Jazz fans are in for a treat when Fred Hersch and his trio play at the Palladium Theater on Thursday in St. Petersburg. Hersch, performing in Florida for the first time in 15 years, is a pianist in the lineage of greats like Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans and Hank Jones.
Hersch and his trio — also including John Hébert, bass, and Eric McPherson, drums — recently released a splendid double-CD album, Alive at the Vanguard (Palmetto Records). The title refers to the venue, New York's legendary Village Vanguard, where the group was recorded about a year ago, but also to the pianist's survival from a horrific near-fatal stretch of sickness from AIDS and pneumonia. In 2008, he came close to dying and was in a coma for two months at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York.
The 57-year-old pianist is healthy now, and in 2010 he created a multimedia jazz theater piece called My Coma Dreams. I spoke with him by phone in February when he and the trio were performing in Idaho. Here's an edited excerpt of our conversation.
Do you have a program for your Palladium concert, or will you do it on the fly?
I play what I feel like playing that evening. We try not to play the same stuff every night. That keeps it fresh for us. Generally speaking, people can expect some original music, some things from what we loosely call the American popular songbook and some compositions from great jazz composers, you know, Monk, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman, etc. Sometimes I give the guys a set list and then change my mind. It's very flexible. I have a lot of friends that are big-time concert artists who set their programs a year in advance. Fortunately, I don't have to do that.
Are your pieces notated or mainly improvised? Say, the one called Havana on your latest album.
Something like Havana exists on two pieces of manuscript. That's it. So it's 5 percent how we play the melody and 95 percent what we do with it. Even within how we play the melody, it's different every time. The trio has played together a lot, and we've developed different approaches and different palates for different pieces. Like on Havana, there's a particular groove that Eric comes up with. The way the bass line is notated is fixed, but there is so much else that's up to the moment.
Coming back from being in a coma for two months sounds miraculous. What has your recovery been like?
I lost the use of a vocal cord. I didn't eat for eight months, I couldn't walk, I couldn't speak. I certainly couldn't play the piano in any reasonable way. And I didn't know if it would all come back, but it did. I'm in better physical health than I've been in 20 years. I have a paralyzed vocal cord, which impacts my speech a little bit, but beyond that I'm in pretty much great shape. I'm one of the fortunate ones.
How about your piano playing?
It just sort of came back, slowly over time. The fine twitch muscles, the fine motor coordination is the last thing that comes back. You get your big muscles, like walking, first, and the other ones follow, and fortunately they did.
Have there been changes in your playing?
Yeah, sure, when you almost die, it changes everything. I can't say exactly what's different about my playing now than it was before, but I know it's different. I sort of leave that up to the listeners to tell me.
What do listeners say?
They say that my playing is looser and less controlled and freer. And I agree with that. I feel that is definitely the case.
And has your compositional approach changed?
I can't exactly say. I write music in spurts. Sometimes I write new pieces for the trio, sometimes I'm writing a more classical piece on commission. I don't sit down and compose every day, nor do I practice four hours a day either. I'm at that point in my life where I write when I'm inspired and when I have reason to write something.
The Fred Hersch Trio plays at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Side Door Cabaret of the Palladium. $30, $35. (727) 822-3590; mypalladium.org. The group also plays Friday in Sanibel and Saturday in Fort Lauderdale.
Boston Pops at Mahaffey
The Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra and music director Keith Lockhart are in Florida this week and play a concert 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. Their program includes a Barbra Streisand tribute, featuring vocalist and songwriter Ann Hampton Callaway.
"One of the most iconic voices in the American songbook was turning 70, so we decided to honor that with the tour, and Ann talked to Barbra and got her blessing," Lockhart said in an interview.
Hampton, who grew up idolizing Streisand, has written songs on six of her albums. She is known for writing the theme song to The Nanny on TV and starring in the Broadway musical Swing.
With the Pops, Hampton will sing Don't Rain on My Parade, People and other songs associated with Streisand. The program will include a segment devoted to the late Marvin Hamlisch, a frequent guest conductor with the Pops and Streisand's music director. He and lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman wrote The Way We Were, also to be performed by Hampton and orchestra.
"This is not a Barbra Streisand imitator sort of thing," Lockhart said. "Ann has a beautiful voice, a really flexible voice. She makes these songs her own. I think the best kind of tribute is reinterpretation of these songs. Trying to imitate Barbra Streisand would be doomed to failure."
In October, Lockhart heard Streisand give a concert in Toronto. "And the amazing thing is? She sounds just like Barbra Streisand," the puckish conductor said. "I don't think the endurance is there anymore. But the voice is still there. From an older lady who looks like Barbra Streisand."
Tickets to Wednesday's concert are $35-$145. (727) 893-7382; themahaffey.com.
Arts, sports at the mercy of traffic
Finally, a note to be filed under adventures in concertgoing: On a Friday in February, I left downtown St. Petersburg at 5:30 p.m., planning to stop by a Tampa gallery for a look at a photography exhibit on the way to a Florida Orchestra concert at 8 p.m. I should have known better. Because of traffic congestion, it took me more than an hour and a half to make the 20-some mile trip to downtown Tampa, an all too common waste of time on the clogged roads of the Tampa Bay area. No wonder attendance at concerts, plays, ballgames and other events is so spotty. This is a nice place to live if you don't want to go anywhere.
John Fleming can be reached at fleming@ tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716.