Heard Fresh: Innovative Jazz Pianist Fred Hersch
One of the few openly gay musicians in the surprisingly closeted and macho world of jazz, Hersch has also been HIV-positive since 1986 , conquering many related health issues since then. A prolific recording artist for such labels as Nonesuch and Sunnyside , Hersch cheerfully told one interviewer: “I was raised Jewish, Americanized Reform Jew, so I guess that makes me a ‘Jew-Bu’!”
On a representative CD, “Fred Hersch Plays Rodgers & Hammerstein,” Hersch applies layers of complexity and contradiction to apparently simple Rodgers tunes like “A Cock-Eyed Optimist” and “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top,” until they sound like part of a highly intellectualized, quasi-Talmudic discourse.
On another brilliant CD, “Let Yourself Go (Live at Jordan Hall),” Hersch is the same uncompromising guide through multi-layered sonic experience. Whether he’s interpreting Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low” ; Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy” ; or Irving Berlin’s “Let Yourself Go,” nothing is facile or prefabricated.
A skilled composer himself, Hersch offers analytic understanding of jazz moderns, especially Duke Ellington’s legendary composer and colleague, the openly gay Billy Strayhorn. The CD “Passion Flower: Fred Hersch Plays Billy Strayhorn” features a particularly telling solo on Strayhorn’s “U.M.M.G. (Upper Manhattan Medical Group),” named in tribute to the office of Strayhorn and Ellington’s personal physician; Hersch’s own medical dramas over the past decades may have given him extra insight into this unusual homage. Likewise, the CD “Thelonious: Fred Hersch Plays Monk,” offers a particularly tender and affectionate version of Thelonious Monk’s “Pannonica,” titled in honor of Nica Rothschild , the subject of the recent documentary “The Jazz Baroness.” Always authentic and rewarding to hear, Hersch is an always-welcome presence on the jazz scene.
Watch the trailer for the documentary ‘Let Yourself Go: The Lives of Fred Hersch’: