Jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch has fascinating stories to tell. They are expressed through varied artistic platforms and can incorporate theater, spoken word or classically oriented vocalists, but they always center on his distinctive, much-admired playing.
Hersch comes to Davis this week for four nights with his most recent trio, which features John Hébert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums. The band is entering its third year of working together, and Hersch said he has certain requirements for his bandmates.
“I’ve had five trios in something like 25 years,” Hersch said from his home in New York, having just returned from a European tour. “I need to play with guys who can play completely open music – no chords, nothing – and I need people who can play the crap out of a beautiful ballad with all the right notes and a great feel.”
The band’s most recent album, “Alive at the Village Vanguard,” finds the musicians moving through a set that includes the Romberg/Hammerstein ballad “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” Cole Porter’s “From This Moment On,” Sonny Rollins’ “Doxy” and Hammerstein/Kern’s “The Song Is You,” which segues into Thelonious Monk’s “Played Twice.”
It’s a jazz pianist’s survey of 20th century popular music and the band has to be agile and dexterous to pull off what Hersch is after in the music’s performance.
“I tend to lean on the bassist most,” Hersch said. “Not just for their sound but for their note choices and understanding, really, the nuts and bolts of jazz harmony. There are a lot of young bass players who play all kinds of vamps and ostinatos, complex, long compositions, but they can’t make a lot out of a standard or a Monk tune or a ballad. They don’t have that experience, and it’s frankly not important to them anymore. A lot of today’s music doesn’t demand it.”
The 58-year-old Hersch was born and raised in Cincinnati where began studying piano as a child and found jazz as a teenager.
“It really came by stumbling into jazz clubs in Cincinnati and happening to listen to certain things and being around certain people,” Hersch said. “I’d been improvising my whole life. When I was kid it sounded like classical music. The way I came up learning was on the bandstand and playing with jazz blues singers.
“I’m not totally an effete, intellectual kind of piano player,” he added. “I like to dig into those grooves that a lot of the younger pianists don’t really care about.”
It’s not that Hersch is a conservative jazz historian or an anti-modern contrarian; he just appreciates the legacy of jazz while expecting the art form to continue developing. But he feels that some of the life and vitality of jazz that he initially loved is being lost.
“I really like the people ... the social aspect of (jazz), which is being whitewashed or phased out of existence,” Hersch said. “You could go and hang out at clubs with whomever, and people were larger than life. Now it’s all very earnest, young people just playing their own music.”
Hersch should have a sense of the younger generation since he is helping form it through teaching appointments at The New School and the Manhattan School of Music. He’s also on the Jazz Studies faculty of the New England Conservatory. Some of his former students include Brad Mehldau, and Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus.
While Hersch has created projects that include setting Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” to music with vocalists, as well as a multimedia theater piece called “My Coma Dreams” – which featured an actor/singer, 11 musicians and computer-generated images – he also continues a career-long fascination with Thelonious Monk’s music.
“Every night I play something of Monk’s and I’ve recorded a solo Monk album,” Hersch said. “He grounds me in jazz rhythm. His tunes are sometimes like puzzles. You have to be able to figure them out and live with them for a long time. The good ones have great character.”