BY KAREN BOSSICK
When the COVID pandemic swept the country, jazz pianist Fred Hersch retreated to his second home in the woods of Pennsylvania.
Stages around the world had gone dark, but he couldn’t stop performing for his fans. So he put his smartphone on a stand and started playing a tune of the day on Facebook live.
“I thought, maybe, if I could make people stop or listen and feel happy for five or six minutes a day, it would be worth it,” he said. . “Of course after a few months we realized the pandemic was going on much longer than we had originally thought and it started to feel like work. So I decided to record an album called “Songs from Home” instead.
Hersch is no longer confined to his house in the woods. He’s back on the road for a tour that will put him at The Argyros on Saturday night. The concert begins at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 5 and tickets are $20 and $30, available at https://ci.ovationtix.com/35937/performance/10943418//
“The beauty of playing solo piano is that I don’t have to plan a program. I see how I feel when I get up there,” he said. “I generally have three different sets of material that I draw from for my solo performances. One is the American Popular Songbook, which encompasses music from artists such as the Beatles and Joni Mitchell. jazz songs written by musicians like Thelonious Monk and Wayne Shorter, and then, of course, my own music.
A 15-time Grammy nominee, Hersch began picking out tracks from “Huckleberry Hound” and other cartoons about a Lester Baby Grand at age 4. He was writing music in third grade, his compositional skills encouraged by his parents who enrolled him in private music theory lessons from third to seventh grade.
By the time he was in seventh grade, he already knew what most music students study at the conservatory. He preferred to play with his own melodies and rhythms rather than practicing the compositions of Beethoven and other masters.
At Grinnell College in Iowa, he played in a piano, violin, and cello trio and found he enjoyed the camaraderie of performing with others. And, when the school expelled its students for six weeks to save on electric bills during the energy crisis of 1973 and 1974, he stumbled upon a jazz club in Cincinnati and never looked back.
“I remember buying a bunch of records that had ‘Autumn Leaves’ on it. When I realized that none of them played ‘Autumn Leaves’ the same way, I thought: this is music where I can be an individual,” he said.
Indeed, he has shaped the course of jazz for more than three decades as a composer, improviser, educator and recording artist. He has been called “the most innovative jazz pianist of the past decade” by Vanity Fair and a “living legend” by The New Yorker.
His innovation extends to exploring different sounds of jazz music using a string quartet and bouncing pencils on the strings to create different effects.
After contracting AIDS years ago, Hersch spent six weeks in a coma. He took advantage of this with a performance called “My Coma Drama”.
He Breath by Breath was a musical reflection inspired by his long practice of meditation. It contains an eight-movement “Sati Suite” – the Pali word for mindfulness or awareness – with the first movement “Begin Again” exploring renewal and “Rising, Falling” creating a feeling of in-breath and out-breath.
“It’s not like New Age meditative music at all,” Hersch said. “One of the titles, ‘Monkey Mind’, is very typical in that when you sit down on a formal meditation cushion, little discursive thoughts that arise can be quite annoying and distract you from your presence. Thoughts like “I need to send this email” or “What’s for dinner?”
Hersch’s new album, “Songs from Home” was his response to the COVID pandemic. It features his interpretation of standards and classics by the likes of Cole Porter, Joni Mitchell, Duke Ellington and Paul McCartney.
“I decided to make an album of songs that I like, songs that I wanted to perform. It’s light piano music, music that people seem to identify with. It seemed to strike a chord with people. It’s Fred in his living room playing songs he wants to play. Not something smooth. Call it my bad ass comfort food album played to the best of my abilities.
Hersch just had a world premiere at Carnegie Hall for a folk song he wrote for pianist Igor Levit called “Variations on a Folksong.”
“It was quite exciting, because it was in a program with Wagner, Liszt and Beethoven,” he said.
Now he’s writing new jazz tunes for a future trio album. He will leave for Europe for the third time since the start of the pandemic following his appearance on The Argyros.
“I’m not busy like before. I shoot, then I take three to four weeks off. Then I do another tour,” he said. “I’m 66 now and I can say no to things a little more. I can say, ‘I really don’t want to do this.’ And it’s a privilege. I’m leaving bigger holes in my schedule. I was almost too busy before the lockdown, I was really running around like crazy. My new schedule feels a little healthier.
Getting to Sun Valley is not an easy place to get to, Hersch noted.
“It’s a full day of travel both ways – flying to Boise with a connection, then renting a car and driving 2.5 hours assuming there are no weather issues. But I played Pocatello many, many years ago and I remember going to an amazing outdoor hot spring there in the winter and my beard froze sometimes when I’m on the road I can do something fun, something cool. Hopefully I can do it in Sun Valley.