Every time Fred Hersch sits down at the piano is an act of revelation, discovery, confession and evolution. An exploratory artist, eloquent composer, outspoken activist, influential educator and possessor of one of the most personal and expressive pianistic styles in improvised music, Hersch has led a singular life that has shaped one of the most acclaimed and influential voices in modern jazz. At the forefront of the music for more than three decades, he has earned countless awards and accolades including ten Grammy® nominations, numerous acknowledgments from the jazz world’s most prestigious institutions and publications, and such recent distinctions as being named a 2016 Doris Duke Artist and the Jazz Journalists Association’s 2016 Jazz Pianist of the Year.
Hailed by Vanity Fair as “the most arrestingly innovative pianist in jazz over the last decade,” Hersch stands as a defining figure in several different contexts, from breathtaking solo recitals and compelling duos to his gold-standard trios and innovative chamber pieces. With more than 40 albums to his credit as leader or co-leader, Hersch can claim one of the most highly praised and consistently striking discographies in jazz history. His latest release, Open Book (Palmetto Records) is his 11th solo recording, capturing the vital essence of the bold adventurousness and intense beauty that have made Hersch one of the music’s most renowned solo artists while continuing to discover new areas of inspiration and depths of feeling.
Having long created uniquely intimate and expressive music that The New Yorker has lauded for its “intensity of intelligence and emotional directness unparalleled among his peers,” Hersch has never been shy about letting audiences glimpse his most private thoughts and feelings. He’s been a passionate advocate for AIDS services and education agencies, leading by example as jazz’s first openly gay, HIV-positive artist. The feature documentary The Ballad of Fred Hersch premiered at the prestigious Full Frame Film Festival in March 2016 to a sold-out house and rave reviews.
Hersch’s remarkable and inspiring story is finally being told in full with the publication in September 2017 of his much-anticipated memoir, Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz (Crown Archetype/Random House). The book covers the pianist’s meteoric rise in jazz from his sideman days alongside masters like Art Farmer and Joe Henderson to his gradual recognition as one of the most individualistic and innovative artists of his generation. But it also frankly traces his path through hedonistic post-Stonewall New York City to the dramatic two-month medically induced coma in 2007 from which he emerged to make some of the most stunning and captivating music of his career, including the groundbreaking jazz-theater hybrid My Coma Dreams.
The premiere of the harrowing, transcendent My Coma Dreams in 2010 prompted the New York Times Sunday Magazine to describe Hersch as “singular among the trailblazers of their art, a largely unsung innovator of this borderless, individualistic jazz—a jazz for the 21st century.” Similar plaudits met his 2003 chamber piece Leaves of Grass, a celebration of the life and poetry of Walt Whitman that featured the acclaimed vocalists Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry along with an instrumental octet. Hersch’s compositional work has garnered such distinctions as a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship in Composition; his classical compositions are published by Edition Peters.
Since his debut as a leader with Horizons in 1984, Hersch has led some of the most peerless trios in jazz, honing a distinctive vocabulary and unparalleled interplay. His longstanding current trio with bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson was proclaimed “one of the major ensembles of our times” by the Wall Street Journal. Their latest release, Sunday Night at the Vanguard (Palmetto), was praised by All About Jazz as “a combination of fearless determination and sensitive interpretation” and nominated for two 2017 Grammy Awards, as was its predecessor, Floating (Palmetto). The trio’s two-CD Palmetto set Alive at the Vanguard was awarded the 2012 Grand Prix du Disque in France and named one of the year’s best CDs by DownBeat Magazine.
In 2014 Hersch received his sixth Grammy nomination for his solo on “Duet,” an aptly named track from Free Flying (Palmetto), a duo album with guitar phenom Julian Lage. As an incisive communicator and improviser Hersch been heard in duo with a wide range of collaborators including Esperanza Spalding, Bill Frisell, Chris Potter, Norma Winstone, Nancy King and Anat Cohen. In other settings he’s worked with a staggering array of legendary artists: jazz (Joe Henderson, Charlie Haden, Stan Getz); classical (Renée Fleming, Dawn Upshaw, Christopher O’Riley); and Broadway (Audra McDonald).
Parallel with his prolific career in music, Hersch has worked tirelessly over the past several decades as a fervent spokesman and fundraiser for AIDS services and education agencies. He has produced and performed on four benefit recordings and played numerous concerts for charities including Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS, and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. To date, his efforts have raised more than $300,000 for this vital and deeply personal cause. Hersch has also been a keynote speaker and performer at international medical conferences in the U.S. and Europe.
A committed educator, Hersch has taught at New England Conservatory, The Juilliard School, The New School and The Manhattan School of Music. He is currently a member of the Jazz Studies faculty of Rutgers University. He holds Honorary Doctorates from Grinnell College and Northern Kentucky University.
Through his playing, his composing and his educational work, Hersch’s influence has been widely felt on a new generation of jazz pianists, from former students Brad Mehldau and Ethan Iverson to his colleague Jason Moran, who has said, “Fred at the piano is like LeBron James on the basketball court. He’s perfection.”