A smart, lyrical pianist and composer with a distinctive sound and an unassuming manner, five-time Grammy nominee Fred Hersch is one of the most important jazz musicians of his generation.
But that’s just part of his story.
Diagnosed as HIV-positive in the mid 1980s, Hersch developed AIDS-related dementia in 2008. Comatose for two months, he recovered only after an eight-month ordeal in which he was bed-bound and intubated, unable to speak or swallow, weighing barely more than 100 pounds at his lowest point. He required extensive physical therapy to walk again and regain full use of his hands.
Hersch, 57, not only recovered, but went back to work with a vengeance, assembling a terrific new trio that he brings to Davie’s Miniaci Performing Arts Center Saturday night, presented by South Florida Jazz.
“Going through a near-death experience and coming out the other side, it’s got to change your life,” he says in a telephone interview from Missoula, Mont. “People tell me that my playing is looser and freer than it was. I’ve always kind of gone for it, but now there is really no reason to hold back.”
Hersch has collaborated on projects including My Coma Dreams, a remarkable piece of jazz theater with librettist Hershel Garfein that had its premiere in May 2011.
Born in Cincinnati, Hersch began playing the piano as a 4-year-old. After graduating from the New England Conservatory in Boston, he moved to New York in 1977, where he took an invaluable turn at the fabled Bradley’s, a sanctuary for jazz piano, and became a much in-demand sideman for artists including saxophonists Joe Henderson, Stan Getz and Jane Ira Bloom and flugelhornist Art Farmer.
“I’m a combination of all the things I grew up with,” he says. “And I’m fortunate to be part of one of the last group of musicians to learn on the bandstand and learn as an apprentice from some of the masters.”
Hersch calls himself “a transitional player between the generation of the Herbie Hancocks, Kenny Barrons and Keith Jarretts and the young kind of bionic players coming out now.”
As an interpreter, he explored the music of Billy Strayhorn, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Thelonious Monk among others. Emerging as a composer later in his career, he has written not only songs but ambitious projects such as Coma Dreams and a setting for Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
His dozens of recordings including solos, duos, trios and a quartet he calls his Pocket Orchestra and collaborations ranging from guitarist Bill Frisell to soprano Renee Fleming.
For a time, he says, his career was in part a race against time.
“I’ve had the shadow of HIV/AIDS over me for almost 30 years,” he says. “And I went through a period, especially in my recording career, when I felt that every album was going to be my last.
“Now I’ve come out the other side. My health is better than it’s been in 20 years. I completely came back from the effects of my two-month coma, and I’m truly enjoying it all.”
Since the ordeal, his piano technique “is in some ways better, and in some ways not as good,” he says. But then again, dazzling with technique has never been Hersch’s approach.
“I’ve always been of the idea that music should engage people, maybe challenge them a bit. I got into jazz music and music in general as a kid because of the feeling I got from it. I was not one of those guys who were grinding out practice six hours a day. I’ve always tried to keep music fun.”
And while he’s led some excellent trios, Hersch is particularly enthusiastic about this group.
“I need a [bass] player who really understands harmony and phrasing in a deep way but also isn’t afraid of challenging me,” he says. “John [Hébert] gets a very deep and round sound, but also has a very loose approach to the instrument and he’s very creative.
“And [drummer] Eric McPherson can get amazing intensity without a lot of volume, and for a trio that’s perfect. And we are serious but we have a great time together. We surprise each other every night.”