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Stars Align For Fred Hersch at The Treelawn

Fred Hersch
photocredit: Roberto Cifarelli

Silent, Listening, Fred Hersch’s affecting new recording, begins with a moody cover of “Star Crossed Lovers,” an Ellington/Strayhorn composition that was also on Hersch’s first trio recording as a leader, Horizon (Concord Jazz,1985). But don’t read too much into the programming. In music and in life, Hersch, who will play a solo concert at the Treelawn Music Hall on Friday, takes things a day at a time.

Hersch, a native of Cincinnati, is among the most distinguished and respected pianists in jazz. His exquisite touch, melodic gift and rhapsodic approach to harmony create a singularly enchanting listening experience. Yet his effortless mastery at the keyboard is hard won.

Fred Hersch
photocredit: Roberto Cifarelli

Now 68 years old, the pianist was diagnosed with HIV in the mid ‘80s, and as he said on a podcast produced by ECM, his new record label, “probably infected before that and living many years with fairly ill health before drugs and combinations of drugs kind of helped me to live more of a normal life.”

That ended in 2008, when the virus attacked his brain and resulted in what Hersch called “a psychotic breakdown” followed by a two-month-long coma. “I think my playing changed after 2008,” he said on the podcast. “You don’t go through something like that for months and months and not have some effects. And of course there was the full stop during lockdown and 14 months with no gigs . . . not knowing when things would come back, how they would come back.”

Yet come back they did and 2023 ended as his busiest year ever.

Last May was a highlight.  Hersch returned to the studio in Lugano, Switzerland where he recorded his ECM debut, 2022’s The Song Is You, a duo with 84-year-old Italian trumpet magus Enrico Rava. The 2023 session was issued last month as Silent, Listening, and though it is among the dozen solo piano recordings of Hersch’s 60+ leader sessions, this one is special.

“Fifty years ago I  listened to my first ECM albums and now I’m recording there,” Hersch told Treelawn principal Eric Hanson in a conversation that you can hear here. “There is just a kind of a great full circle, and it’s happening at a good time in my life.”

Silent, Listening is a largely introspective record in the tradition of legendary ECM solo piano sessions by Paul Bley, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, the pianist on Hersch’s first ECM purchase five decades ago. But while his reputation as a keyboard poet in the lineage of Jarrett and Bill Evans is well earned, it’s an inadequate description of an artist  of vast gifts. Listen to Alive at the Village Vanguard (Palmetto Records, 2023), his ebullient duet recording with Esperanza Spalding to hear his feel for dancing rhythms and playful interplay.

Hersch’s 17 Grammy nominations without a win puts him in rarefied company. Star crossed? Hardly. After all, didn’t the man title his 2017 memoir “Good Things Happen Slowly”? This week, something good will happen at the Treelawn Music Hall and we’re lucky that the stars have aligned to make it happen.

Fred Hersch, Fri., June 7, 8 p.m., The Treelawn Music Hall, 15335 Waterloo Rd., Cleveland, tickets $15-50 (must be 18 or older), available here.

NOTE: This article was written by a real human being. No artificial intelligence or generative language models were used in its creation.

Red beans and ricely yours,