Fred Hersch: Despite struggles, a great pianist flourishes

Fred Hersch

Fred Hersch (September 18, 2012)

The formidable jazz pianist Fred Hersch was diagnosed with H.I.V. in 1986, developed AIDS and openly discussed it in the early 1990s and suffered a two-month coma in 2008 as a result of pneumonia (though that was not due to his disease).

In light of all that Hersch has endured, one might assume he would not have the wherewithal to launch major artistic initiatives at this late date. But one would be wrong.

Hersch has just released one of the best recordings of a prolific career, the aptly named "Alive at the Vanguard," a double-album recorded at New York's most storied jazz room. Last year, he unveiled the autobiographical, musical-dramatic work "My Coma Dreams"; he's in the midst of planning duo albums with 24-year-old guitar phenom Julian Lage and with veteran trumpeter Ralph Alessi, as well as a double-trio venture with French pianist Benoit Delbecq; and he's working on, of all things, a Broadway musical.

Though Hersch has been an infrequent visitor to Chicago, he'll start to make up for it this fall, with a rare, four-night run beginning Thursday at the Jazz Showcase and a return here Oct. 21 for the Chicago Humanities Festival, where he'll reprise his vocal-instrumental suite "Leaves of Grass."

By any measure, Hersch appears to be very much on the upswing.

"I'm more energetic and in better overall health than I have been in 20 years," says the pianist-composer, who turns 57 next month. "I've come out the other end of this with more energy, more focus, better clinical health. I have a really busy fall schedule. …

"It's a full plate, but I feel ready for it."

He certainly sounds ready for it, judging by the work on "Alive at the Vanguard." Though over the years I've found Hersch's finely wrought pianism a bit ethereal and fussy (not a widely held view), the new recording shows no such tendencies. On the contrary, the music bristles with a spirit of invention, its substantive harmonic content giving weight to the proceedings., while Hersch's mercurial interactions with bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson keep listeners on edge.

Hersch acknowledges that something special occurred when he and his current trio took up residence at the Village Vanguard from Feb. 7-12 of this year, prompting him to urge the record label, Palmetto, to document the sessions on two CDs rather than just one.

"My thing about jazz is that it should have some danger in it, and certainly doing the live recording raises the danger quotient," says Hersch. "I dislike going to a jazz performance seeing something I've heard before or they have played before. It doesn't have to be radically, wildly, completely different than anything I've heard, but I want to know that the musicians are trying to make something in that moment. …

"It's like film acting versus stage acting. Great stage actors know how to be in the moment, and if there's some momentary lapse, they know how to pull it together."

That sense of risk-taking pervades "Alive at the Vanguard," but the recording only touches on the breadth of Hersch's work. In "My Coma Dreams," for instance, Hersch collaborated with a singer-actor, a writer-director and several instrumentalists to try to make art out of the hallucinations he experienced in his ordeal of 2008.

In a New York Times review of the piece, critic Ben Ratliff observed: "It is a 90-minute song-cycle about the strangeness of coma-state perceptions versus real events – memories from the past, or actions around the patient's bed that might somehow influence his dream in real time. … The story moves the audience through close details about his intubation, weight loss and atrophy, as well as practical concerns about his career and life going forward."

But why would Hersch share such intimate and distressing facets of his life? More broadly, why would he come out about his disease and his sexuality two decades ago, a particularly daring move in the insular, macho world of jazz.

"In the early '90s, we all thought we were going to die," says Hirsch. "My friends were dropping like flies.

"I knew some friends who had always thought: 'If I get sick, my family will be there for me.' And they got sick, and sure enough their families disowned them.

"So I thought, 'It's best to test the water with people and find out who's going to be there when you need them.'

"But also, as a gay artist, I feel that for any artist, it takes a lot of energy staying in any kind of closet," adds Hersch. "It takes a lot of energy to maintain a closet. So if you want to be the artist you are, or the artist you can be, you need to be comfortable about who you are. That doesn't mean I want people to perceive me as a gay jazz musician, or that I play gay music, or that I'm just somebody with AIDS.

"I'd like for people to think I'm a reasonably nice person, a good musician, and that I just happen to be gay and I'm dealing with a disease. It's not the first thing in the file folder."

No, the first thing in Hersch's file folder remains his music – its intelligence, its craft and its apparently every-expanding expressive reach.

Yet surely Hersch's openness about his life has played a role in the widening acceptance of gay life in 21st century America.

"Michelle Obama was on TV the other night saying you should be free to love who you love," says Hersch.

"If I've put another nail in the structure of having that happen, that's a very important highlight in my life."

And in the country's cultural well-being.

Fred Hersch, with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Eric McPherson, plays at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; $20-$25; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com.

To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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