Pianist Fred Hersch brings jazz recitals to Doheny Mansion


Coltrane, Monk, Miles. From the start, jazz musicians were the epitome of cool. So it’s no surprise the eminent jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch gravitated to that hip musical arena while growing up Jewish in the Midwest. But the image of Hersch, who was recently dubbed “a paragon of modern jazz piano” by The New Yorker, playing an organ in a synagogue might come as a surprise to his legion of followers. 

“I loved Jewish music,” Hersch said by phone from his home in New York. “For the service, we had an organ and professional choir. Sometimes I would sneak up and play the organ.”

Hersch, 60, a secular Jew who still identifies culturally with the religion, proudly noted his hometown, Cincinnati, as the birthplace of Reform Judaism. “Hebrew Union College is there,” Hersch said, adding that there’s nothing unusual about a Jewish kid becoming a jazz musician. “There are a lot of great Jewish jazz musicians: clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman, saxophonists Stan Getz and Michael Brecker … the list goes on.”

Hersch will give two solo recitals under the gold Tiffany dome in the Doheny Mansion, in downtown Los Angeles, on Dec. 20 at 2 and 4:30 p.m., part of the Da Camera Society’s “Jazz in the Mansion” series. Jazz, he said, was the perfect form of music for him. 

“I always improvised,” Hersch said, “and I got to hang out with cool people. It was a world my parents didn’t know, so that was also a plus.” 

Hersch’s grandfather was a violinist; his grandmother, a pianist. He turned to the piano because there was one in his living room. “It was very organic,” Hersch said. “By age 5, I was taking lessons. Typical prodigy stuff. Jazz was underground music at that time. This was before jazz education, before jazz became institutionalized. I learned by doing it.”

He dropped out of Grinnell College in Iowa after one term, then played gigs around Cincinnati with local players, eventually graduating from the New England Conservatory with honors. 

As for his programs on the upcoming Doheny Mansion recitals, Hersch said he decides “on the spot” what and how he’s going to play something. But listeners can expect some jazz classics and original works by Hersch.  

“It’s what feels right,” Hersch said. “It’s always different — the piano, people, venue, time of day. I’m not a heavy practicer. A good warm-up and decent piano is all I need. I’m playing from experience, so it’s about being in the right head space and not worrying about what you’re playing.”

Kelly Garrison, Da Camera Society general director, called Hersch “the dean of American jazz pianists. His playing is truly elegant. From a lyrical standpoint, he has the ability to make the instrument sing and purr, sound fluid, magical.”

Whether he draws from jazz or classical traditions, Hersch said his goal is to “speak the language of the piano” in all its moods, textures, keys and rhythms. “In everything I play, especially in a solo context, classical comes out,” Hersch said. “It has to do with an approach and sensibility, with tone color and an active left-hand technique drawn from Bach, Scriabin and Ravel.”

Clarity is one characteristic of Hersch’s style — notes, chords and phrases are finely articulated and imbued with lots of color. His tonal palette and wide dynamic range suggest one of his early jazz influences, Erroll Garner, whom Hersch called “the complete piano player.” Earl Hines, who, like Hersch, had classical training, is another jazz pianist high on Hersch’s list. 

Hersch’s own range and style can be heard on his new album, “Solo” (Palmetto), his 49th record (he also leads the Fred Hersch Trio and other ensembles) and 10th as a soloist, where he offers deeply personal and warmly lyrical takes on such tunes as Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”; Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud”; and “Pastorale,” Hersch’s tribute to composer Robert Schumann.

“When I’m playing, the piano’s like a big drum set with pitches,” Hersch said. “It can be a big band or have the intimacy of a singer.”

In the mid-1980s, Hersch discovered he was HIV-positive, and then in 2008, a wicked bout of pneumonia caused him to fall into a coma lasting two months. “My Coma Dreams,” a multimedia jazz/theater piece, was released last year on DVD, with proceeds benefiting AIDS research. 

“After that, my career actually jumped ahead,” Hersch said. “At the time, I didn’t know how well I’d be able to play, but I’m playing stronger than before. My life fundamentally changed. A lot of it is accepting who I am now and being more present.”

Hersch, who is working on a memoir titled “Good Things Happen Slowly,” said he now meditates daily, citing a Japanese tradition that when you become 60, you start again at zero. 

“Since my 2008 coma, my playing is less micro-managed,” he said. “I throw it down now. I have nothing to prove. It’s a really great job, making stuff up and making people happy. I’ve been doing this for 42 years, dues paid by my health and the jazz industry. I’m a survivor.”

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