A pair of recent releases deepen pianist Fred Hersch’s passion for and ingenuity within the duo format.
Fred Hersch stands among jazz’s first rank of pianists and composers, possessing rare and wide-ranging gifts. Yet he promotes no particular style. He plays it his way, always shaping a personal sound. Perhaps that’s truest when he’s alone at the piano. Among his more than 50 albums are 11 solo releases, the latest of which, 2020’s Songs From Home
, offered moments of rare reflection and uplift recorded during the pandemic’s depths. Hersch’s singular presence has shaped many musical contexts: standard-bearing trios; various midsize ensembles, including one with a string quartet; and the large ensemble for his 2011 multimedia piece My Coma Dreams
Commanding as Hersch has been as a leader in such settings, he is also one of jazz’s most empathic collaborators — especially alone with another musician. Throughout his career, he’s sought out duos with, among many others, guitarists Bill Frisell and Julian Lage; reed players Jane Ira Bloom and Anat Cohen; and a diverse list of singers including Norma Winstone, Janis Siegel and Renee Fleming. For more than a dozen years running, Hersch performed a full week of duos — a different one each night — each May at Manhattan’s now-defunct Jazz Standard. In his memoir Good Things Happen Slowly
, he explained that the duo setting is “collaborative and also intimate. You have to be compatible but also different enough for each musician to offer something unique.”
Two recent recordings deepen this legacy of one-to-one exchanges, through music that is, by turns, dramatic, funny, tender, lighthearted and demanding, all the while opening new doors of creativity. Alive at the Village Vanguard
(Palmetto) documents a 2018 engagement with esperanza spalding at the Vanguard, the storied Greenwich Village club which has long been a consistent home base for Hersch. For her Vanguard engagement with Hersch, spalding left her double bass at home. She relied solely on her voice — singing, scatting and weaving improvised stories in and out of song forms. Meanwhile, The Song Is You
(ECM), released last year, finds Hersch and the Italian musician Enrico Rava alone at an empty auditorium of a radio studio in Lugano, Switzerland, in November 2021. Rava, whose acclaim includes his reputation as a trumpeter, here plays only flugelhorn, to glorious effect.
In some ways, the two recordings couldn’t be more different. One was recorded before the pandemic and in front of an enthusiastic crowd, the other just as the lockdown was lifted, in an empty and pristine space. With Rava, the 67-year-old Hersch communed with a master who was then 82; with spalding, he joined forces with a still-rising star who is 29 years his junior. Yet there were similarities. Both recordings occurred at times of physical challenge. Rava had to put down his instrument for three months before he recorded with Hersch, owing to a medical condition. In 2018, Hersch arrived at the Vanguard on crutches, awaiting hip replacement surgery the day after the gig ended. Each album features Thelonious Monk’s music, a bossa nova composed by a Brazilian master and a chestnut from the Great American Songbook.
Rava describes the experience of playing in duo with Hersch as “two souls having a dialogue, something that goes way beyond the notes we play.” That sense comes clearest on one riveting track titled simply “Improvisation,” for which Rava told Hersch, “let’s make something up.” Spalding has compared performing in duo with Hersch with playing in a sandbox. The two were back in their sandbox, at the Vanguard, in January, to celebrate the release of their new recording. There, spalding sometimes sang a lyric straight or scatted wordlessly. Here and there, she developed monologues — part sung, part spoken. She turned Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence” into a consideration of truth and proof in a divisive and frequently suspicious world. Here Hersch’s interpretation of the melody and his treatment of the song’s rhythmic displacements — his ability to make a phrase or beat disappear or change in character — extended spalding’s very point.
Hersch spoke with me via Zoom from his Pennsylvania home about the joys, challenges and promise of playing in duos. - Larry Blumenfeld
https://open.spotify.com/album/0ZtyPgjVZsMzwxeDYYgllf?si=VOV-UjIQTGuEEjfZySPOrQ The duo format seems a special interest of yours. When did that start?
I guess it goes back to my roots, in Cincinnati. There was a good local jazz scene, blessed with two world-class guitarists. There was a guy named Cal Collins, who had a little bit of a moment for Concord Jazz and playing with Benny Goodman and others. And a very reticent guy named Kenny Poole. He could play a bossa nova just like João Gilberto. He was the first guy I heard do that. We played some duos. I was only 18 or 19. But already, I could tell I was really into it.
What sort of music did you perform?
We just played tunes. I don’t even remember which ones, but I remember the feeling. It was a very direct feeling. He was a big listener, and a good duo partner. I was enjoying playing with drummers and bass players, and learning that craft. But this was inspiring in a new way. There were probably eight people in the audience. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was how it felt. You know, I haven’t really thought about those first duets in years. Generally, when people ask about duos, I start with my experiences at NEC [New England Conservatory of Music, where Hersch studied and ultimately taught]. That’s when I started really thinking about duos, and listening to them.
What duo recordings were you listening to?
Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake [1962’s The Newest Sound Around
] Jaki Byard and Earl Hines [1975’s Duet!
]. There were many others later, but those were some of the first ones I listened to when I went to New England. Ran and Jaki were both teaching there.
We didn’t really have a great student rhythm section at NEC. I was playing with professional rhythm sections, and so I didn’t really dig that situation too much. There was what we called the “piano alley,” which was a part of the third floor of the school where all the piano studios were, mostly used for classical studies at the time. When I’d practice, [saxophonist and clarinetist] Michael Moore or someone else I knew would walk by, and I’d say, “Hey, let’s play some duos.” It just became a thing for me. And that led to early duo recordings, like the one with Jane Ira Bloom, which I think was my first duo album.
At a certain point, did you make a conscious decision to pursue duos as an important context?
Yes and no. For instance, for a while I worked a lot with singers. When I started striking out on my own, I just felt like, OK, it’s good, honest work, you know, playing different keys, learning how to play out of time and play a verse with a singer, to modulate your sound to accommodate the singer. I learned a lot from that, which I still use today. I just knew when it was time to stop. These days, the only way I’ll play with a vocalist is in a duo, and there are only like six singers in the world I’ll do that with.
You see, all my duos really happened organically. With Enrico Rava, the way it developed was completely organic. We just began playing. The same with esperanza. With Jane Ira Bloom, we started doing it because we were doing quartet work, and during every set we would eventually do a duet. So Stefan Winter from JMT Records said, “You guys should do a duo album.” And I had a studio at the time. A lot of these duet connections — Anat Cohen, for instance, or Julian Lage — came as a result of the sets at the Jazz Standard.
Yes, that seemed to be very much an intentional laboratory devoted to the duo idea.
I suppose so, though it was really just something I felt like doing at the time. And we ended up doing six different duos for a week each May for 12 or 13 years. I just approached the club with the idea. I did a night with John Hollenbeck, I did a night with Jane. I did a night with Ralph Alessi. Over the years it grew. Once, I did six two-piano nights in a row. I played with Josh Redman, I played with Ambrose Akinmusire — just people that I was interested in playing with. It was nearly always fun, or even when it was not so much fun, nobody died. Some were more successful than others. Certain people — Ralph, Julian, Anat, Miguel Zenón — grew into longer relationships. Julian had told me that when he was very young, his favorite record was the duo record I made with Bill Frisell, Songs We Know
That’s also a favorite of mine. How did that come about?
We were both recording for Nonesuch. Bob Hurwitz invited us to do a duo album. I went out to Seattle, where Bill lived at the time, and we rehearsed a bunch of his music and my music. Every time we rehearsed, we would play a standard to warm up. Then we realized that was the best stuff. Also, people hadn’t really heard Bill play standards like that. I mean, they did with Paul Motian’s On Broadway
albums. But not in a really stripped-down version. It’s become kind of an iconic record for a lot of guitar players. Bill is very easy to play with, which doesn’t mean that the music is simple. The connection is easy. How did the duo with esperanza come about?
Again, it was organic. I was playing at the Village Vanguard — this must have been at least 15 years ago. I had played the Vanguard a lot, and esperanza would come out often. She always loved hearing John Hébert or Drew Gress, you know, the “bass players’ bass players” who worked with me. In those days, she had the famous Afro. This one night, her hair was wrapped up in a scarf. She just came up to me after the set and said, “Hi, I’m esperanza.” I said, “Yes, I know.” We had a nice conversation. I asked her to play with me during one of my standard shows. So we did, and the way I had it go down was that we started with just a duet, piano and voice. Then we did some with piano, voice and her playing the bass. Then drummer Richie Barshay joined us, and we played some trio with her. So it was like a progressive show. It was a lot of fun. We might have done it twice.
At that time, the Vanguard was not doing any kind of duo things. You know, Lorraine [Gordon, the late club owner] was pretty much against the idea. But I approached her about doing duets with Anat Cohen for three nights, and then esperanza for three nights. And Lorraine said, yes, this is a worthy experiment. A lot of people showed up for Anat, who hadn’t played in the club for a long time. I had told her, “Leave your saxophone at home. Just bring your clarinet.” For the weekend with esperanza, I was expecting her to bring her bass. But she was going through some family stuff at the time and hadn’t been playing the bass. So she didn’t bring it. I was on crutches the morning after the closing night — I was having my hip replaced. So I was in physical pain, and she was in some sort of emotional pain. Still, in the midst of it, we found this amazing joy that really comes through. The vibe in the house was amazing. I sensed that right away, so I said, “Let’s record it.” And she said fine.
Did anything surprise you about what unfolded through those sets?
Most of all, those improvised stories she tells, which are truly improvised. She has a connection to the hip-hop and rap worlds and, you know, she knows how to do that. But what’s crazy about it is that what she says also has specific pitches. It’s very harmonically sophisticated. I think that “Girl Talk” track is 12 minutes, but it doesn’t feel like 12 minutes, you know? Her voice — her flexibility and pitch and instincts — are just kind of scary. And her ears are big. Esperanza is fearless. Nothing is off limits. And, you know, it doesn’t feel like, oh, now it’s scat-singing. It’s all just flows. And, maybe because esperanza is best known for her own songs, what may surprise some people too is the way she sings a ballad like “Some Other Time.” She reads a lyric really well. I’m very word-sensitive. I mean, there are certain standards that I won’t play because I hate the words. I only play songs where I like the words, because that helps me phrase the melody and get emotionally connected to it. If there are words, they’re worth studying. And she’s a good student of that.
On “Dream of Monk,” those are your words she’s singing, right?
Yes. I composed that music for My Coma Dreams
. I’ve recorded it with the trio. It’s always been an instrumental. I bugged Norma Winstone, who has written great words to my songs, to write lyrics to it. She never got around to it, but in one afternoon, in about a half an hour, I just wrote these lyrics. Esperanza liked them, and she liked the tune. So it’s one that we have been playing really since the very beginning.
I’m actually very happy to say that this album represents a pretty high point for me in terms of a certain kind of playing that I do. And the one with Enrico Rava represents a pretty high point for me in terms of something else that I do.
What are those two poles you’re talking about?
The recording styles are so different, you know? Enrico and I were in an inspiring theater, in Lugano. The flugelhorn sounded gorgeous in there. And it was a great piano. It was a place built for such a recording. It captured our relationship with each other and with that space, with no one sitting in the audience. With esperanza, it was the Vanguard, with all its history and its magic, and it was about the relationship that she and I have with that audience, which is a very special audience.
How did the duo album with Enrico come about?
Enrico and I met in July of 2021. We were put together by our two European managers. We played three gigs. And when Enrico told Manfred [Eicher, head of ECM Records] that he was doing this, Manfred immediately wanted to record it. We did three gigs in Italy, but then Enrico had to stop playing for three months for a procedure on his lung. Then we met in Lugano, where we recorded on the stage at Swiss Radio. We had a little rehearsal the day before in a crappy-sounding little room. There, his flugelhorn sounded really unflattering. He said, “I can’t do this. I can’t play anymore,” you know, all that. And then we got on the stage the next day at the hall, and he played a handful of notes and got terrifically inspired. We did most of the record in four hours or so, and a couple of tracks the next day. He was incredible.
But Enrico had said something important to me when we were rehearsing. He said, “It’s not what you play, it’s how you play it.” I’ve always felt that way. I mean, you don’t have to have an original theme for it to be original. You don’t have to get wrapped around the fact that other people have recorded a song. It’s how you do it. And playing something that you didn’t write is no less creative than playing something you wrote. Sometimes, it’s more creative. So that happened very organically, and it’s a very strong relationship.
I am completely fascinated by the track titled simply, “Improvisation.” How did that take shape?
It’s a strong one, huh? Enrico just said, let’s make something up, so I just started playing. It’s his favorite track on the record.
It might be my favorite track, too, and it reinforces something I believe about how great improvising musicians can create form out of shared experiences and languages.
At that point, our relationship was pretty new. There was trust, but we were still in the exploration phase. Really, it’s the same with esperanza. She and I had never done six duo shows without her bass or any other instruments, so stripped down. I think there’s a freshness about both projects, and a willingness to really stretch. Even though one is obviously a pristine recording and the other is a live club recording, that attitude ties them together for me somehow. I mean, there are 40-some years separating these two musicians. But these are two master musicians, and I’m not too shabby, either. And when you just trust your instincts and go for it together, with no distractions or expectations, things happen.
Through all this duo work, what do you learn about yourself as a musician?
That’s a good question. In the ’90s, I was probably striving a little bit too much or trying too hard or feeling like I had to play a certain way. Not that it was bad. I made some projects that I still feel good about. Since the coma and the related psychosis, I came back and felt a lot looser in general. Also, my physical abilities had changed. My sound had changed. The way my hands work had changed. And then after 14 months of COVID, once I came back, I felt even more relaxed and more confident. I think with both of these musicians, and alone in the company of any musician I truly like and admire, I feel very confident. I feel like I can do anything, and it’s fine. I like feeling that way.
Featured photo by Mark Niskanen.