Q&A: Jazz pianist Fred Hersch

One of the most important pianists of his generation, Fred Hersch has traversed territory from Ornette Coleman to Thelonious Monk to Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass he set to music in one of 2005's best records. In Heard Fresh: Music for Two Pianos, he covers more ground, teaming with classical pianist Christopher Riley to play music by Bach and himself. He spoke with recess' David Graham about Friday night's concert.

How did the project come about?

We went to school together at New England Conservatory and graduated in 1977. I moved to New York and jumped into the jazz world, and he went out on the concert circuit. Over the years we've intersected in strange ways. The idea of Heard Fresh is, the first half of the program we play [Concerto for Two Pianos in C Major] by Bach, then alternate playing by 24 Variations on a Bach Chorale. In the second half he plays some Radiohead and some of my music, and we play some Strayhorn and a piece by Barber.

How did you start writing classical works?

I always had sort of shied away from it. [Six or seven years ago] I just found myself interested in writing piano music, which is actually very difficult if you're a good pianist, because you have to slow it down enough to get it on paper. If you can improvise, it's much easier.

The duo format is unusual for pianos and for you. What are its challenges and opportunities?

We've done [Heard Fresh] a half a dozen times before. It's very hard to book dual-piano gigs. I love to play duo music of all kinds. If you have two improvising pianists, both of you have to play less. It's really only the Bach, the Barber and the Strayhorn where we play together. I've heard that the venue is quite lovely, and I've never actually been to Duke.

How long have you been doing this program?

I guess it's been the last four or five years. I think it's for people who love piano music, and we both talk a bit. It's not a pretentious affair. We try to have a good time. The Bach is a ball. I really enjoy playing that particularly-I've always been a Bach nut. And it's always interesting for me to hear what another pianist does with things I've written. There's a lot of mutual respect there.

Fred Hersch and Christopher O'Riley perform Heard Fresh Friday at 8 p.m. in Page Auditorium. Complimentary tickets are available by e-mail at performances@duke.edu.


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