VCU presents pianist Fred Hersch

VCU Music is hosting pianist Fred Hersch for a residency in April, which will culminate in his performance with the VCU Jazz Orchestra I on April 12. Director of VCU Jazz Studies Antonio Garcia chatted with adjunct trombone instructor Bryan Hooten about what we can expect.

RVAJazz presents RVAJazzfest 2011
sponsored in part by VCU Music
Saturday, April 9, 2011, 9pm.
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VCU Music is hosting pianist Fred Hersch for a residency in April, which will culminate in his performance with the VCU Jazz Orchestra I on April 12. Director of VCU Jazz Studies Antonio Garcia chatted with adjunct trombone instructor Bryan Hooten about what we can expect. — Ed.

RVAJazz: Could you talk a little about VCU Jazz and how it chooses its guest artists?

Antonio Garcia: VCU Jazz is a great place to be. I’ve got great colleagues and a lot of hardworking students, planted within the top public school of arts and design in the U.S. Remember when that study came out a month or so about how college freshman and sophomores show little learned after years one and two in college? I can guarantee you that they didn’t assess VCU Jazz students. We throw a lot at them, and it’s great watching the young talents grow.

Our approach is summarized in our Mission Statement. If I were to pick a phrase or two to highlight, it would be the closer:

Jazz has long been and will remain a basis for myriad music derived from jazz roots, crossing all cultures, genders and nations, and absorbing from and spilling over into classical, rock, popular, and more. Our goal is to prepare our students for that future. The combination of a dedicated and creative faculty, inspiring guest artists, quality large and small ensembles, informative courses, and numerous performing opportunities in and outside of the school makes this goal readily achievable.

Most of the guest artists come our way as they’re traveling elsewhere along I-95 for their “anchor” performances that pay the majority of their expenses. This keeps our own costs down. But once a year we have a three-day residency by an artist we plan for almost a year in advance. The targeted instrument rotates annually among those typically found in a big band. I ask our primary studio instructor of that instrument for his wish-list and start reaching out from there. In this case, Fred Hersch is one of Wells Hanley’s former professors, as well as an internationally renowned composer/performer for whom so many have great respect; so the choice was a quick one! I’d been familiar with Fred Hersch’s work for a long time; so when Wells proposed his name, I jumped at the chance!

On average, I hear from an artist every other week who wants to perform or present a workshop here. Obviously we have to be highly selective, based on our needs, budget, and calendar. Sometimes we bring in longtime jazz masters, or artists who follow closely in a mainstream jazz tradition. Often we bring in artists who are on the cutting edge of what modern jazz is or may become. Through it all, our goal is to expose our students and learning community to dedicated musicians who, like our own faculty, never stop learning.

RVAJazz: Which of his tunes will Hersch be doing with the big band?

AG: We’re fortunate in that he was able to send us around ten charts to read through and choose from. That’s a luxury I don’t often get! And while all the pieces are available on CDs or via iTunes in recorded small-group format, these big band charts aren’t recorded. In fact, Fred told me he hadn’t performed them in ten years. So we have an opportunity to nearly premiere some great music.

The titles may not resonate with every jazz fan–Miss B., Heartsong, Mirage, Swamp Thang, and Marshall’s Plan–but I chose them because of their color and variety. We get to break out the clarinets and bass clarinet, the brass mutes, and to play in swing, Latin, bluesy, bebop, and ballad styles. They’re fun to play and fun to listen to. And of course the band will do a couple of tunes without him: some Basie, and an original arrangement by one of our students, guitarist Ben Misterka. As I write this, less than two weeks before the concert, his chart is still in excellent re-writes; so I’ll say we have the final version when we walk on stage. We like to keep our jazz fresh at VCU!

RVAJazz: Will Hersch be doing any solo performing?

AG: I asked him directly if he’d be willing to play a solo piece on the JO I concert, and he’ll perform a ballad of his choice, all alone that evening. That by itself will be worth coming for. He’s also going to perform in small-group format with students for a school-only concert during his residency so that our students get to hear him in that format as well.

RVAJazz: What do you hope for pianists and non-pianists to absorb from his residency?

AG: Well, the two words that seem to pop up most in reviews of Fred’s work are “beauty” and “lyricism.” Here’s a guy with tremendous technique, superb compositional skills on the jazz and classical side, great ears, and the mind and wit to combine these and more into expressive improvisations among the best on the planet. What’s not to absorb?

There’s also a lesson about commitment to be learned. It’s difficult to fully explain or even demonstrate to any student what commitment really is and means, even as our society seems to move further and further from lasting commitments on a daily basis. But several of our visiting artists have spoken to our students about how they should always play as if it were their last opportunity to do so. Never mind if it’s an ensemble rehearsal or self-practice or a high-profile performance. ALWAYS commit to your music-making as if it’s your last opportunity, so that you can deliver your best expression at all times–which will of course benefit any ensemble or solo practice, much less a performance.

Fred Hersch understands this. He’s had his abilities to walk and talk, much less to make music, taken from him; and he has fought not only to regain those musical abilities but to continually improve them beyond what he originally had achieved. He takes nothing for granted, and neither should we. If our students absorb some of that, their music–no matter how good–will grow exponentially better. Commit to what you want, or get out of the way of those who will!

RVAJazz: Considering the high-profile talent that passed through Richmond, as well as the national attention that our local groups are getting, how do you view Richmond’s place in the national/international Jazz community?

AG: A lot of musical folks know about the active creative scene in Richmond, in and outside of VCU. And of course, with the recent highs attained by Rams Basketball, few of us have to explain what the initials VCU stand for these days!

But I moved here from the Chicago area in large part because I’d discovered in 2001 how Richmond, like the New Orleans scene I’d grown up in, appreciates the artistic culture, likes new attempts at expressive growth, tolerates the occasional musical mistake, loves a good time, and will spread the word about someone doing good things. Richmond has a vibe that few cities have–and fewer still when it comes to embracing even the creative activities of college students cutting their teeth on new artistic projects in town.

I’m one of very, very many people who are doing what they can to promote that scene and to infuse it with more activity and more publicity. In my case, I inject VCU Jazz students into that scene as much as I can and highlight what they do. And with that, I do my best to infuse our students with business sense so that they can start tasting how to build their careers as young entrepreneurs.

Our alumni who stick around Richmond do a great job of creating their own opportunities, and it inspires our students to do the same. I tell them they’ll likely need to travel if they’re going to make a musical career, but Richmond is a great place for starting things up; so few want to leave very soon. Now a group such as Fight The Big Bull can capitalize on headquartering and recording here while traveling outwards.

I see this synergy in Richmond continuing. Far more “name” artists want to stop here and collaborate than we can bring in or that local talent can host. Richmond has been well noticed. As my self-made branding for Richmond goes: “Richmond: more art per square inch than any town its size.” And if the city would just jump on board and market itself as the creative explosion it is, we’d have an exponential jump in tourism–Austin, Texas-style.

Not bad for a city a day’s drive from half the population of the United States!

Visit VCU Music and VCU Jazz online

photo by David Bartolomi

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Bryan Hooten

Bryan Hooten performs with No BS! Brass, Matthew E. White, and other Richmond-based groups. He teaches Music Theory and Jazz Orchestra at VCU.

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