Review and photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Arguably, Fred Hersch is one of the most important and brilliant jazz pianists in the historical linage of the jazz piano. In addition to more than three dozen recordings under his belt, he’s been nominated numerous times for a Grammy – including two at this month’s ceremonies, but alas, Chick Corea stole the show, winning both of those.
It’s unfortunate, because Hersch is every bit the pianist Corea is, but unlike the winner of those Grammys, Hersch sticks to the evolution of the art form and not to the popular style of the day.
Looking around the small but enthusiastic audience for Fred Hersch’s workshop at Williams College just a week before the Grammy Awards, there were students, professors, music fans, professional musicians… and there sitting among the onlookers was Avery Sharpe, the famed acoustic bassist with the McCoy Tyner trio.
Just think about that for a moment. If the “six degrees of separation” rule applies, then, spiritually speaking, John Coltrane was listening in.
After the instruments were set on stage for the student trio, Prof. Andy Jaffe opened the doors and let the audience in. Hersch took a seat somewhere in the middle of the recital hall in an aisle seat, notebook and pen in hand.
It’s important to mention that Jaffe is no slouch at the jazz piano himself. His early solo recordings of the 1980s feature a group of up-and-coming sidemen including Branford Marsalis, Wallace Roney and Marvin Smitty Smith, among many others. They’ve all become a Who’s Who of jazz today, and so has Jaffe, as an educator.
First up at the workshop session was a trio featuring pianist Taylor Halperin, bassist Matt Staigler and drummer Charlie Sellers, playing two compositions for Hersch’s benefit and critique. “There Will Never Be Another You,” waffled through the hall. A Halperin original followed.
Hersch didn’t hold back when the last note of the first piece faded into the air, “You’ve got your nose in the book. It’s only 32 bars; you can memorize that. You will hear each other much better when you don’t look at the book and just listen to each other…”
After all, Hersch was there to offer a critical analysis. Remember that the keys to success are knowledge, practice and patience. What ruins a budding career of so many a musical hopefuls is the lack of understanding one of those three intrinsic ingredients. And critical analysis from someone who’s actually gone through the ranks and ropes is invaluable.
Hersch made the nervous trio play it again, stating, “You want to be connected (to each other) and efficient.” Then before they began he interjected, “Then do a couple of more choruses without looking at the written music.”
The trio played the piece again, and it sounded a little more coherent, but it still wasn’t totally right musically. “It’s better. It swings more. And it’s more imaginative,” Hersch stipulates, adding, “Learn more about the piece harmonically, that is, if you’re serious about this.”
And that’s the crux of the matter: Is a student-musician who has aspirations to be a professional serious enough to work on a piece tirelessly time and again to get it just right.
Hersch noted body language, dynamics and so many other points of interest so that anyone in the audience could fully understand what the score was. This was real advice by a master who has been there and done that. Invaluable advice to anyone in the arts, not just jazz.
Up next, student composer-pianist Laone Thekisco sat at the 88s, performing an original solo piano piece. His complex, multi-rhythmic work captured the attention of the room, as well as Hersch’s ears.
When the piece finished, Hersch wore a half-smile and looked up at the young pianist, “Fantastic valleys!” he proclaimed, adding sympathetically, “It’s hard to write for the piano, I know. In fact, it’s a pain in the ass.”
The audience chuckled, knowing Hersch was right.
“The piece is big in scope and fairly dense for a short piece,” Hersch added. “It was very impressive playing, but what would make it spectacular is more contrast. Separate those lines so that we can hear the cross rhythms. You’ve got to incorporate the dynamic contrasts in the performance.
“Play it again, but this time you should re-evaluate the architecture of the piece. Key off the left hand and build the piece,” Hersch advised.
Thekiso listened intently and then performed the piece taking Hersch’s advice. The work sounded more integrated, more dynamic. It was a beautiful work by an up-and-coming pianist made better with a few guiding words of wisdom.
Last up at the end of the two-hour workshop was a seasoned violinist from a well-respected regional symphony orchestra. It turns out that Hersch had recorded with the eccentric, in-your-face, classical violin virtuoso Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, and violinist Joe Jewett is a fan of that work. Jewett even had the score, so that he and Hersch could play the work together. Talk about preparedness.
Hersch ascended the stage, and the two tackled the work. Hersch’s playing was melodic and sensitive. Jewett’s the same.
Hersch’s advice took on a different tone toward Jewett. It was more suggestive than commanding this time around. After all, Hersch was dealing with a professional who follows the adage that you are always a student and open to learning. Admirably, the gray-haired Jewett certainly fit that mold and took it all in.
A round of applause transitioned into an informative Q&A with Hersch sitting at the Steinway fielding questions about composing, playing, jazz and teaching. He answered with aplomb.
There in that room Hersch was certainly in one of his primary elements: the classroom. The other roles he plays – as a composer and as a performer – can be heard on most recent album, the Grammy-nominated solo work, “Alone at the Vanguard.”