Pianist Fred Hersch rarely plays a set or an entire night without a Thelonious Monk tune, he says. As a composer, bandleader and soloist with a broad background including jazz and classical music, he's got a large repertoire from which to draw, but Monk sticks out for unusual reasons. One is an improvised solo on Monk's "Work" that drew a current Grammy nomination. Another is a stark image from a dream Hersch had while in a seven-week medically induced coma in 2008.
"I never remembered my dreams much," Hersch says. "But I recalled vivid dreams from the coma. ... In one, I was in a jail cell next to Monk, and we were in a competition to finish composing a song first."
Competing with Monk to compose music is an anxiety dream for the rare few, and Hersch is one of them — as a renowned performer and winner of numerous awards, grants and fellowships. His medical ordeal included a bout with septic shock that almost killed him, Hersch says. He lost all motor skills, and for eight months could neither eat food nor drink water. But following a remarkable recovery, he turned several of those vivid dreams into the music in the jazz/theater piece My Coma Dreams, which debuted in northern New Jersey in May 2011. (To simulate the Monk dream, he set a kitchen timer for 20 minutes and composed the song in that time.)
But before that piece premiered, Hersch had resumed his normal life and career. He recorded Alone at the Vanguard in December 2010, and the 2011 release drew two Grammy nominations (best instrumental jazz album and best improvised solo). He'll record another album at New York's legendary Village Vanguard when the Grammy winners are announced Feb. 12. But this week, he's on a quick tour of Louisiana that includes a show at NOCCA on Saturday. It's his first visit to New Orleans in more than 10 years, and he'll be joined by longtime collaborator Drew Gress on bass and Eric McPherson on drums. They'll perform music by Hersch, Wayne Shorter, Monk and Ornette Coleman, Hersch says.
Hersch tours heavily and has composed or recorded more than 70 albums, but Alone at the Vanguard captures him in his element.
"It's my home club," Hersch says. "I'm a regular. I have a picture on the wall."
Hersch was the first artist booked for an entire week of solo shows at the club, an indication of his stature among top jazz pianists. And he joins some of the legends who have released albums recorded at the Village Vanguard, including Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Bill Evans.
Alone at the Vanguard features the final Sunday night set of a weeklong engagement. He originally intended to pick songs recorded over six nights, but he liked the final set and released it in its entirety. He may release a second volume featuring highlights from the rest of the recordings.
"There's something about live recording I've grown to love as I have gotten older," Hersch says. "You're just playing your gig. ... That set had an organic feel to it. Sunday night audiences are very focused. There's lots of other musicians, and some people who come earlier in the week come back again. I thought the audience was really with me."
The album is marked by warm melodies and poised, unhurried playing.
"My music isn't a lot of flash and hit-you-over-the-head kind of stuff," he says. "I like to take the audience on a journey and tell a story."
He's a critics' favorite, but Hersch believes his music works for both casual listeners and sophisticated audiences.
"With instrumental storytelling, you're allowing a piece to go somewhere," he says. "Like in classical music, everyone can appreciate the beauty of an orchestra, but great composers use the materials, say harmonically or rhythmically, to take you somewhere. The more you know about the forms, the more you can appreciate beyond that it sounds beautiful. I try to play for both audiences."
Hersch will teach a master class with NOCCA students, but most of his teaching has been at the college level and at conservatories. But even as a recipient of Rockefeller, Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts grants, he considers himself a student. He still visits a piano teacher, Sophia Rosoff (who is 90 years old). And he frequents the Vanguard to hear new, young musicians. One upcoming recording project is a duo with 24-year-old guitarist Julian Lage. Italian clarinetist Nico Gori will collaborate with Hersch on another album. While 2011 was a busy year for Hersch, he expects 2012 to be busier still.
"I'm not saying I am an overnight success at 56," he says. "But it seems that things are really lining up for me. ... I think it's great that I'm in my mid-50s and maybe my best music is ahead of me."