Man on a Mission

New York-based pianist Fred Hersch is a superior soloist as well as an excellent producer, composer, arranger, group leader and sideman. But in most of the articles about him, these attributes are given short shrift in favor of chatter about his personal life: In 1982 he announced that he was gay and revealed in 1993 that he'd been HIV-positive for seven years. So how does it feel to be a celebrity poster boy?

"In a way, I do get tired of how my name is often linked more with being gay than with being a musician," he concedes. "After all, I've been doing music professionally for over twenty years. But the reason that I'm so open about my orientation and health status is so that, hopefully, it will not be an issue.

"Selfishly, I'm out because I don't want to have to deal with wondering who knows and who doesn't," he continues. "It's a lot of wasted energy having to worry about who cares. And creatively, it's important for me just to be able to be myself. So that's why I came out. And if people want to tag me that way, well, it's not a lie--but it certainly isn't very interesting."

Hersch's discs are. He's made more than a dozen recordings under his own name since 1984, and over that span, his playing has gained in strength, resonance and individuality. He was rewarded for these achievements in 1995, when he ended a period of skipping from small label to small label by signing a multi-album contract with the Nonesuch imprint. Shortly thereafter, he issued Passion Flower: Fred Hersch Plays Billy Strayhorn, a platter featuring longtime associates Drew Gress (on bass) and Tom Rainey (on drums) that's considered by many to be his finest and most passionate piece to date. From its title, his Nonesuch followup, Fred Hersch Plays Rodgers & Hammerstein, might seem like more of the same, but its texture is entirely different from the Strayhorn tribute. Hersch presents the songs on the CD solo--a musical approach that has served him well in the past.

"I love solo performances--I've played solo concerts for the last fifteen years, and I'm pretty comfortable with the format," he says. "The hardest thing for me was to get used to the level of freedom that I had. You can really do anything. This past fall I did a series of three solo concerts here in New York, where one week I did an evening of Rodgers & Hammerstein, the next week an evening of mostly Monk, and the final week an evening of mostly stuff I've written."

Although reviewers tend to feel that artists do their most personal work when interpreting material of their own composition, Hersch sees this theory as too simplistic. "Playing music by other composers isn't necessarily better or worse than playing my own compositions. It's just different. Sometimes it's nice to get into someone else's world. I don't feel like it has to be music that I've written for it to be very personal to me. I can very much be myself while using someone else's themes and forms. Sometimes when you play your own music, it's hard to see it clearly and look at it subjectively. You're too close to it, and there's a tendency to try a bit too hard to make your point. So the key to me is, no matter who wrote the composition, I try to find the point that I think is unique in each particular song and go from there.

"There's no real formula," he insists. "But I do believe that when I hear somebody perform any kind of song, I want to have a feeling that the person who's playing it is connected with that material. And to me, there has to be something sort of compelling about it. Because there are just too many records. Records need to have a reason for being--and if I'm going to ask somebody to spend their hard-earned money to go get one, I want to give them something that they might go back to more than once."

Born 41 years ago in Cincinnati, Ohio, Hersch has been honing his skills since an early age; he began studying the piano at age four. In 1977, after graduating with honors from the New England Conservatory, he moved to New York and found a niche working alongside players such as Art Farmer, Jane Ira Bloom, Joe Henderson and Stan Getz. Yet the performer to whom he's likened most often is someone he never met--the late Bill Evans.

"I think there was probably a similarity a long, long time ago," he allows. "I think the main reason people put me in that bag is that both of us are fond of counterpoint and voice-leading and a rhythmic kind of freedom. Also, both of us have lots of the same influences in terms of both jazz and classical music. But my language and the way I play is totally different from his. Still, because I'm a white guyand I often play with a trio or solo, I get put in that category. That's just the way it is." He admits that he gets "a little weary" when the alleged Evans inspiration is mentioned--"but better him than somebody I don't like."

Just as Hersch puts the best spin on the Evans comparisons, he makes the most of his high-profile status in the gay community. An energetic fundraiser for AIDS research, he appeared on the AIDS Quilt Songbook long-player; wrote the score for the PBS series Positive: Life With HIV; and produced and contributed musically to 1994's Last Night When We Were Young: The Ballad Album, a beautiful offering that earned money for New York's Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS. Although this last effort had no major-label backing (it was marketed by Broadway Cares, the agency that popularized the wearing of red ribbons to show solidarity with people with AIDS), the CD was a tremendous success.

More AIDS-related benefits may be in Hersch's future, but he next plans to record a disc of Monk compositions followed by a collaboration with guitarist and labelmate Bill Frisell. "I feel pretty good," he adds. "Every day is different, and there's a lot to look forward to. I feel hopeful, medically speaking and in other ways, too. Sure, there's always stuff to whine about. But dealing with HIV puts a lot of things in perspective. I'm just a lot more realistic about things, and also much more appreciative about many things than I probably would have been otherwise. So from that perspective, I'd have to say things are great."

Fred Hersch. 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. Wednesday, January 29, Cafe Communique, 99 West Ninth Avenue, $12, 534-1199.


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