Professor John Liberatore’s “Chromatic Harmony” class takes place every Tuesday and Thursday in O’Neill Hall of Music, but this past week, the lecture was anything but ordinary. As students settled in their seats on the Leighton Concert Hall stage, Professor Liberatore greeted them enthusiastically, saying, “We are extremely privileged to have jazz royalty with us here today!” And jazz royalty is right. Behind Professor Liberatore sat 15-time Grammy-nominated composer and Presenting Series artist Fred Hersch, whose DPAC performance was later that night.
As one of jazz’s most influential musicians, Fred Hersch is extremely knowledgeable in all things jazz, composition, and improvisation. His guest lecture for a chromatic harmony class, then, was an incredible opportunity for students to learn in person from someone experienced in the field.
Mr. Hersch began his lecture by explaining his own theory background, saying that he only had small amounts of formal training at a young age. He “fell into jazz by accident” and loves his job because he “gets paid to make stuff up.” Afterward, Mr. Hersch turned to the piano and began playing, starting with the basic melody of “Shenandoah,” then layering harmonies on it as he went. The disbelief on students’ faces was enough to know Mr. Hersch’s improvised harmonies were impressive. Really impressive. Mr. Hersch explained his techniques to the class, pointing out his use of suspensions and resolutions instead of strict downbeats. As he continued to play, his tunes became more and more complex, and the class became more and more enchanted.
Second-year student Neema Morris got the opportunity to attend Mr. Hersch’s lecture. “It was a very surreal experience,” she said, “Just from seeing him improvise ideas without much use of a score, I could tell that he had put in a lot of heart and work into his work. I didn’t (and still don’t) know much about jazz performance, but I did get a glimpse as to what kind of ethic it takes to explore such a creative field.” She also noted Mr. Hersch’s advice to the class, saying, “Hersch gave great advice when it came to practicing … The idea of ‘free writing’ is something that I did for a while without knowing what it was called, but having that affirmation and getting more specific advice into such a process was very valuable.”
The advice Mr. Hersch gave the students was clear: you don’t need to know everything about composition or jazz to improvise well; you just have to practice. “Really work on the material,” he said, “really practice. And then when you perform, get out of the way.”
At the close of Mr. Hersch’s lecture, he invited everyone to see his performance that night. Professor Liberatore thanked him for his time, exclaiming that Mr. Hersch is one of the only musicians whose “every note draws [him] in.” Some students asked for photos, some whispered excitedly to one another, and others seemed to sit back in awe of the experience. Clearly, this was a music class they’d never forget.