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Strokes of luck key his success

Pianist Fred Hersch succeeds by improvising onstage and off

By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | March 24, 2006

Fred Hersch is a believer in happy accidents. Certainly his current series of stateside solo piano gigs, which will bring him to the Regattabar for two sets tonight, got a big boost from them.

First came his "unintentional" new CD, the exquisite "In Amsterdam: Live at the Bimhuis," which was recorded last spring, without Hersch's knowledge, on the last day of a 10-day European solo tour. In another stroke of luck, Hersch performed on a superb 9-foot Steinway the Dutch club had acquired just a few days before.

Two months later Hersch was set to play the Village Vanguard with his trio, when both his regular bassist and a would-be substitute were delayed on flights back from the West Coast. Hersch played the first set alone, and performed so impressively that the Vanguard's manager, Lorraine Gordon, was willing to book him for a solo run to coincide with the release of "Bimhuis."

So it was that Hersch, 50, came to play the Vanguard for six nights this month, the first extended solo piano engagement at the renowned New York club in its seven-decade history.

"I seized the moment," says Hersch. "It just seemed like, 'Well, OK, here I am, let's do this. Nobody's done it, but what the hell, let's try it.' That's kind of been part of my philosophy: I improvise in my music, and I improvise in my career, too."

Playing solo piano isn't new to Hersch. Nor is doing so in Boston. In fact, the previous high-water mark among the several solo-piano records he's made to date was his 1999 disc "Let Yourself Go: Live at Jordan Hall," recorded at Hersch's alma mater, New England Conservatory.

By then, Hersch was teaching at NEC. "Once again," he recalls, "it was an accidental recording. It was just taped as a faculty recital, like they always do. Then they sent me the [recording], and I said, 'Wow, I think this is really special.' There was a certain energy and excitement there, just playing in a great hall. And that was my first big gig since I'd had a pretty tough summer."

Earlier that summer, Hersch had been hospitalized because of HIV complications. He'd been diagnosed with HIV in the mid-1980s, a time when that appeared to be a death sentence, and it seemed to fuel a long period of intense productivity.

"I was just making my first album as a leader," says Hersch. "Sure, we all thought we'd be dead in a year. So every record was your last record. In the late '80s and early '90s, it was just kind of wanting to be heard, wanting to leave behind something that reflected what I do."

Hersch, one of few openly gay jazz musicians, has also worked hard to promote AIDS awareness, most prominently by recording a total of four CDs for the charities Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS and Broadway Cares/​Equity Fights AIDS. The most recent of them, "2 Hands, 10 Voices," pairs him with 10 favorite female vocalists, among them Ann Hampton Callaway, Jane Monheit, Janis Siegel, and Luciana Souza.

"Fred is an experienced pianist accompanying singers," Souza says. "He has that awareness of lyric, of phrasing, of breath, of intent, of emotion. I don't mean as a follower but as somebody who's really in the music with a singer. He's a very aware musician that way."

Hersch has trimmed back on small-group and solo projects and begun taking on larger projects. Most notably, a Guggenheim composition fellowship helped lead to the release last year of "Leaves of Grass," Hersch's setting to music of Walt Whitman's poetry, performed by vocalists Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry and an octet of instrumentalists. Premiering early next year will be a set of piano-based variations on a theme by Tchaikovsky, commissioned by the Gilmore Keyboard Foundation in Kalamazoo, Mich., and a staged song cycle on the theme of photography, composed in collaboration with poet Mary Jo Salter and commissioned by Montclair State University.

"This Whitman thing just sort of led me to acknowledge my interest in working with text," says Hersch. "Now I'm working with a living author. I don't know where that will go. I try not to predict things, but I know that there's been a lot more interest in me as a composer. I did get a Guggenheim. I have been getting some pretty nifty commissions. And that kind of just fell in my lap, too."

"I've sort of earned the right to try things," he continues. "The attitude of an artist should be one of curiosity. So the best that I can I try to maintain an artistic attitude and enjoy what comes up. I met Mary Jo Salter at the MacDowell Colony a couple times. I needed a lyric, she sent me a lyric, and now we're writing a big piece. It wasn't anything I particularly intended. To make room in your life for happy accidents is really where I am at the moment."

Fred Hersch performs solo piano at 7:30 and 10 tonight at the Regattabar. Tickets $16. Call 617-395-7757 or visit www.regattabarjazz.com.

Graceful debut: Thirteen-year-old Brookline music prodigy Grace Kelly showed off all the things she does so well for a full house at Scullers last week, celebrating the release of her second CD, "Times Too." She sang (and scatted) jazz, Brazilian, and pop tunes with skill. She was even better playing her alto saxophone, with solos rich in the sort of thematic development you'd expect from someone several times her age. She even showed off some singer-songwriter chops, accompanying herself on piano as she sang her pop-ish original "Key to the Missing Door."

© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
© Bill Beuttler