Song everlasting

Fred Hersch battles back from a perilous year.

DELAYED GRATIFICATION Following several cancellations, Fred Hersch returns to the Village Vanguard this week.

DELAYED GRATIFICATION Following several cancellations, Fred Hersch returns to the Village Vanguard this week. Photograph: Matthew Sussman

Never let it be said that Fred Hersch shies away from complete candor. “I would not be thrilled if this piece came across as, 'Get down to the Vanguard before this guy croaks,’ or, 'Poor Fred...,’?” the stellar pianist and composer wrote in an e-mail response to an interview request. His caution was understandable: Hersch, an openly gay artist who went public with his HIV-positive status more than a decade ago, spent most of 2008 off the scene—and in graver health than he’d ever previously endured. For nearly two months in the summer, the musician was in a coma. Acquaintances and admirers heard little more than dark rumors.

In October, after a few false starts, Hersch, 53, made his public reemergence with a low-key gig at Smalls in the West Village. Despite the last-minute booking, the line to get in stretched around the block. This week’s engagement at the Village Vanguard, where he’d canceled twice last year, has the feeling of quiet triumph. And there’s more good news: Let Yourself Go—The Lives of Fred Hersch, an innovative documentary by German filmmaker Katja Duregger, is available on DVD (via filmbaby.com), while a live CD featuring his quirky, versatile Pocket Orchestra is due in April on the Palmetto label.

In spite of his initial reservations, Hersch is characteristically open about his travails. During a recent interview in his Soho apartment, he looked gaunt and spoke with a slight rasp, thanks to multiple surgeries to compensate for a vocal cord paralyzed by intubation. But his spirit was upbeat, his wit sharp as ever. “I’ve actually gained 30 pounds since I left the hospital,” he notes. An all-liquid diet had grown tiresome, he adds with a tip of his protein shake. “I went through a period this summer where I dreamt of food. Even the Olive Garden looked good.”

The cause of Hersch’s initial health crisis was almost certainly his overbearing workload. Successfully managing his HIV for years, the pianist played hundreds of dates each year—a testament less to concerns over longevity than simply a need to express his unstoppable creative flow. But in late December of 2007, after a grueling European tour, troubling mental lapses led to a terrifying diagnosis: The virus had attacked his brain, resulting in a seven-week battle with AIDS-related dementia.

Scott Morgan, Hersch’s devoted partner and a technology consultant turned HIV activist, saw the pianist through that period, as well as two bouts with pneumonia and other serious complications in June and October. Rigorous therapy put Hersch on the road to recovery at last. Apart from moving somewhat gingerly, he shows little outward evidence of his terrifying ordeals.

The impact on his playing, though, he has yet to fully assess. “When I got out of the hospital, I could barely do this”—he raises his right arm about 15 inches from his hip—“and now I can do this”—arms outstretched, he forms an arc over his head. His hands tremble slightly at the apex. “I don’t think I’ll ever be quite the same, physically,” he admits. “But when I’ve played, I’ve really felt like myself for the most part. There are some slight technical problems, which only I would notice.”

Still, the need to come talk about his condition was understandable. After bassist Dennis Irwin, a longtime friend, passed away last March due to complications from a cancer too long untreated, Hersch saw the value in reminding his fellow musicians—many of whom lack medical benefits—to pay attention to their health. And for young people especially, AIDS has taken on a long-ago and far-away quality that Hersch feels compelled to counter.

Even so, the pianist would rather focus on the future. He’s working again, playing with creative musicians—including trumpeter Ralph Alessi, saxophonist Tony Malaby, bassist John Hbert, percussionists Nasheet Waits and Richie Barshay, and singer Jo Lawry—for whom he has the highest praise. “I’m entering the year on a positive uptick,” Hersch says. “Part of it is due to the political climate, but it’s going to be a creative year. I have no intention of going away.” He pauses. “I’m just too ornery,” he adds, smiling.

The Fred Hersch Trio + 2 plays the Village Vanguard Thu 15--Sun 18.