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Pianist Fred Hersch Continues To Challenge Himself, Audience

Michael Jackson

Since the start of his recording career more than 30 years ago pianist Fred Hersch has earned a reputation as one of the most exciting voices on the instrument, a performer who frequently straddles the line between jazz and classical with uncommon ease. It might also help that Hersch’s chosen instrument has an impressive body of work that has followed it through the centuries.

“If you play alto saxophone there isn’t a rich literature for alto saxophone," he says. "There’s a lot of bad French music and some orchestral pieces. But the piano? We’ve got 4-500 years of great keyboard music to work with. So it’s kind of silly not to take advantage of that.”

Hersch’s new album with his trio, Floating, is an example of the marriage of the two styles, even on the piece “Home Fries,” which borrows heavily from the music of Louisiana but owes a debt to the contrapuntal melodies of Bach.

“I’ve always had an active left hand but it’s gotten more so in recent years," he says. "Sometimes I play a little more traditionally with chords in the left hand and lines in the right hand. But my left hand is always thinking of what it can do that might be interesting—either accompanying or working against the right hand.”

Hersch employs some of the same elements on the tune “You and The Night and Music,” but also creates melodic phrases that challenge the listener.

“I like to take chances," Hersch says. "I don’t like things to be too predictable. There has to be some danger in it or it’s not honest. I never like to go to a jazz performance and feel like somebody’s regurgitating something that they’ve played a million times and they’re just executing it, it’s not really the spirit of it. A lot of it is how I interact with my band. I like to leave space and that means that my phrasing is different. And the guys play really interestingly on it. If I’m being honest, I have to continue to stay in the moment and go with them.”

Hersch also revisits the music of one of his favorite jazz composers, Thelonius Monk, with the composition “Let’s Cool One.” The Ohio native says that he likes to play Monk’s music as often as he can and his 1998 tribute to the master, Thelonius, remains one of the brightest spots in his discography.

“Monk’s music has been an interesting journey for me," he says. "Obviously you don’t want to imitate Monk because you’re not going to sound as good as he does. There’s a great dancing quality to Monk’s music. It’s very inspiring, really.”

Despite various teaching assignments—including one at Rutgers—Hersch still studies with his teacher of the last 34 years and continues to seek out ways to make his playing and compositions constant revelations.

“I can’t expect an audience to be interested if I’m not interested," he says. "That’s why you have to continue writing new music or learning new pieces, or creating situations that challenge you.”

The Fred Hersch Trio performs at Chamber Music at the Barn Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday this week—July 9, 10, 11. Floating, the group’s latest CD, is out now.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.