Having started playing music at the age of four and composing at age eight, pianist Fred Hersch has had a long and storied career as a teacher at the New England Conservatory (NEC), Juilliard, The New School and The Manhattan School of Music, as an eight-time Grammy nominee, and as a performer around the world from Carnegie Hall to the Chicago Jazz Festival (where he debuted his latest album, “Solo”) to NEC’s Jordan Hall (where he will make his latest triumphant return on October 29).
Hersch is best known to many, however, not for his numerous musical accolades but for his tireless efforts in the fight against AIDS.
“I’m a very committed educator and committed to passing on things that were passed on to me,” Hersch said. “I have done a lot of work for AIDS-related charities, producing albums and running concerts. And that is something I care deeply about as well.”
Hersch has his own experiences with the disease upon which to draw inspiration. The condition put Hersch into a coma for two months in 2008; he not only recovered to play, but he also produced a full theatrical project called “My Coma Dreams” through which he shared his internal visions with audiences around the world. His upcoming concert in celebration of his 60th birthday is especially sweet.
“As one who was diagnosed with HIV almost 30 years ago,” Hersch mused, “I never dreamed that I would be reaching this milestone birthday in such great health and with my career bigger and richer than ever.”
Hersch, who considers himself to have cheated death in many ways, is devoted to continuing to share his music and his message of hope and fortitude in the face of overwhelming odds. That is why the tireless troubadour is touring once more, even while working on a wide range of other projects, including: “Rooms of Light,” a recently premiered song cycle featuring the poetry of Mary Jo Salter; a weeklong gig with his trio at the Village Vanguard in New York; a new commission from the Grammy-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth; a ninth installment of his annual Duo series at the Jazz Standard; and the debut at Jazz at Lincoln Center of Fred Hersch & Friends featuring Anat Cohen, Julian Lage, Sullivan Fortner and Stefon Harris. A memoir is also in the works, with a scheduled release of 2017.
He cites as inspiration influences Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter and Billy Strayhorn, as well as the many masters whose music comprises the Great American Songbook. “Typically when I am playing trio or solo, I include a healthy dose of my own music and sprinkled in there are songs from other Jazz composers and American popular song composers that I care about. So there is that link to that tradition, [but] I also do [other] projects,” he said.
Hersh’s latest release, recorded in a church in the Catskills, is rich with reverb and reverence, and includes his treatments of Robert Schumann’s “Pastorale,” Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” Jerome Kern’s “The Song Is You,” Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” He humbly offered that “Solo may be “the all-around best solo album I’ve ever done…. When I consider where I was in terms of the precarious state of my health in 2008, this feels like such a strong and focused statement. Everything has come together going into my 60th year.”
He is famous for planning his set list minutes before each performance, but Hersch, who has been teaching at NEC for 40 years, assures that plans to include a variety of works from others as well as his own compositions at his “birthday” show. “I am always looking for new stuff,” Hersch explained. “I got into jazz because it’s not predictable. I wouldn’t describe myself as wanting to settle – I am just not that way.
“I feel extremely fortunate to feel creative and energetic and have the opportunities I have,” he said. “I have been doing this a long time and it seems like now I am getting a lot of the goodies that come from paying a lot of dues.”
Tickets for Hersch’s Jordan Hall show are available at necmusic.edu/jordan-hall.