Jazz Notes Intel: Long Live Fred Hersch; Artist Mark Rothko Treated to the Jazz Vibe; New Henry Threadgill and Archival Ella and Pops
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, May 4, 2018
At my first attempt to contact piano master Fred Hersch, an email message popped up on my screen: “I am on silent retreat…I will have no access to any electronic devices.” However, during his retreat at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass., he had to truncate his quiet time. “I was unplugging, which is hard work to do, being by yourself,” Fred said upon his return from rumination. “But I had to come home for an emergency root canal.”
Fred shrugs and starts thinking ahead to the near future when he will return to the Jazz Standard for a rare six-night stint (May 8-13) at the club that rarely books an act for a week. For his “Fred Hersch Invitational Series,” in its 12th annual season, he will helm four nights of different duo shows (clarinetist Anat Cohen, May 8; vocalist Kate McGarry, May 9; alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon, May 10; vocalist/bassist Esperanza Spalding, May 13). For two evenings (May 11-12), Hersch will present his unique band Pocket Orchestra that was originally founded in 2000. For these shows, the band comprises vocalist Jo Lawry, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and percussionist Rogerio Boccato.
The ten-time Grammy nominee, at the age of 62, has been called a living legend and a virtuoso partly based on his over 30-recording discography beginning with his 1986 debut, Horizons, not to mention his performances at theaters, festivals and clubs (he was the first pianist to do a week of solo piano at the storied Village Vanguard in 2006). His transporting music is introspective, conversational and personal that goes deep into self-realization. There’s also an element of whimsy.
What’s remarkable about Hersch’s creative career of many colors is that he almost died twice, once due to an HIV/AIDS-related semi-coma dementia in late 2007-early 2008 and later that year during an induced coma for a severe and debilitating case of pneumonia (which had nothing to do with his HIV status) resulting in septic shock. Miraculously he came back from the dead twice. “I’m not a quitter,” Fred says. “It’s part of my nature. It’s remarkable about all the great things that have happened since. In a weird way, I’m playing better. My health is better than it was 25 years ago in every respect.”
Last year Fred, who was the first openly gay, HIV-positive jazz pianist, wrote his page-turner memoir Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz (with jazz writer David Hajdu). “It felt like the right time to tell my story,” he says. “In the Japanese tradition, they say you’re born when you turn 60. I was inspired by Patti Smith’s book Just Kids, about [photographer] Robert Mapplethorpe and the early days of the punk movement in the ‘70s. I related to the story.”
Also last year Fred released a sublime solo recording (Open Book) and follows that up this year with his trio recording, Live in Europe, that’s equal parts playful, bouncy, conversational and pensive. As for the latter, Fred says that unbeknownst to him a live recording in Flagey Studio 4 in Brussels’ renowned former National Institute for Radio Broadcasting had been made of the group that “was in terrific playing form.” He liked what he heard from the board and decided to document the show of fresh originals and standards by his heroes (two by Thelonious Monk, two by Wayne Shorter) with his band of bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson. Both records are on Palmetto Records, which has supported him for more than 17 years.
“We had been trying to record in the studio on our own,” Fred says, “but this was miles better than what we had done. It’s a really good statement about the band, how good we are as a trio. My trio can play such a range of music with tonal sensitivity and my rangy writing. The last six or seven of my recordings have been performed live. At this point of the recording business—or lack thereof—an album has to have a reason to be made—as an artistic statement. But now the album comes out and the next day it’s on Spotify.” He hastens to add, “Technology sucks. It’s a weird time.”
As for the upcoming duo shows, Fred says that his ”Invitational Series” started out of his sense of curiosity in joining up with other players. “It got me musing about people I may know socially or people I don’t know well,” Fred says, noting that his duo dates number some 40 collaborations. “I like playing with people like Anat or Julian Lage, and we do so when our schedules allow. We play together and mix things up. It changes the sound of the piano, which can be an orchestration instrument. And with Kate, I love words and playing with her.”
There’s a spirituality of freedom underneath all of Fred’s music. It’s summed up in one of the quotes tagged in his emails. He quotes Plato: “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and charm and gaiety of life…”
* * * * *
SCENE OF THE UNHEARD: LATVIAN JAZZ QUINTET PAYS HOMAGE TO ARTIST MARK ROTHKO
On May 2, iconic ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov introduced the latest salon, Rothko in Jazz, at the Baryshnikov Arts Center with the esteemed Māris Briežkalns Quintet. It was a celebration of renowned abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko as a part of heralding Latvia’s centennial year—a project where ten Latvian composers were commissioned to write music based on the colorful, rectangle-blocked works painted by the artist between 1945-1969.
“I know little about jazz,” said Mikhail, a Latvian who achieved fame in the Soviet Union before defecting to the West in 1974. “I was a child of the ‘50s and ‘60s, so I listened to the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. Jazz was considered decadent as a part of the Western corruption. But jazz is today the most cultural ambassador, and the world doesn’t need any more walls.”
It was a classy preface to an outstanding show that mostly stayed true to the straight-ahead expression of the genre. With large-scale projections of Rothko’s abstract beauties in the background, the quintet’s performance had a touch of swing and blues (the finale “Swing of Dvinsk” with outbursts of happy-end edge), a deep dive into emotion (the gorgeous “Black and Gray”), a pensive wash of melancholy (“Memories Landscape”) and strong attention to delicious melody (“Against the Current”). Drummer Briežkalns is the noteworthy mover-and-shaker who’s incredibly active in all jazz streams in his homeland (from heading the Latvian Radio Recording Studio to serving as artistic director of the Music Festival Rigas Ritmi). He led a superb band of pianist Viktors Riots and Raimonds Macats (remarkable on both harmonica and cello) with fine guests bassist Andris Grunte (moving walking bass lines) and tenor saxophonist Kristaps Lubovs who delivered gusto throughout the evening.
It was good to see the Howard Gilman Performance Space packed with an appreciative crowd. For me, it was special, taking in American jazz “outsiders.” It was a pleasure to be able to do what I do at home when I travel to various cities for festivals—skipping the one percent artists (the megastars who are seemingly everywhere) and seeking out lesser-known musicians in tune with their countries’ jazz vision.
* * * * *
THREE DOT LOUNGE . . .
Contrarian Henry Threadgill is a genius composer of contemporary improvisational music…Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2016 and an early member of the AACM collective, he exhibits his eloquent individuality on a Pi Recordings cerebral and whimsical doubleheader (an eight-piece outing and a “14 or 15 kestra”)…In the liners of the compelling Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus (a third pianist making the group an octet), Henry writes about his music: ‘’I can make a yo-yo hesitate…suspend a flower in mid-air without a stem”…A feast of contrapuntal off-kilter swing and gleeful voicings (Henry on alto sax, flute, bass flute), Dirt…And More Dirt is pure proof that the restless maestro continues to propel ahead with a 15-piece band that faithfully follows his unconventional vision…A completely different spin comes with Verve’s 4-CD Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s Cheek to Cheek that compiles all of their swinging duo performances for Decca and Verve…This is scat sunny, wink-of-the-eye playful, heartfelt soul and classic joy by two of jazz’s most popular and influential singers…Turn the lights down and crank up the sweet volume for a nostalgic taste of “The Frim Fram Sauce” and a laugh over “Makin’ Whoopee”…Speaking of Pops, in the Queens borough celebration of the 50th anniversary of his hit “What a Wonderful World,” the Louis Armstrong House Museum is teaming with Queens Library and Kupferberg Center for the Arts to present a 62-branch celebration of Satchmo’s music at free workshops, concerts, lectures, video and TBA events between now and June 30.
Cover: Fred Hersch; photo: Vincent Soyez.