During our conversation, acclaimed pianist, composer, bandleader, author, and educator Fred Hersch mentions an interesting discovery he made recently.
“I think of my last seven albums, six have been live,” he says. “At this point in my career I find that the live recording is what seems to work for me.”
That’s a bit of an understatement. Onstage with his trio, which also includes bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson, Hersch can spin off solos like a virtuoso or hang back and color the compositions with his subtle chordal shifts, whether they’re his own songs or classics by Thelonious Monk or Wayne Shorter. He’s an unfailingly melodic player with a lifetime of experience playing with everyone from Toots Thielemans to Gary Burton to Art Farmer, and one can hear confidence, but never arrogance, in just about everything he plays.
That streak of live albums will continue with the trio’s upcoming release, Live In Europe, a mix of tunes by Monk, Shorter and Hersch recorded in Brussels, a recording that was a surprise for Hersch.
“I didn’t know that the show was being recorded,” he says. “I’ve had four or five, maybe six albums in my discography that I didn’t know were being recorded, and I kind of feel like that’s the best thing. You get off the stage and you feel like you’ve really laid it down and somebody says, ‘Oh, by the way, there’s this great recording of it.'”
And for Hersch, there’s no better format for him to be recorded live in than a trio.
“I think for a pianist, the trio is the classic context,” he says. “You have basically two percussionists: piano and drums, and a string player. There’s a special thing about three people and the way the music can ricochet from piano to bass, drums to bass and drums to piano. There are only three or four different channels of communication, and obviously the larger you get, the more you feel like you have to manage everybody. If you’re working with a quintet, that becomes more about managing who’s going to do what where. With a trio we can really be totally loose.”
And after a years-long collaboration with Hebert and McPherson, Hersch says there’s a certain shorthand that the three men have developed.
“Even though I’m technically the bandleader, once the music starts, either one of them can take it in whatever direction they want,” he says. “I like to keep everything loose and spontaneous, and the great thing about John and Eric is that they’re really great with the arrangement of a composition; it can really be very precise, but then some things we play are totally open and they’re just great at making something out of nothing. I don’t know many trios that can play that wide range of material that we’re able to play.”
In fact, the trio has developed so much trust between them that typically they don’t use a set list when they play live.
“Both John and Eric are really great about memorizing the music, so I can feel free to just start something and not even tell them what it is and they’ll fall right in,” he says. “That way, we don’t have to plan our set before we get up there. I might say, ‘Hey guys what do you want to start with?’ and I’ll let them pick the first tune and go from there.”
Hersch says that one of the reasons that he likes to keep the plan for a set loose is that the sound of a venue changes between a sound check, when the room is usually empty, and the show itself. And to illustrate the point he references one of his previous Spoleto performances at the Cistern Yard.
“Once people get in there, the sound changes,” he says. “I played in the Cistern once with Toots, and I know it has special acoustics, so sometimes you’re still adjusting to conditions, not just what you do in the afternoon soundcheck. But if the sound is good, the music takes care of itself.”
Hersch has a wealth of knowledge to pass along to younger jazz musicians, and he’s spent a large portion of his 40-year career doing so, both as a private instructor and as a professor of Jazz Studies at the New England Conservatory of Music.
“I’m 62, so when I learned to play jazz in Cincinnati as a teenager, there was no jazz education at conservatories or high schools,” he says. “It didn’t really exist the way it does now. I was lucky enough to be taken in by some local musicians who were really great, and I learned so much. I had this great period in my 20s of playing in bands with master musicians and kind of being an apprentice learning my craft from people who were giants. And I always felt like I wanted to give back. I felt like maybe I could be helpful in this way to younger musicians; maybe students will take away something that I say, and it will help them think about something in a way that they hadn’t before.”