Fred Hersch shapes the future of jazz piano

Jazz pianist Fred Hersch performs with his trio in Old Lyme Friday and Saturday.
Jazz pianist Fred Hersch performs with his trio in Old Lyme Friday and Saturday.

Jazz pianist Fred Hersch seems to be a 24/7 fountain of creativity - composing, performing, collaborating and recording with an energy that would embarrass most endurance athletes.

Plus, the six-time Grammy nominee seems to have no creative boundaries. His interpretations of jazz repertoire are imaginative and groundbreaking. His own compositions fuse the structural vision of Thelonious Monk and the melodic grace of Bill Evans or Billy Strayhorn with a supreme ability to swing - all in a fresh style that stands at the forefront of 21st-century jazz. Hersch is also an in-demand collaborator and a theatrical conceptualist, and he was the first artist in the 75-year history of New York's Village Vanguard to play a week-long residence as a solo pianist.

All of this is amazing.

But Hersch also has AIDS. He'd been very ill off and on over the years until, in 2008, the disease migrated to his brain. He was in a coma for two months, his organs started shutting down, and when he miraculously came out of it, he couldn't eat, speak or walk. It took him two years to basically relearn how to function - much less play piano again. He is now healthier than he's been in years, busier than ever, and he credits art as central to his recovery.

"Wanting to play again was a very strong motivator, and it was important to me to get back on the horse, so to speak," says Hersch, on the phone from his New York City home before he brings his Trio - with drummer Eric McPherson and bassist John Hébert - to the Side Door Jazz Club in the Old Lyme Inn for shows Friday and Saturday.

Two stunning projects came directly from the coma experiences: the joyous "Whirl" CD and "My Coma Dreams," a multi-media song cycle including music, video projections, and spoken word narrative.

"I came out of the coma in 2008, and it was a long while before I was able to play at any reasonable level," he says. "'Whirl' came out, I think, in 2010, and I felt really great about the combination of musicians who took part. It was very healing."

Since then, Hersch seems to cram each year with a variety of projects. In 2013 alone, he released three different collaborative albums: "Only Many" with trumpeter Ralph Alessi, "Free Flying" with guitarist Julian Lage, and "Fun House" with pianist Benoit Delnecq.

That's a lot of work by any standard - and doesn't take into account Hersch's moderately heavy touring schedule.

"All of those albums developed rather organically," Hersch says. "Ralph's been a lot of my groups for 15 years, and we just finally decided to go into the studio.

"Benoit and I have great mutual admiration for each other. We were actually in Paris and trying to think of a project - something we could do that would be crazy enough to win (one of the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation's five French-American Jazz Exchange) grants. We ended up making an album of improv-heavy work based intentionally on very skeletal structures. It was a lot of fun."

As for working with Lage, Hersch says they met in a Boston coffee house and Lage asked him for a composition lesson.

"One thing lead to another," Hersch said, "and suddenly we were a duo. The album is a little more chamber music-y, and Julian is someone I very much enjoy having musical conversations with."

Regardless of the set lists this weekend, fans will be astonished by Hersch chops, rhythm and melodicism.

"I think I have a lot of range, and I do like melody," Hersch says. "I believe a jazz solo should try to tell a story using the musical theme as a springboard, and I'll take the band with me or they'll take me with them."

Fred Hersch Trio,
8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (door 7:30 p.m.), Side Door Jazz Club, Old Lyme Inn, 85 Lyme St., Old Lyme; $45, $10 food/beverage minimum not included in admission; (860) 434-0886, thesidedoorjazz.com.

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