The Ballad of Fred Hersch
In October 2008, two months after waking from a coma that left him without motor function in his hands and unable to walk, eat, or speak, the pianist and composer Fred Hersch played a set at Small’s, a basement jazz club in Greenwich Village. At the time, he still took his food through a feeding tube, and as he sat down at the piano he noticed the tube bulging in his shirt.
A year earlier, Hersch, who has been HIV-positive since the mid-1980s, had, at his doctor’s recommendation, been taken off his antiretroviral regimen. Not long after, the virus attacked his brain, leaving him in a state of paranoid psychosis in which he believed he could stop time at will. Though he recovered enough by the spring to tour and compose new music, when he returned to New York in June he felt unwell. Running a fever one day, he got into the bathtub, hoping to cool down, and found he couldn’t get up. His partner had to lift him out, and at the hospital he was found to be near death. His organs slowly failing, he was placed in a medically induced coma that lasted until August.
After emerging from the coma and being discharged from the hospital, he was struck by a bout of pneumonia that left him vomiting blood and was again readmitted to the hospital in the fall. Two days after he left the ICU, he played the set at Small’s. “It was something that I really needed to do to prove to myself that this all had not taken away everything,” he said in a 2010 interview with Terry Gross.
Hersch is one of the most distinguished living jazz pianists. He has recorded fifty-two albums as leader and co-leader, been nominated for ten Grammys, has twice been voted Jazz Pianist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association, and is the first pianist in the history of the Village Vanguard to have a solo residency. As a pianist he is perhaps best known for his classically inflected lyrical style, which has drawn frequent comparisons to the playing of Bill Evans, though Hersch has a more muscular sense of rhythm and swings harder when he wants to. He is as influenced by Evans as he is by Glenn Gould, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and Sonny Rollins, among others. He is remarkably free with his left hand, which sometimes gives the impression of hearing two pianos playing at once, producing long, contrapuntal phrases that seem to ebb and flow endlessly.
His compositions, though most readily identifiable as jazz, blur genres, and range in style from post-bop to highly structured Bach-like works to Brazilian music to ambitious narrative multimedia pieces for vocalists and chamber-jazz ensemble. Though some…
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