Jazz pianist, composer, activist, and educator Fred Hersch is a ten-time Grammy nominee and the recipient of a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship in Composition. He was named a 2016 Doris Duke Artist and has twice been awarded Jazz Pianist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association. He concertizes worldwide as a solo artist, as a collaborator, and with the Fred Hersch Trio. His memoir, Good Things Happen Slowly, is now available.
These albums have all been important to me in various ways. This list is in no particular order. Enjoy!
1. Miles Davis’s “Friday & Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk”
This album really cemented my desire to make jazz my life. The immediacy of the live recording is my favorite format these days. The way pianist Wynton Kelly accompanies Miles (and swings his ass off!) is masterful, and all the solos are incredible.
2. Charles Mingus’s “Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus”
These great compositions are arranged for a mid-sized ensemble and are trippy, modernist versions of Duke Ellington’s songs. Pianist Jaki Byard (who would later be my teacher) is a standout musician, and the way bassist Mingus plays with Dannie Richmond is unforgettable.
3. Sonny Rollins’s “Live at the Village Vanguard”
This sax/bass/drums trio album is a model of everything great about jazz. Sonny’s timing, motive, melody, and virtuosity are at the highest level. There is humor, intelligence, and deep emotion on this first live recording at the legendary Vanguard, which is now my “home club” in New York.
4. Ornette Coleman’s “Tomorrow Is the Question”
This piano-less quartet album, featuring Don Cherry on pocket trumpet, revolutionized jazz. Though it was a critical flashpoint in its day – many deriding it as anti-jazz – it can be appreciated now for its beautiful melodies (both written and improvised), amazing ensemble work, and deep swing.
5. Earl “Fatha” Hines’s “Fifty-Seven Varieties”
This is one of the great early solo piano statements from the first truly great jazz pianist. He is creative, fearless, modern, and imaginative. It doesn’t get much better than this.
6. Duke Ellington’s “Uptown”
This is Duke at the height of his power. His piano sound is remarkable and distinctive – it got me thinking about my own sound. The band is chock-full of some of his all-time great soloists. This is a classic album for the ages.
7. Ahmad Jamal’s “Live at the Pershing”
Ahmad was the first pianist who got me to explore the highest registers of the piano. He has a pearly sound and a sneaky way of improvising with the melody of a tune. The arrangements he wrote for Israel Crosby on bass and Vernel Fournier on drums are regarded as one of the top trios in the history of jazz.
8. Bill Evans’s “The Village Vanguard Sessions”
The other greatest trio in jazz, this group recorded this album just weeks before the phenomenal young bassist Scott LaFaro died in a car crash. They created the “conversational” style of trio playing, and Bill’s touch and subtle lyricism are fresh, even today.
9. Keith Jarrett’s “Facing You”
This is Keith’s first solo album, done in studio. The energy is amazing – his technique is limitless and the compositions are strong. Unlike his later and more popular live solo concerts where he stretched out without a game plan, this record is concise and focused to perfection.
10. Egberto Gismonti’s “Alma”
Though not exactly a jazz pianist, this Brazilian composer, guitarist, and pianist has had a huge influence on me, and on many other jazz musicians. Though the improvisation is remarkable, it is his sense of groove and astounding compositions that leave me in awe.
11. John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”
I wore this record out. The classic quartet – Coltrane, pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones – are at their spiritual best. It is a deep statement from one of the great groups in jazz history.
Visit Fred Hersch’s website here, and check out some of the recordings he mentions here: