Jazz Pianist Fred Hersch Counts Blessings after Near-Death Experience
Praised as “unfalteringly elegant” by The New York Times, Fred Hersch’s recent album bears a more-than-apt title: Alive at the Vanguard.
Not just “live” in the standard musical sense. That wouldn’t do his story justice. Talking, breathing, performing. Living.
“It’s really kind of miraculous,” the 58-year-old said.
The jazz pianist recorded the effort with his trio during a 2012 stint at New York’s famed Village Vanguard club — a spot the musician might otherwise never have expected to enter, let alone perform in, again — after waking from a two-month coma triggered by pneumonia in 2008.
His body was already ravaged by AIDS-related dementia, and a medically induced coma sapped the motor functions Hersch needed to speak, swallow or walk.
Forget about tickling the ivories.
But the defiant Cincinnati-born musician, whose parents have cited their son’s fierce lifelong independent streak, fought his way back from the brink.
Normalcy these days holds a higher value.
“When you go through something like that, you let go of the small stuff,” Hersch said by phone from the wooded Pennsylvania retreat he occupies in between commitments. “I feel a lot freer; I have more command.
“I honestly feel like I’m playing better than I did before.”
A return to form also allowed him to channel the near-death experience into performance art through a jazz-meets-theater piece called My Coma Dreams.
The show, which Hersch has since presented around the world, features a 10-piece ensemble and an actor portraying the afflicted musician.
Musical vignettes of reconstructed dreams include those detailing the performer’s weight loss, atrophy and rehab. More-abstract sequences involve Hersch being trapped in a cage beside Thelonious Monk and dancing the tango on an airplane.
In a typical concert, including a Friday gig in the Wexner Center for the Arts, Hersch will showcase only a Dreams selection or two. More common, however, are tunes from his expansive 30-year catalog.
“I think a real jazz performance should be different night to night and set to set,” he said.
Hersch himself is a big name: Vanity Fair in 2010 called him “the most arrestingly innovative pianist in jazz over the last decade or so.”
News of his recovery, meanwhile, spurred renewal.
The New York resident played about 80 dates last year and will take the current version of his trio (bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson for the past five years) to dates next month in Europe and Asia.
Amid life’s high and low notes, his artistic philosophy hasn’t changed.
“The key to all of it for me is spontaneity and surprise,” said Hersch, who came out as gay in 1993 and learned he had HIV in the 1980s. “If it gets predictable, then it’s not — in a way — honest.”
Although the challenge of self-revelation can be tougher in solo performance, plenty of unconventional moments lie within a group dynamic.
“They are going to surprise me,” Hersch said. “There’s always room for it to go somewhere else, uncharted territory.”
Players, of course, rely on one another’s grooves, but such complementary ties are innate: Hersch often plays with his eyes closed, rarely looking up from the keyboard.
Focus on the future is steady with plans afoot for a solo album and a stage production that highlights poetry and photography.
Little time exists to worry.
Still, he is grateful for the circumstances that composed the overture for a once-unthinkable second act.
“I was not expected to return to an elite level,” said Hersch, who in December earned his sixth Grammy nomination. “I have nothing to prove. This is all gravy.”