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Friends, at a Distance: Fred Hersch on His Daily Concert and a New Single with Sullivan Fortner

Vincent Soyez

Like the rest of us, Fred Hersch has had his social life upended in recent weeks.

So his ongoing series of digital singles, Fred Hersch & Friends, might seem a bit like dispatches from a distant land. Still, because it chronicles Hersch’s longstanding penchant for musical duets, the series can be understood as a tribute to the essential human connection that binds us, even now.

Palmetto released the first two duets, respectively featuring alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón and vocalist Sara Gazarek, last month. The third single, which premieres here, is a dual-piano performance with Sullivan Fortner, from an engagement last June at Jazz Standard. They’re playing the standard “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” in a true colloquy, with split-second timing. This was the first song of their first set; Fortner flew over from a tour in Europe just to make the gig.

Hersch met Fortner eight years ago, through Jason Moran. What began with a group master class developed into a mentorship, and Hersch expresses no small amount of pride in his former student’s success.

“He’s so inventive,” he says of Fortner. “Hearing him, oftentimes I feel like I’m listening to myself, but on steroids — you know, with that extra virtuosity and sparkle and all that stuff he has. But conceptually we share a lot of things.”

Another thing that Hersch and Fortner share: weeks ago, each was among the first jazz musicians to embrace the livestream. Fortner joined Cécile McLorin Salvant in a concert from her living room. Hersch has been performing a daily mini-recital from a weekend house outside Milford, Penn., where he and his partner, Scott Morgan, have relocated from their loft in SoHo.

“It is a little strange,” Hersch says of these concerts, which take place at 1 p.m. EST, “in that I’m kind of giving a performance, but there’s no actual audience, and I’ve got to play something good in one take.”

After each performance, he takes heart in the comments, which have come in from all over the world. “Just knowing that I brighten a few people’s day, it’s a really good thing, and it gets back to one of my motivations for playing music in the first place.”

As I’ve noted here before, Hersch took a moment during his first concert to play Billy Strayhorn’s “U.M.M.G. (Upper Manhattan Medical Group),” with a nod to the valor of hospital personnel during the coronavirus pandemic. Given his own historywith the healthcare system, I asked him to reflect on our situation.

“The only thing comparable in my lifetime has been the early days of AIDS,” he says, recalling a moment of fear and uncertainty for doctors as well as patients. “It was similarly scary, and also similarly ineptly handled by the government, in a similarly callous way.”

“It’s just amazing work that they're doing,” he adds, returning to the hospital workers. “I just hope that they can remain safe and that we don’t run out of supplies. It’s really not looking that good right now.”

Before we ended our conversation, I expressed my hopeful intention to hear Hersch with his trio again at The Village Vanguard, sometime in the not-too-distant future. Until then, you can find several albums he recorded in that room at his website. For more information about his daily mini-concert, see our Livestream Hub

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.