Editor's note: This story is featured in the Nov. 2 print edition of CityBeat.
Fred Hersch claims to be slowing down, but his calendar says otherwise.
When Hersch and his trio return to his hometown for Xavier University’s music series on Nov. 10, he’ll be coming off gigs at New York’s Village Vanguard and in Italy and Chicago.
A Cincinnati native, Hersch is one of the most influential and revered artists today, especially in the jazz pantheon. His influence continued even during the COVID-19 pandemic when his creative output never stopped, with three recordings in the past two years, the world premiere of a set of solo piano variations and a full schedule of gigs since the summer of 2021.
Speaking to CityBeat by phone from New York, Hersch is upbeat and energized by live performances over the past fifteen months with bassist Drew Gress and German drummer Jochen Rueckert, a new trio that Hersch says is “gelling nicely.”
“I had a long-standing trio for over ten years, and after COVID, I felt like starting fresh,” Hersch says. “I’ve been playing with Drew off and on since the ‘80s and with Jochen for the past year and a half.”
Hersch’s small stature belies his outsized presence in the jazz world for more than four decades as a performer in configurations from solo to full orchestra, composer, arranger, collaborator, teacher and author.
He’s also a survivor, a moniker he acknowledges with gratitude after coming out on the other side. When considering his HIV diagnosis in the mid-1980s, a life-threatening health crisis in 2008 that nearly killed him and recent pandemic-enforced isolation, Hersch’s output becomes truly staggering.
A child prodigy, Hersch was drawn to jazz by Newport’s lamented AM jazz radio station WNOP, whose offbeat announcers drew on encyclopedic knowledge of artists and their material.
After dropping out of Grinnell College in Iowa, Hersch returned to Cincinnati and discovered the Family Owl on Calhoun Street, where saxophonist Jimmy McGary let him sit in.
“I got my ass kicked,” Hersch recalls in a 2013 interview with Cincinnati Magazine. He honed his chops in local backup bands and left Cincinnati for good in 1975.
Hersch moved to New York after attending and teaching at the New England Conservatory in Boston.
“Those days were tough but also wildly exciting,” he tells CityBeat. “Rent was cheap, drugs were everywhere and there were a lot more gay people than in Cincinnati.”
Music never lost its power.“During those years, there were so many jazz clubs in the Village, and you could go up to a legend like (tenor saxophonist) Joe Henderson or (bassist) Ron Carter, talk to them, have a drink or ask if you could sit in,” Hersch says.
Hersch had already embarked on an ambitious solo career when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1985. He maintained his health and followed a strict medical regimen, but it wasn’t until 1993 when major media sources identified him as “a gay jazz musician” that he took on advocating for people with AIDS and HIV.
“I had an opportunity to be a spokesperson, to do some good. I’m an artist and I can’t compartmentalize my life,” he says.
In 2008, his life spiraled down into isolation followed by a viral-induced illness. After drastic weight loss, doctors stopped antiviral medications, which led to a near-fatal pneumonia that put Hersch into a coma that lasted for two months.
“In the summer of 2008, when I came out of my coma, I couldn’t talk because of a paralyzed right vocal cord. I didn’t drink or eat for nine months. I couldn’t walk. I had absolutely no fine motor coordination,” Hersch says in a Cincinnati Magazine interview in 2013. “I was helpless, basically. I was hooked up to a stomach tube for food. I was down to 105 pounds.”
But three years later, Hersch was back at the piano, performing “My Coma Dreams,” an eerie song-cycle for vocal soloists and a ten-piece ensemble that was based on dreams Hersch recalled during his recovery. The entire performance is available on YouTube.
In 2017, Hersch revealed another facet of his protean talents and published Good Things Happen Slowly, a powerful and affecting memoir that appeared on several top-ten lists for the year. It’s both a shout out to the musicians and venues who mentored him throughout his career and an unflinching account of his illnesses and recovery.
Hersch’s performances have been deeply thoughtful and emotional, and often witty. There’s a sense that he’s delighted with discovering new facets of the work he’s playing, even when it’s something he’s performed for more than 40 years. He never appears tense.
In 2020, Hersch released Songs From Home, a solo album covering tunes from the Beatles, Broadway, ‘60s pop music and American folk songs, all played with affection and ease that comes from a lifetime’s devotion to technique.
Hersch tells CityBeat that he credits daily meditation and his meditation community with helping him get through COVID. Earlier this year, he released Breath by Breath, a suite based on his meditation ritual and accompanied by his trio and the Crosby Street String Quartet.
He followed up in October with an Edition of Contemporary Music release of duets with another jazz master, Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava. In 2023 Hersch and bassist/vocalist esperanza spalding (stylized in lowercase letters) will collaborate on a live recording at the Village Vanguard.
How, exactly, is Hersch cutting back?“I’m teaching, but only a few private students on a very limited basis,” he says. But anyone eager to learn from Hersch can complete two of his courses – one for solo piano and a just-released series devoted to the art of the duo – at openstudiojazz.com.
“I’m becoming more selective of where I play, and I’ll probably do fewer gigs as I get older,” he says (Hersch turned 67 in October).
Hersch says his return to Cincinnati is underscored by personal concerns.
“My mom is in her 90s, and although she’s in good health, she can’t travel, so this is a chance for her to see me perform,” he says.
“In-person gigs are the best,” he continues. “During COVID, I had moments when I thought, ‘If this is over, I’ve had a good career. I’ve hit the high marks and done more than I could have dreamed when I was a kid in Cincinnati. I could walk away having lived the dream.’ Fortunately, that didn’t happen.”
Fred Hersch and his trio perform at 8 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Xavier University Bellarmine Chapel, 3800 Victory Pkwy, Norwood. Info: xavier.edu/musicseries.