Jazz: Taking on the master, getting in the mood

Fred Hersch has taken the familiar `language' of Thelonius Monk, given it a little spin and hopes that people will hear the work differently. Phil Johnson tunes in
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Of all the great figures from the mid-century's golden age of modern jazz, no one remains as enigmatic as Thelonious Monk. The pianist and composer, who died in 1982 aged 64, was such an eccentric figure that he continues to be beyond compare, although he left a portfolio of tunes that have become part of the everyday repertoire of jazz musicians everywhere. His spiky, angular, compositions are loved by musicians for many reasons, particularly for the in-built potential for improvisation they contain, but few dare to play them solo on piano, because no one played Monk like Monk himself. His superb 1959 album for Riverside, Thelonious Alone in San Francisco, was as definitive a version of the canon as you could get. But now the New York pianist Fred Hersch has produced a new solo album of Monk tunes, Thelonious - Fred Hersch Plays Monk, and it's very, very good. Taking on the master is a bold move for any jazz pianist, but Hersch, who is 42, has already proved his willingness to break the rules. A few years ago he came out as both gay and HIV-positive, an act which - given the relatively homophobic culture of jazz - is much bolder than it might seem.

"I've known I was positive for about 12 years now," Hersch says when we talk at his record company's offices in New York. "I had got hooked up with a great organisation called Classical Action who do benefits for Aids and I made this album for them. When the record came out four years ago I had just gotten my first Grammy nomination and so I decided to go public. All of a sudden I was in Newsweek and on CNN and it was this real big thing because at that time - and even up to today - not many visible performing artists with HIV were talking about it. The main reason I did it was firstly that, as an artist, being in any kind of closet is not helpful; secondly, it's important to be out about all these things, about your sexual identity or whatever, so that hopefully one day it won't be an issue; and thirdly, because it really let's you know who your friends are and you need to know where you stand with people in case - God forbid - you get sick. A lot of people had warned that I shouldn't come out because they said no one will want to book you next year because they figure you'll be dead. But I'm busier than ever, I feel better and I certainly feel stronger as a result. It's like the Monk album: there comes a time when you just have to say `this is how I hear it', and throw it down there and see what happens."

The Monk album is the third in Hersch's series of CDs for Nonesuch Records in which he takes on the works of a particular composer, and it follows sets devoted to Billy Strayhorn and Rodgers and Hammerstein. "Strayhorn is kind of halfway between Rodgers and Hammerstein and Monk, because part of Monk was a great tune writer but he was also a great writer of songs," he says. "Rodgers and Hammerstein was about the lyrics - the tunes have strong childhood associations for me and everyone knows them from news and films; it's real Americana. But Monk is just pure instrumental music and I wanted to do something that would free me from dealing with lyrics because I do tend to get put in this lyrical-player bin. Monk is really about rhythm, and about humour."

The challenge of the album, Hersch says, was to be faithful to the spirit of Monk without trying to sound like him. "There are certain people who are easy to imitate on the surface - many trumpeters can use a mute and sound a little like Miles Davis - and with Monk there are little things he did - Monkisms - that you can duplicate. But Miles and Monk were very deep artists and to internalise them, to live with them and then put it out in a way that isn't an imitation, takes some study. It's like painters doing landscapes: I'm trying to take this familiar language, spin it around and make people consider it a little differently."

The album begins and ends with Monk's most famous tune, "Round Midnight", a gloriously evocative theme that has become an icon of smoky, late-night jazz. "I really fought against doing it,' Hersch says, "but in the end I stopped fighting and decided to bracket the album with it because it's such a cool piece and it sets a certain mood. With Monk you're really getting to the core of jazz. His compositions are very pure and abstract but they're rooted in the tradition; you hear the influences of Tin Pan Alley, stride piano, and even tap dancing. When I play them live, every night I find completely different things each time and I love it. Most of all I love what's going on inside the tunes. All the really interesting things aren't on the surface, they're in the middle, and that's where you really get into the sound of the piano."

`Thelonious - Fred Hersch Plays Monk' is available on Nonesuch Records.