Jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch is a 12-time Grammy Award nominee. His newest release is entitled "Live in Europe," out now on Palmetto Records. To learn more, visit www.fredhersch.com
I have been very lucky in my 35-year career. I have apprenticed or performed with many of the all-time jazz greats, I have led many of my own ensembles, I have played numerous solo concerts, I have been able to record my own projects consistently, and I have had the privilege of passing on what I know to a couple of generations of pianists through my 30 years of teaching. I didn’t study jazz much in any formal way, though I am a very educated musician – so I have mostly figured it out for myself. Here are a few insights I have learned along the way that may be helpful to you.
1. Keep It Simple
Most of us are not great at multi-tasking - try texting and walking! My 91-year-old piano teacher, Sophia Rosoff (I still take lessons), defines music as “sound in rhythm.” So the best way to calm your mind down and get rid of your self-judging edit button is to concentrate on the sound you get from the piano and how you are physically getting it. I call this the “piano embochure.” Then connect with the rhythm of the music. This quiets the mind and you’ll find that it’s a lot more fun to play.
2. Connect with the Melody
Many years ago, I was listening at close range to the great, underrated pianist Jimmy Rowles. He played the melody to a ballad, then the melody to another ballad, and so on. He could tell that I, as a young player, was waiting for the “jazz” to begin. During the fourth tune, he leaned over to me, and in his gravely voice said, “Sometimes I just like to play melody.” A great lesson indeed. If you play a standard, learn the lyrics. If you play a Thelonious Monk tune, analyze it. If you love the tune you are playing, it will help you andthe audience connect.
3. Don’t Feel You Have to Reinvent the Wheel
I was playing with the great saxophonist Stan Getz and one night, and I was dissatisfied with my playing. We started talking about it and he asked me if I had playing something that night that I hadn’t played the night before. I said, “Of course.” He then said, “If you pay attention in a deep way to that new thing - that little “Aha!” moment, and you did that once a day, think of what you would learn in a year!” Our playing develops through these small insights.
4. Get With Your Feelings
I was fortunate enough to play with the saxophonist Joe Henderson on and off for about ten years. This was my graduate school! From the first set we played, I would just get a feeling that I should lay out behind his solo. He never looked at me or said anything, I just felt it. Likewise, when I came back in, it felt right to do so. One night, after some years of doing this, I asked him about it. He said, “If you feel it, it’s right. If you are thinking it, probably not.” I took this to mean that if it becomes a routine, it takes you away from feeling and into the mind – and doubt. This, in a way, is all you need to know about accompanying another musician, and it totally relates to spontaneity on the bandstand and in the practice room.
With easy access to any kind of music at the touch of a button, we can become “grazers,” listening without really hearing. A great thing to do is to take a track you love and listen to it seven times in a row with your eyes closed. The first time for fun, the second for the rhythmic relationship between the bass and drums, the third for phrasing and use of space in each solo, the fourth for comping, (both the pianist behind the soloist and the pianist’s left hand in his ownsolo), the fifth for harmonic variation, and so on. If you dig deep to extract what is going on, you will be able to listen to yourself better. And try playing with your eyes closed. Interesting things may happen!