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Fred Hersch meditates on writing for duos, trios, large ensembles

Fred Hersch, a man in a flannel shirt with a gray goatee and glasses, sits at a piano
Pianist Fred Hersch and multi-instrumentalist Esperanza Spalding recorded an off-the-cuff live album at New York’s Village Vanguard. Now, they’re bringing the spirit of improvisation to the Modlin Center for the Arts.

Fred Hersch and Esperanza Spalding’s new album, “Alive at the Village Vanguard” (Palmetto Records), brings a fresh sound to the legendary New York jazz venue, treating standards with off-the-cuff storytelling and improvisation.

VPM Music caught up with pianist Hersch to learn more about the album and his other recent projects ahead of the duo’s Friday performance at the Modlin Center for the Arts.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Annie Parnell:  “Alive at the Village Vanguard” is your new release with the bassist and vocalist. That use of the word “alive” is very intentional. Tell me more about that choice.

Hersch: I've made, I think five other records at the Village Vanguard. One is Live at the Village Vanguard, Live at the Vanguard, Solo at the Vanguard … . So, I've done all the permutations. In this project, the audience is a very active participant in the whole thing. And we felt like “alive” expressed more of the joy that we were experiencing and that the audience was experiencing. And of course, it also meant that it didn't duplicate another title of mine. Yeah, it was a very deliberate word choice.

And with the release of this album, the two of you are also starting a live tour that's making its way to Richmond. Can you give us a hint of what listeners can expect to hear?

We play some standards that we know and like, from the Great American Songbook. We play some Brazilian music — we are also big Brazilian music fans. Some of my originals and then some jazz compositions, chiefly by Thelonious Monk or, you know, Charlie Parker.

We never really know what we're going to do. We sort of have a menu of all the songs that are in the repertoire, then maybe we scribble a setlist before we go up. And then if we get to a certain point and it doesn't feel like the right thing, it's very easy to switch and say, “Oh, let's play this.” So, it's pretty much mix of the normal kind of musical food groups in the jazz world.

I can certainly promise the audience that they're going to get a very unique performance. It's not canned. It's not duplicating what's on our album, you know, we're going to be creating it new every show.

A thought that I had for our tour when we're playing in larger venues is, we're going to put a carpet on the stage and have a little funky floor lamp, and the stand and the stool, and the piano, and some lighting that will make it look more intimate. So, it'll look more like a living room and less like two people on a gigantic stage. We're doing our best to make it as much like the Vanguard as we can, given the fact that we're going to be playing some very large venues. We want to feel the audience.

I find the standards interesting, particularly on the "Alive" set. Spalding is known for not really recording that many of them, and they're really interpreted in an interesting way. Can you tell me a little more about that?

Both of us were going through a really hard time right around the recording, which was October of 2018.

I had a split a week — I had three nights with the wonderful clarinetist Anat Cohen, and then Esperanza on Friday, Saturday, Sunday. And I, just on a whim, decided to record it. But she was going through some very difficult family things, and on the Monday after we closed Sunday night, at 5:30 in the morning, I was getting my right hip replaced. So, I was on crutches, certainly not feeling that great off the stage, but of course I didn't want to take any pain medication either. That would not have been helpful. But when the lights went up, we just discovered this joy. Also, she didn't let me know until the week of the concerts that she wasn't bringing her bass. And I thought, “Well, this is going to be perhaps more interesting, just to see what she does.”

On the standard tunes, she improvises stories that have to do with the lyrics or something else. They are truly different every time she does them. She's one of the more intelligent people I know, and I've never heard her do that. And I don't know if she's really done it before. So, what you're hearing is really the first time for us, in this format, just letting it rip.

Yeah, it's my understanding you went into this session with no set arrangements for the selections you were going to pull from. Is that correct?

Well, we had played a couple of gigs in, like 2015, ’16, ’ 17. But she was playing bass or drums were involved. But there were some songs that we knew — 5, 6, 8 songs. And then we just got together and said, “Oh, let's add this,” and, “How do you feel about this tune.” It evolved pretty organically.

We may or may not add some tunes on the road. With piano and bass, you can just do that —you don't have to write an arrangement or worry about anybody else. I usually just put my hands down, and then we go from there.

You and Spalding have known each other for a while, and have collaborated on and off previously. How'd you decide to work together on this project?

I basically just invited her. You know, I had these three nights dangling. And I said, “Do you want to come play?” She was living in Brooklyn at that time. Now, she's been in Portland since lockdown, and I think that's going to be her permanent base: She's in the process of creating kind of an arts community out there for people of color and Indigenous people. … But she was in Brooklyn, and all she did had to do is take the subway.

There are a number of albums in my catalog that are what I call “found objects.” They were just really great concerts that happened to be recorded, and the sound was good. This one, we didn't know what was going to happen. We'd never done it before. But I just maybe had a little inkling that something magic would happen. And so, we documented it.

You mentioned the difference between recording these live sets versus being in the studio. In 2022, you released two different albums, the September duet with Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava, as well as "Breath by Breath." The latter is a suite with your jazz trio and a string quartet about meditation. Do you find that working on these one-on-one duet sessions is any different than collaborating with larger groups?

The string quartet project, of course, had to be done in a studio for reasons of sound. I mean, it was one of the first recording sessions in a studio that all of us had done when things were starting to open up in May of 2021. And the women in the string quartet hadn't played chamber music in a year and a half. It was all kind of new music for all of us. So, that was a challenge. It was really a put-together studio album.

The duo album with Enrico Rava was recorded in a concert hall with no headphones. So, it was like playing a gig in a beautiful, empty auditorium with very deluxe sound. That's for the ECM label, which is known for a very pristine production and sound. And I will be making a solo album for them in May, in the same place in Lugano. You’re not really self-conscious when you're just playing on a stage and getting this beautiful acoustic feedback from a beautiful hall.

During the summer of 2020, I did a home-recorded album called "Songs from Home" that I did on my laptop. And the challenge for that was, because I wasn't paying for studio time, I could do as many takes of anything as I wanted to do. So, at a certain point, I said, “OK, I'm going to record for two days and whatever is the best of that, it's done.” Those are the best projects, I think, when you're not so intentional about it and you can just be in the music.

It’s interesting that in all these discussions of leaving behind self-consciousness and focusing on being in the moment, even "Breath by Breath," which is this larger studio project, is dedicated to meditation and the practice of being in the moment.

Yeah, I go on lengthy silent retreats. I've been doing it for a long time, and every title and every piece has something to do with an aspect of that practice. There's one called “Begin Again,” which comes from a meditation instruction: When you get lost in a thought or a daydream, just take a breath and begin again. You can always do that. One called “Know That You Are,” comes from another instruction: When you sit, know that you are sitting. That's one of the most basic meditation instructions, just to be aware of and be in your body.

Obviously, it's been a busy couple of years for you between these recordings and now touring. I'm curious, beyond the tour, what's next?

Well, a vacation in Mexico. I have some concerts in Europe with Enrico Rava in March, and then from April 3 to May 1, four weeks, I'm gonna sit at a silent retreat up in Western Massachusetts, a place I've been many times. I've never done a month. So, that's going to be interesting for sure.

I'm also composing some classical piano music for an amazing concert pianist friend of mine, Igor Levit. And that's a different sort of challenge, to write fully annotated concert music for a pianist who can play anything. And a solo recording.

I think it's really a great variety show, and that's really what I like, you know. To just feel like I'm a musical citizen of the world, and I get to collaborate and do cool things.