianist, in an hour, you make an hour of music; if you’re a composer it would take you a year. So what I try to do is speak in sentences, I play a phrase, that leads to the next thing and the next thing. And then if I feel like that’s getting boring, then I’ll just do something crazy. Go down here for a while, or go up to the top of the piano, or split my hands or just try some strange chords. I just have to keep myself engaged, and I think melody is something important. Alos, people tend to overlook the rhythmic aspect of what I do, because I’m a pretty rhythmic player. When I’m playing solo I’m seeing it like a big drum set with a lot of notes, also like a big band sometimes. I don’t really want to be playing jazz music for other jazz musicians, because they’re the worst audience. They’re either jealous or snob, or they’re insecure and can’t say anything nice. They’re sometimes unable to be appreciative because of some personal bullshit. But also there’s a lot of the young jazz musicians who are just making this music. Some of it is really good, the best of it is actually fascinating. I mean I love it, I buy records I go to concerts I really wanna keep up with what’s going on. But a lot of it is just complexity, just because. And at the end of the day you’re just kind of like ‘ok, a lot stuff happened but, you know, what do I take from this ?’ So I want people to take a set from the music that I play and feel something and think differently about something, connect to the sound itself. These are things that are important to me.

You seem to take ideas as they come and sometimes do something and follow and build on it. Sometimes we’re wondering if you’re surprising yourself at the piano.

Oh yeah, I really am surprising myself.

Is there any hesitation in your playing ?

Well, the only time that there’s hesitation is if I’m unhappy with the sound, because then I start to think too much. Or if I feel pressure for some reason, then I’m thinking too much. But generally, whatever happens happens. I try to keep it fresh, and try to keep the conversation going. Sometimes you have a patch where it’s maybe not quite as interesting, but you have to just kind of keep going and go through it and see what’s on the other hand. I’m lucky I have a trio that thinks the same way I do, we all have an equal role in what happens and anybody can have an idea and it’s fine. We all take care of our roles as we have to, everybody has an equal share in what’s happening. So I feel in many ways almost as free with the trio as I do solo. And in some ways even freer.

Freer with the trio ?

Sometimes.

What are the differences in how you process your ideas and express them in your music when you’re communicating with other musicians as opposed to when you’re playing solo.

Well you’re sharing the sound space with other instruments. Using the low end of the piano is more difficult because the bass is down there. I think there has to be a certain amount of organization, we have to agree on a starting point. It can be changed, things can be faster or slower, but there’s a basic template. In solo, I can do really anything.

When I first started playing solo piano, until I really became aware of the lineage of Earl Hines and Tedd Wilson and Jaki Byard and all these people, you know, when I was living in Ohio, it was either Cecil Taylor or Keith Jarrett. There weren’t that many people that I knew that were playing songs, in solo piano. Keith was doing this free improvisation and Cecil was doing his own thing. So I had to really take time to kind of come to how I could unify a diverse group of songs and make it into an experience. That took a while.

With the trio, this is the fifth trio I’ve had, it’s been seven and a half years now, and I would say that on paper, our combination is a little bit unusual. But it works. There’s just some kind of logic. You look at people that have successful marriages or relationships, you just go ‘wow, they seem so different and how does that work ?’ And they’re together for 20 years and everything seems successful. So the chemistry is just something you can’t explain. There has to be some sort of mystery and unpredictability. Both John [Hebert] and Eric [McPherson] are able to understand what we’re doing and change it up. And I’m open to them changing it up. Some bandleaders would be threatened by it and would be too controlling. I think in my earlier trio work I was trying too hard, I was trying to be great. Now I just try to play the music. And that’s what happens when you are 61 and you’ve been through everything that I’ve been through.

Sounds very liberating.

Yeah, you just let it go. And if it gets weird it gets weird. It’s just music, it’s not dropping a nuclear warhead or something. It’s like ‘okay, that didn’t work, so just try it again, or try something else.’

Is that the mentality in your music ?

Well, I talk a lot about tennis. Roger Federer, if he loses a game, he doesn’t panic, the match is not over until it’s actually over. And you can be down a set and two breaks, and still win the match. But not if you start thinking  too much about the scoreline. You just have to play the point.  And then maybe your opponent has a little bad patch. Or maybe you come up with something extra. So you have to look at it as kind of a big picture. That’s also the luxury I’ve had of being able to record often, I mean I put out an album every year, at least one. So it’s not like ‘oh my God, I’m spending all my money and this album has to be perfect.’ But I also spend a long part of my career making albums thinking ‘ok I’m not gonna live much longer’ so I was putting that pressure on myself. To try to be great. Music is best if you allow it to happen. If you try to make it happen it’s not as good. If you just allow it to happen, then it’s almost always better. And that’s just something you learn when you learn it. You learn it when you’re 55 or you learn it when you’re 25. But everybody learns it when they learn it. And it’s just life stuff.

I’m not a big practicer, you know. I just warm up and find out what the piano is about and go have dinner and just… ‘it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be !’ It’s maybe a bit more complicated than that but… [laughs] not that much.

You always play Monk. Often when people play Monk they seem to want to replicate his playing in some way. You don’t do that. What is it in those compositions that fit your playing ?

They’re fascinating. His DNA is in every composition. Some of them are actually tricky, they’re hard to play. You have to study them for years. It’s like a classical pianists playing a late Beethoven sonata. If you’re 17 you can play the notes but you can’t really tell the story. So there are Monk tunes I played for years, others that I have avoided, that I will probably never play. Because I don’t feel like I can be myself in the tunes. But I think closing off every set with a Monk tune is just honest. It inspires a certain irreverence, a certain kind of chance-taking that some other kinds of composition don’t. I don’t feel the need to be super careful with them, even though I respect them a lot. Everything he wrote fits in a very small book. He didn’t write that much. But  some of them I could play almost every night, because they’re always gonna be different, you can always find a different way in.

Every once in a while I don’t do it, but I kind of feel like I miss something. Or I’ll put a Monk tune earlier in the set and not the end, and sometimes it seems like the whole set should go to a ballad and then to a Monk tune. Just the architecture of the story. And it’s a different ballad and a different Monk tune but the idea of something that’s possibly more emotional and possibly reserved, then something that’s very rhythmic and exuberant, and fun, seems to be a good thing to do.

You studied under many different people and there is one that one that sticks out, that’s Jaki Byard. What do you remember from him as an educator and  as a human being?

The only jazz piano lesson I ever took was with Jaki Byard. Jaki helped me understand the jazz piano lineage going back from the beginning. He also helped me understand how, with a personal sound and a personal approach, you can play lots of different kinds of styles and lots of kinds of different music and they’re all unified by your sound.

I like the fact that he was fearless, he could play anything in any time. He didn’t really give a shit, which maybe cost him part of his career. He should have been better known than he was. He’s also on some of my favorite jazz albums, and that’s not a coincidence. He was very funny, a really funny person.

Coming from Ohio to Boston he was the first kind of legend I ever met, somebody who had really been there at important points in the music. In a way that prepared me for what I encountered in New York where all of a sudden I was playing with all these legends. I kind of had an idea of what somebody of his generation was like. So that was really helpful. He was big on assigning exercises and stuff, and I didn’t really do them very well. Worksheets… He was trying to be organized, but he’s fundamentally not that organized. He could really get some extraordinary sounds out of the piano. Just chords that really were kind of ‘wow’ chords.

I’m finishing up a memoir that’s coming out in September and there’s a whole chapter about Boston and my time there, my time at the New England Conservatory with Jaki and with all the other musicians there. It’s been interesting trying to put into words exactly what Jaki Byard meant and who this guy is. You know, he was part Cherokee Indian, which is kind of interesting. He liked wine. He was a great soloist and he was also a great band pianist. He was really great on those [Eric] Dolphy and Mingus records, he was just really great in ensembles. He comped in a way for the soloist, in a very cool way and very different way than somebody like Wynton Kelly. Bigger, crunchier kind of chords, but they seemed to work, and it suited people he was playing with.

So yeah, he was important for sure, and I have a lot of good memories. I mean I wish he was alive now, I would have a lot of questions. But I was 19 years old when I met him and I was eager to do my time and get right to New York. Sometimes I wish I would have slowed it down and take more advantage of some things, but that’s the way it goes.


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