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Nominated for five Grammies, teacher to many of the influential names on the current jazz circuit, Fred Hersch is one of the unsung greats of contemporary jazz. In a recent interview with the New York Times, his once-student Brad Mehldau describes the individualism that makes his mentor’s style so difficult to place. Ranging in stylistic output from Third Stream mingling of classical and jazz influences (Concert Music 2001-2006), to the conventional and romantic lyricism of his latest offering, Alive at the Vanguard released in September 2012 (and recipient of two Grammy nominations), it seems that Hersch’s most defining quality is that he does what he likes, and he does it all.
Alive at the Vanguard is in keeping with Hersch’s aesthetic that “the energy of live albums is part of jazz." Hersch feels that live performances capture more of an artist because of the risk involved, placing the performer more fully in the moment. This offering features an array of standards and show-tunes, as well as seven new, original Hersch compositions. As a composer, Hersch feels that “it’s important that music is hearable," and perhaps that is why he isn’t afraid of melody, and sticks to a relentlessly tonal model. “There’s a lot of contemporary composition that seems to be written by composers to have other composers analyse them in theory departments in other music schools, and I’m definitely not that.”
During a period of hospitalization in 2008, it was feared that Hersch’s battle against HIV-related dementia was to bring about the premature end of his career. The title of the album Alive at the Vanguard may make light of this situation, but it seems to unequivocally prove that Hersch is making a comeback, moth musically and in terms of his health. Fans will be relieved that, if 'Alive' is anything to go by, Hersch is far from playing his last waltz.