Pianist Fred Hersch is a kind of model for what a top-tier jazz career looks like anymore. His is not a household name; serious contemporary jazz doesn’t mint many of those. While his jazz legitimacy has been notarized by heavies like Stan Getz, Art Farmer and Toots Thielemans, Hersch’s curriculum vitae is mostly a gaudy peacock fan of fellowships, grants, residencies and French awards – for jazz has become a largely academic and patron-driven art. What did Fats Waller know from fellowships?
But great jazz players and composers these days (and Hersch is among the best at both) are hopelessly marginalized, commercially, and this is how they make a go. They have borrowed the currencies of success and acclaim from the economy of “serious” music. Hersch also happens to be Grammy-nominated – which, as everyone should have figured out by now, is far more prestigious than being Grammy-winning.
Like many of today’s more ambitious jazz minds, Hersch has “crossed over” in numerous directions. In his case, the targets tend to be not less but more rarefied, challenging and cerebral than the default jazz piano trio. His inventive solo interpretations of Jobim (2009’s Fred Hersch Plays Jobim) reimagine the music of Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim as introspective and almost classical in its internal, contrapuntal complexity. Hersch’s stunning Leaves of Grass (2005) is a brainy chamber/vocal/jazz setting of the poetry of Walt Whitman. It is “jazz” only insofar as it borrows from jazz’s harmonic language – and because it swings from time to time.
When a classical music institution like Woodstock’s Maverick series opens its repertoire to jazz, Hersch is typical of the kind of talent that it reaches for first – not because his music is “polite” (it only appears that way to people who have not taken on its radical challenges), but because it is intensely focused on composition. Jazz traditionally straddles the high and the low; Hersch has given his career almost entirely to the high.
Well, if jazz is going to be an art of the academy going forward, then it might as well reach and challenge artistically, grope for grants and be as oblivious as it wants to be to popularity and sales. Talents as wide and as acutely realized as Hersch’s can seem to be quarantined by their own encompassing genius, but that doesn’t make them any less genius. So get it while you can.
Maverick Concerts, the oldest continuous summer chamber music festival in America, announces the return of Fred Hersch, part of its “Jazz at the Maverick” Saturday-evening series of contemporary jazz concerts during its 97th season of Music in the Woods. The concert takes place on Saturday, September 8 at 6:30 p.m. For additional details, including a schedule of concerts, ticket prices and seating information, visit www.maverickconcerts.org or call Maverick’s recorded message line at (845) 679-8217.