Sunday, May 11, 2003

It's Mom's Day, so Hersch is back

Star pianist brings trio to Blue Wisp

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Another Mother's Day, another Fred Hersch concert. The Cincinnati native is one of today's top jazz pianists, with a hectic schedule of tours and recording.

He's already released two albums this year - Live At the Village Vanguard, a trio album, and Songs & Lullabies, a collaboration with singer Norma Winstone. The discs bring his total to 18 as solo artist or leader, 20 as co-leader and about 80 as a sideman.

Who: Fred Hersch Trio
Where: Blue Wisp Jazz Club, 318 E. Eighth St., downtown
When: 8 and 10 p.m. today
How much: $15; reservations strongly suggested; 241-9477.
But he still finds time to come home for Mother's Day and tie in a local show. On Mother's Day 2001, he performed at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Tonight, he plays the Blue Wisp with his New York trio - drummer Nasheet Watts and bassist Drew Gress.

His mom, Florette Hoffheimer, will be in tonight's crowd. But Hersch, 47, isn't just being a dutiful son. His concert is part of a Midwestern tour in support of his new trio album.

"It's not often that I can bring a band through Cincinnati," he explains. "And I also thought it would be a nice way to come in and check out the new club."

He's been a Wisp fan since pianist Pat Kelly and tenor saxman Jimmy McGary inaugurated the club's jazz policy in the mid-'70s. In 1977, Hersch left town for New York, where he played any gig he could and steadily ascended the world jazz capital's pecking order.

Two of his albums have been nominated for Grammys, but his biggest honor came this year, when he received a 2003 Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in Music Composition.

Along with the status, it includes a sizable cash subsidy. Hersch won't reveal the amount, but says the money, "buys me time off the road and time to take some risks, and it also enables me to do some things for myself that I've not either gotten around to or had the time to or had the money to."

Last month, he premiered Leaves of Grass, his evening-long, multi-media work that sets Walt Whitman's poetry to music sung by Kurt Elling and Winstone and an eight-piece ensemble.

It was well reviewed, but that's nothing new to Hersch, who has earned raves everywhere from the jazz bible downbeat to Entertainment Weekly and such prestigious magazines as The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly.

Before signing with his current label, Palmetto, he recorded six albums for the highly respected Nonesuch label, including masterful tributes to two very different pianists, the lushly romantic Billy Strayhorn, who spent his career in the shadow of Duke Ellington, and the brilliantly unique Thelonious Monk. Now, he says, it's time to play.

"Most of the six projects I did for Nonesuch were sort of concept-driven," he explains. "I just felt it was time to do a playing record."

The trio record has earned him "some of the best press I've ever gotten" and spent six weeks at the top of the jazz charts.

When he speaks to the national jazz media, he says he's often asked about the Cincinnati scene in which he came of age in the early '70s.

"It was a great place to learn, a small enough musical community that everybody knew everybody and you couldn't get away with being a total jerk. It was a small town with a fairly high level of jazz artists. ..."

That scene was in stark contrast to formal jazz education, which was still in its infancy here, with more rules than it needed, Hersch adds with a chuckle.

"I may have been the first student at CCM to give a jazz recital. I do remember having to go to the administration to get a waiver on the requirement that you had to wear a tuxedo."


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