Fred Hersch

New York, NY—News Bar Cafe, Union Square. It's 11am. Low jazz can be heard playing on the overhead speakers, along with background chatter and the occasional ambulance. Caffeinated beverages and breakfast sandwiches are present. I take a tentative sip of cappuccino, reach under the table for my trusty Zoom H5. Across from me sits jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch. A man who has meant many things to me in my lifetime—a musical role model, a source of inspiration, a friend, a set of frequently played digital music files... I sit anxiously—is it the awe or the beverage? I think to myself: he's now entering the realm of debatable audiophile and breakfast co-conspirator. Cappuccino sip. Let us begin.

Fred's system: Totem Acoustic Rainmakers (Black Ash), Audio Advisor cables, Adcom GFA-555II power amplifier, Adcom GFP-565 preamplifier, Rega RP1 turntable, Benz Micro Gold cartridge, Arcam CD62, Sennheiser HD 600 headphones.

Fred Hersch: I've had a loft on Broadway in SoHo since 1979, when SoHo was a very different place. In the mid-'80s, I constructed a drum booth, a control room, and a vocal booth, and I opened a 24-track studio. That was in 1982 or '83, before MIDI and digital. Everything was tape and razor blades. I thought I'd learn to be an engineer, but I realized that I'm not wired that way. I'm not that technical.

When I broke up the studio and turned it back into a living space, I kept the rooms. Now, the drum booth is my office and the control room is the bedroom. I had a nice stereo and, in those days (1988), there were cassettes and DAT machines. [...] Last year on my 60th birthday, John Hébert and Eric McPherson (the bassist and drummer in my trio) gave me a Parasound phono preamp because I was complaining that I had to really crank the volume to hear anything on vinyl.

Ultimately, the things that I trust the most are the Sennheiser HD 600 headphones. I never go to the studio without them. To me, you can wear them all day. If it sounds good there, it's going to sound good anywhere. Unfortunately they stopped making them. They now make a 650 or something, and it's just not as good. I've been trolling around on the internet trying to find a spare pair in case these die. They're what I rely on more than anything.

Jana Dagdagan: What do you use to listen to music on the go?

FH: Airplanes—I use the Bose noise-canceling headphones. They fit into a very zippy little case. I have an iPod Classic, and I find that it's fine for most things. I'm resistant to things like new operating systems, like the new iTunes is terrible. It was really easy before, but now it's a nightmare to do anything. I try the best I can to stay with what I know, and I know that the Bose headphones are not "audiophile." They do this, that, and the other. But it's still a pleasant listening experience.

Day to day—I don't listen to music. The only times I listen to music are on a plane, around the house (either in NY or our place in Pennsylvania), or at the gym. I don't typically walk around with earbuds or an iPod. When I'm on the subway, I like just being on the subway. I don't want to change that experience or escape. Maybe I'm a little old fashioned but I don't listen constantly.

JD: So are you an audiophile?

FH: I don't consider myself to be an audiophile in that I'm in search of the perfect system and am willing to mortgage my house for it. I've always had really good quality equipment. Equipment that I trust. I produce records, I mix records, I think I know what are good sounds and what a good mix is. Nobody's perfect all the time. Sometimes you get things wrong. But I think I've got a pretty good ear for sound. Often when I'm mixing or mastering a record, there may be speakers in there that I don't know. And that's why I always have my HD600s for reference. I know i can trust them. Always.

JD: Not too many jazz musicians consider themselves audiophiles. Why?

FH: This is just a theory. I'm 60 years old, so I started really seriously listening to music on a little kiddy record player when I was 4. In high school I really got into music (pop, rock, not jazz yet, really). A friend and I built a Heathkit tube amplifier. I had the first Dolby cassette recorder, the Advent (I think). I had a nice little system for a high school kid. When I went to NEC in Boston, of course I brought my system.

In those days, listening to music was a shared social activity. If you wanted to hear Ornette Coleman, you had to sit on the couch in front of your stereo. Maybe you'd hear him live if you were lucky, but you couldn't hear it streaming or downloading or on Pandora. LPs were a social thing. You'd pass them around, look at the liner notes, the lyrics. And the first and third Tuesday of every month was release day. "Oh the new Joni Mitchell album is coming out!" or "Oh the new Stevie is coming out!" And you'd go to the store and buy it, and you'd come home, rip off the plastic, and sit and listen to it.

It was a very shared experience. And now it's not. People listen to music really anywhere, and everything has become kind of content. People don't expect to pay for music anymore. It's all up on YouTube or Spotify or Pandora, and I think people have just gotten used to less quality.

If you listen to a CD on a really good stereo, and then download it into iTunes and even listen on good headphones, you're still listening to an MP3. You can convert now higher, but it hogs up a lot of your memory.

Musicians, a lot of them, are just more interested in what's happening in the music rather than the sound.

And my other theory is, if we're talking about jazz music, the most important thing, I think, when you're mixing an album, is—of course you want to have good sound—but the main thing is getting the balance right. Say a piano trio. A jazz piano trio is one of the hardest things to record. If the bass is too loud, your ear goes right to the bass. If it's not present enough, it somehow feels empty. You end up making adjustments like two tenths of a dB. Or, in mastering, you bring up the center where the bass is by less than a half of a dB on certain tunes. Musicians will usually ignore the sonic flaws if the balance is right. That's at least in jazz.

In classical music, I don't think they've ever improved on Mercury Living Presence—three microphones for an orchestra. I think that's about the best sound ever. And it's super simple. And then the orchestra just plays its dynamics, and you hear the hall, and it's just like you're sitting there experiencing the music. There's nothing between you and it, and there's no engineer saying "Oh bring up the flute, or we have to edit out this whatever, whatever." You're getting a performance.

I've released a lot of live albums. Sometimes there's a flaw, you fumble on a melody or something is a little wonky. But the main thing is—to me—with any kind of music is that it has to be memorable. Sound comes second. If I'm choosing between two takes of a tune that are my own, I go with the one that has more memorable phrases, that has better flow, even if there's a bobble here or there. It feels connected.

Also, musicians travel all the time, so they get used to Bose headphones and iPods. A lot of young people, people in their 20s, they don't even own a stereo at all. Everything is headphones or earbuds. To me, every musician in my generation owned a stereo and owned LPs, used or new. I gave some CDs to my trainer at the gym because he was curious about my music. He took them home and realized he couldn't play the CDs. He has a MacBook Air with no disc drive, and he doesn't own a stereo. This is a guy who can afford a stereo, or a Bose system, or something. But it's just not important any more.

The listening experience has become more solitary. That's just my take on things.

And also I've noticed with things like iPods, you're listening to a track, and sometimes you have a tendency, while that track is playing, to sort of thumb around and see what you want to play next instead of listening to that track. I encourage all the young musicians or people I meet at masterclasses to take that one track and listen to it seven times in a row, instead of just grazing, to get in something deeply.

When I grew up, there were records I would keep on my turntable for a week. I would keep playing that record, A-side, A-side, B-side, B-side, B-side, A-side, for a period of days. And now everybody tends to kind of listen and go on to the next thing, and it's all free so you haven't invested in it.

JD: What are you listening to right now?

FH: A CD that my friend Nancy King, a great jazz singer, gave me. Just yesterday, I was given a piano and string quartet album by a Canadian artist named David Braid. Of course I've been listening to some Prince and I have a cassette of the Black Album. It's pretty random . . . I have a lot of students, former students, musician friends, who send me stuff. So I have a whole pile of things that people have sent me to check out. Sometimes they want me to check it out with the idea that I'll write something they can use for publicity, but I do that very sparingly. Sometimes I give something three tracks, and if it's not getting me, it goes in the trash. I take used CDs up to Housing Works so they can sell them.

There's certain albums and things that I go back to, that I'll go back to for my entire life. Classical, Jazz, Brazilian, these are just touchstones for me that I listen to all the time. I always tend to pull them out. And there's a lot of stuff I listen to once and frankly just doesn't stick with me. And if it's an artist I like, and I get an album by them, either they give it to me or I buy it, if I really like the artist, I'll listen to the album, and if it doesn't get me, I'll give it another chance, because I know the artist or I like the artist, and I'll usually give it a second chance. A lot of things just don't stick.

JD: What are your reference CDs when you're testing different systems?

FH: Some solo albums I've recorded—Fred Hersch plays Monk, Fred Hersch plays Jobim. I'll bring something poppy, like Dirtyloops. I'll listen to Sonny Rollins Trio Live at the Vanguard. I'll listen to Tomorrow is the Question, Ornette Colman; Quartetto Italiano playing Debussy and Ravel quartets; and some Mercury Living Presence album. That's a pretty good swath. And of course, I don't buy new gear that often.

According to his website,jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch is an 8-time Grammy nominee, the recipient of a 2016 Doris Duke Artist Award, and is the Jazz Journalists Association 2016 Jazz Pianist of the year. He was also awarded a 2003 Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in Composition. His latest CD, Fred Hersch Solo, received the French Grand Prix du Disque for 2015; his upcoming CD, The Fred Hersch Trio:Sunday Night at the Vanguard, will be released August 12 on Palmetto Records.

ken mac's picture

Cross one off my list! :)

woodford's picture

I love Fred Hersch's music. i discovered him in the mid 80s sometime when i was in Paris. i stopped in a small jazz CD shop i the Marais, and mentioned I liked Charlie Haden & Quartet West. he pointed my to Sarabande, A trio record which featured Charlie Haden on bass. great stuff, and i've been a fan since.

and it was very nicely recorded. ;)

pbarach's picture

Great article about a fine musician! Just a note--those Sennheiser HD 600 headphones are still being sold by many dealers--also, they are listed on the Sennheiser US site under "over the ear" headphones rather than as "high end." I love mine, and I didn't love the HD 650s, which I sold quickly.

Anon2's picture

This interview and the accompanying photos are destined to become classics, and are among the very best pieces published in this magazine. I am going to cut short my comments so I can read this superb interview again. This is a job superbly done by our new, young Stereophile writer.

Goheelz's picture

Nice job on the Fred Hersch profile. Your work is a welcome addition to Stereophile's writing team. Looking forward to more solid interviews like this one.

douglas882's picture

Thanks so much for this fine interview and article. I've been a fan of Mr. Hersch and his work for a long, long time; I'm a growing fan of Ms. Dagdagan. If this is any indication of what Stereophile readers can expect, we're in for some very good things indeed! Keep up the intelligent work.

Skyhawk's picture

Had the great privilege to hear Fred live in Portland recently and Nancy King was in the audience. I wonder if the CD was exchanged that night. A great live performer, awesome technique and musicianship.

Keep up the fantastic writing Jana!

jim davis's picture

I've tried to like his music over the years, but most of his CDs have been catch and release. Maybe my tastes have changed, or maybe it was because Jarrett and Mehldau haven't been releasing much lately, but I've come to enjoy Whirl, Solo and Floating. Looking forward to the upcoming Vanguard release.

Allen Fant's picture

Thanks! for writing- Jana.
I really enjoy reading articles such as this one- keep up the excellent work. Fine indeed.

Allen Fant's picture

Beautiful photos too!

veentage's picture

I look forward to your blog every week, thanks Jana, more power!

Anton's picture

Mr. Hersch's comment, "The listening experience has become more solitary," really hit home.

Isn't that what all us crazy audiophiles strive to do in our Hi Fi man caves?

The arc of audiophilia classically starts with shared listening and ends with solo listening sessions in a chair with a name and a sweet spot to exclude others. So, we are criticizing people for starting out where we conclude?


Young people are skipping over the beginning and middle part of the hobby and going right to the final destination!

Folks, if you are out there, to paraphrase John Prine: blow up your sweet spot, throw away your man cave, move your gear to a living area, build a social listening room, throw a little party, play good music, don't make 'em find Hi Fi, on their own.

randolphr's picture

great imaging & balance ..... very musical, too.

hey - that aint bad for the written word (!)

eisforelectronic's picture

good stuff, he really hits the nail on the head

richie arricivita's picture

thanks jana