The last time Fred Hersch was featured on Weekend Edition Saturday, the headline read, "Back On Stage By No Small Miracle." It was 2009, and scarcely a year earlier, the jazz pianist had suffered AIDS-related dementia and fallen into a coma for several months. Since recovering, Hersch has come roaring back to music, releasing a string of live albums to critical success.
A new studio recording by Hersch's trio came out earlier this month; it's called Floating. This week, a review in The New York Times said that while Hersch has been putting out great trio albums for 30 years, "He hasn't made one better than this." Hersch recently spoke about the new album with NPR's Scott Simon; hear their conversation at the audio link.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
In 2009, the last time we featured this jazz pianist in our show, the headline was this - Fred Hersch back on stage by no small miracle. He suffered from AIDS-related dementia and fell into a coma for several months. But Fred Hersch has come roaring back. He's released a string of live albums to critical acclaim. His trio's latest studio recording came out earlier this month. This week a review in the New York Times said that while Fred Hersch has been putting out great trio albums for 30 years, quote, "He hasn't made a better one than this." It's called "Floating."
(SOUNDBITE OF FRED HERSCH SONG, "A SPEECH TO THE SEA")
SIMON: And Fred Hersch joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
FRED HERSCH: My pleasure.
SIMON: I got to begin by asking how are you feeling?
HERSCH: I am feeling unbelievably great. You know, in the last five - six years, some things, maybe as a result of that, I feel like I've loosened up a lot. I'm going to be 60 next year. I don't really feel like I have anything to prove. I'm just kind of letting it rip. And that really feels great.
SIMON: Is there a piece you'd like to call our attention to?
HERSCH: Yeah, I mean, I think the first tune on the album, which is a kind of Afro-Cuban arrangement of "You & the Night & the Music"...
(SOUNDBITE OF FRED HERSCH SONG, "YOU & THE NIGHT & THE MUSIC")
HERSCH: Kind of speaks to a really important element of my style, which is use of counterpoint independent right and left-hand melodies going on simultaneously with different rhythms and pitches - something that's fascinated me since I was a kid with the music of Bach and other composers. It's become sort of a signature, I suppose, in my style and its really so much fun to play that way.
SIMON: Fred, tell us about this group, the trio.
HERSCH: I made my first studio recording after my coma in 2009 with this band. John Hebert is the bassist, originally from Baton Rouge, and Eric McPherson on drums. He's a native New Yorker - grew up and still lives in the village. And we've been playing pretty steadily in the last five, six years. Our repertoire has really grown to be huge and diverse, and I just love those guys. I think they're one of the great rhythm sections in jazz right now.
SIMON: Let's listen to a track if we could. This one is "Home Fries."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME FRIES")
SIMON: Now the songs on this album have dedications.
HERSCH: Yes, six out of the seven originals other than "Floating" do have dedication. That one was written for my bassist John Hebert. It has a, kind of a New Orleans groove. And not to bust your cover, John, but he loves fried food.
SIMON: (Laughter) Well, hence the title.
HERSCH: I've probably written over 30 dedication pieces over the years. Actually, one of my first ones was a piece I wrote for Charlie Haden, who just passed away this week, that we've been playing down at the club. I think I don't want to imitate the person that I'm writing for, but it's sort of a good point of departure as a composer to think about somebody - maybe their aesthetic or something that would reflect something about them. It's not a trick, it's just - it keeps you from staring at the paper and waiting for the great inspiration to descend from heaven. You know, it's a - it kind of puts you in a certain frame and it's always easier to write when you know what you're writing about.
SIMON: There are a few standards on the album including Lerner and Loewe's "If Ever I Would Leave You," which, as I recall from "Camelot," - Robert Goulet's featured number. A lot of people might remember the Sonny Rollins recording. Let's - a little compare and contrast. Let's listen to Sonny Rollins.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF EVER I WOULD LEAVE YOU")
SIMON: Now that's different than what it was in, you know, on Broadway on the West End. And with Robert Goulet, it was sort of jointed out like that. Let's listen to your version.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF EVER I WOULD LEAVE YOU")
SIMON: Fred, that's just beautiful.
HERSCH: Thank you.
SIMON: What made you decide to go in this direction?
HERSCH: Well, I have a penchant as a kind of self-confessed song nerd. I was trying to find tunes - particularly ballads that don't get played much. I also base all my interpretations of standards on not just the melody and the harmony, but the words. I really believe as Lester Young said, you can't really play a song, particularly a ballad, if you don't know the words. Really informs your phrasing, gives you an emotional connection to the tune so that it's not just some notes on a lead sheet, it's a song. And I love songs.
SIMON: This - I mean, as I recall, this is if ever I would leave you it wouldn't be in summer. Or - he goes through spring, summer...
SIMON: I never would go. Your hair streaked with sun-light, your lips red with flame.
HERSCH: Go Scott, go Scott.
SIMON: Thank you, let's see, let's see. I'm trying to sound like Robert Goulet. Your face with a luster that puts gold to shame. I must tell you, Fred, I sing that to our cat.
HERSCH: Oh, wow. OK, even better, let's get the pets involved.
SIMON: Do you think about what your listeners take away from listening to this album?
HERSCH: Well, if I'm really engaged in what I'm playing, and if there's a real engagement with the music, you know, hopefully you'll feel like you've been somewhere and experienced something. And especially in jazz, there's no performance that's exactly the same, so you're experiencing something that is that way only once. And that's kind of, I fell like, the job of an artist is to make people think and feel and connect with the music and with the performer.
SIMON: Fred Hersch - The Fred Hersch Trio's new CD is called "Floating." Fred joined us from New York. Good luck to you, so happy things are working out so well.
HERSCH: Thank you so much.
SIMON: BJ Leiderman writes our theme music. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.