Toward a Tradition of Hersch and Sondheim

Hearing pianist Fred Hersch play solo is a rare kind of experience, one where you get of both warm familiarity and uncharted adventure. He never seems to have an off-night, always pushing well-worn songs (whether standards or originals) in new directions. Tonight, on stage at Raritan Valley Community College, “Dream of Monk” featured some scurrying, vaguely tonal micro-counterpoint. “Stuttering,” a piece normally reserved for trio gigs, got an exploratory treatment that stretched the form in some uncharacteristic ways.

As someone who’s lived in both the jazz and musical theater worlds (see this blog’s inaugural post), I’ve found Hersch to be a great way to get theater people to listen to and enjoy jazz (just ask my girlfriend). To my ear, he shares both a harmonic and melodic sense with Stephen Sondheim. The vamp that undergirds Hersch’s tune “Echoes” even bares a strong resemblance to the vamp at the beginning of Sondheim’s “Move On” from Sunday in the Park with George. I’ve always pondered about Sondheim’s potential influence on Hersch. I asked former Hersch student Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus about it, and he said they never spoke about Sondheim, but that it could possibly be an influence.

So after the show tonight, I just had to ask: “What kind of impact has Sondheim had on your work, Fred?”

“Zippo,” he curtly replied, then adding that he’s probably the only gay American musician of his age that hasn’t dealt with Sondheim in any serious way, outside of seeing a couple of  his plays.

However, the similarities are too strong to be simply coincidental. It’s most likely that it comes from both shared musical reference points and a shared aesthetic that prizes harmonic ingenuity and pure lyricism.

On the shared reference points side of things, Hersch and Sondheim are both steeped in the American songbook tradition. Hersch is regarded as one of the most faithful interpreters of songbook repertoire and vocal accompanists (just see his duo album with vocalist Jay Clayton, “Beautiful Love”). Sondheim learned that tradition from one of its sources – lyricist Oscar Hammerstein – and explored it deeply in his songs for Follies. In addition, to this intimate knowledge of the American songbook, both musicians are well-versed in the classical repertoire, especially of music from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hersch’s tune “Pastorale” is a response to the piano music of Robert Schumann, and Romantic harmonies crop up in many other tunes as well – tunes that would feel right at home alongside those from Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.”

But more important than these shared reference points are Hersch and Sondheim’s shared love of memorable melody. While talking to Hersch after the show, he mentioned how the art of songwriting has mostly fallen out of jazz. For him, jazz compositions are many times exercises in being slicker than the next guy, only having fragments of melody that can’t actually stick in one’s head. While he has a true jazz master’s command of extended harmonies, Hersch never explores complex harmonic terrain without being able to thread a good melody through it. Though Sondheim originally sought the composer Milton Babbit as a teacher to help him write serious atonal music, Babbit told Sondheim not to abandon his gift for melody, urging Sondheim to explore the many possibilities afforded to him by traditional tonal systems. Sondheim clearly learned a lot about how to construct rich, piquant harmonies from his lessons in classical composition, but like Hersch, never sacrificed melody to make a more interesting chord progression.

For me, the work of both Hersch and Sondheim suggest their own tradition of American, urban, piano-based art song. Today, most pop and jazz songwriters come more from a guitar tradition, derived from blues, rock, and traditional folk – more rural genres of music. Jazz musicians in particular that write on piano are more prone to think like composers than songwriters, prizing complexity over singable melodies. The Hersch-Sondheim tradition comes out of the era in which classically-trained, urban dwellers were the creative forces behind popular music – the Broadway composers, Tin Pan Alley songsmiths, and famous writing teams like Lieber and Stoller. The artification¹ of this tradition may not have begun with Leonard Bernstein in works like “On the Town” and “West Side Story,” but these works certainly opened the doors that Sondheim and Hersch went through, showing that you could create piano-based music that was both musically rich and appealing to an average, non-musician. Nowadays, this tradition is mostly relegated to the musical theater world (think of Jason Robert Brown or Ricky Ian Gordon), but there are some practitioners elsewhere (I would definitely put Eric Whitacre in this category, and would make a case for Missy Mazzoli’s Victoire as well).

Because of how this tradition is relatively small, there are still many routes to explore within it. Hersch has added a sense of rhythmic playfulness and unpredictability to the style, especially through his work with drummers like Tom Rainey and Nasheet Waits. I would love to see a musical theater writer run with this idea, creating a show with more rhythmic drive than your typical Sondheim work, but not resorting to rock opera kitsch. Hersch, like Sondheim, has opened many musical doors, but not many have followed him through them. Treasures await those who will.

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