Whirl, the new album by jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch's trio, comes out Tuesday. Hersch's first recording since he spent two months of 2008 in a coma, Whirl demonstrates that his musical gifts were merely interrupted.
Shortly after the 1985 release of his first solo record, Horizons, Hersch learned that he was HIV-positive. Since then, he has grappled with AIDS and pushed the limits of his talent and creativity to transcend his illness.
"I just wanted to create enough of a body of work that if I died, I might somehow be remembered," Hersch tells All Things Considered host Robert Siegel.
Over the past 30 years, the Manhattan-based musician has done that and then some. Hersch's output includes more than two dozen albums as well as work as a composer, arranger and teacher. With Whirl, Hersch can build on his firmly established style and versatility.
"I don't feel the need to prove myself in any particular way," he says. "I can take a lot more risks."
Before launching his solo career, Hersch worked as a sideman for a handful of jazz legends. At 54, he was among the last of the generation that still had to cut its teeth on the bandstand. Virtuosic improvisation is central to Hersch's style and nonstop output, and he says its importance is not emphasized enough to young players.
"I came up in an age when knowing a lot of tunes and being able to think on your feet quickly was an asset," Hersch says. "I'm not a product of the now-widespread jazz education model. I'm more or less self-taught as a jazz pianist and as a composer."
A Talent Interrupted
In 2008 the AIDS virus attacked Hersch's body, and the pianist was plagued with dementia and hospitalized because of pneumonia; he eventually spent two months in a coma. Although a feeding tube left one of his vocal cords paralyzed, Hersch recovered from nearly a year in the hospital. Fortunately, he says his piano playing remained intact.
"I think in ways I may be better," Hersch says. "I feel certainly more relaxed as a player. I think I'm digging deeper. There are a few little technical things that were easier before that now I have to compensate for, but the small technical things, nobody would notice but me."
Hersch has performed many solo and trio concerts since 2009, and Whirl is evidence of the performer's endurance on many levels.
"I feel, if anything," Hersch says, "I'm as good or better than I was before."