(Ed. note: This show has been cancelled due to snow forecast and organizers are currently seeking a replacement date.)
Near the end of his guest artist performance at VCU, in April 2011, Fred Hersch played two transfixing solo piano pieces. One was the dizzyingly inventive “Whirl,” dedicated to dancer Suzanne Ferrell. The other was “If Ever I Should Leave You,” a gently lovely, seldom-covered song from the Broadway musical “Camelot.” The rest of the program, a set of big band arrangements of Hersch’s compositions, no doubt ably performed with the student Jazz Orchestra, has faded in memory. But Hersch’s turn alone at the piano was unforgettable.
That brief interlude of focused brilliance promises to be fulfilled with Hersch’s return with his trio Wednesday night at the Modlin Center. For the past thirty years he has been one of the most consistently innovative and interesting pianists in jazz. His poetic balance of beauty and propulsion is documented in roughly 30 albums as a leader. There are solo albums, richly harmonic balances of poetry and propulsion executed with classical precision. He is a bracingly original interpreter, with albums completely dedicated to the compositions of Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Billy Strayhorn, Jobim and others. There are duets with guitarists Bill Frisell and Julian Lage (his current release and one of the best records of 2013). There is a concept album based on Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” one with his the bass-free “Pocket Orchestra.” He also collaborated with a lot of great vocalists.
“His artistry and creativity are astounding,” says Rene Marie, the renowned former Richmonder and vocalist who performed a due set with Hersch at The Jazz Standard in NYC a couple of years ago. “Musical ideas spill out of him, toppling over one another… I ended up just staring at him in amazement, lost in what I was hearing, completely forgetting I was supposed to be singing.
Hersch is equally appreciative of Marie, whom he calls a first rate musician. “It is extremely difficult to be an effective partner,” he says. “Whatever one person does has to affect the other. There are a lot of singers -- and sax players -- who don’t listen. You might as well be playing along with a record.”
Interplay is vital in a small group format. Hersch describes the trio he brings to the Modlin concert -- with drummer Eric McPherson and bassist John Hebert -- as the right thing for him right now. “I have a wide-ranging repertoire. I need people who can be loose but also precise, who can play highly structured material as wells as playing wide open," he explains. "What attracts me is almost chemical, a sense of rhythm and Instrumental color. John and Eric are capable of challenging me, and somehow we just relate musically.”
The group came together as part of one of the most amazing comebacks in modern music. In late 2008 Hersch, who has long suffered from HIV/AIDS, lost his appetite, motor functions and fell into a coma that lasted two months. His survival was a long-shot. His recovery, with undiminished virtuosity, miraculous. The recordings that have followed (including two- “Whirl” and “Alive at the Vanguard” that feature the current trio) are among the finest and most adventurous of his career. Hersch’s near-death experience serve as the basis for his lauded “jazz theater” piece “My Coma Dreams.”
In the only recorded piece from that play, “Dream of Monk,” fragments of Thelonious Monk’s creative DNA mutate and recombine into a whole at once familiar and fresh. “We do something by Monk in almost every set,” Hersch says. “To me Monk’s music is very tightly constructed, incredibly rhythmic and full of harmonic challenges. It gives a lot to play off of. There is nothing else quite like it.”
“But you don’t want to get into the trap of playing like Monk. That would be a disaster. You need to find your own voice within Monk’s music,” Hersch says. “That is the art of interpretation, be true to the source but tell your own story.”
Hersch’s uniquely brilliant and unlikely story continues to unfold this week at The Modlin Center with a 7:30 p.m. show on Feb. 12 at Camp Concert Hall, Booker Hall of Music.