By Larry Blumenfeld

One might think a jazz pianist and a classical pianist inhabit separate worlds, far removed from each other.

Or maybe just a few city blocks apart.

When the celebrated concert pianist Inon Barnatan arrived at the home of Fred Hersch, a standardbearing jazz pianist, the two discovered they’re neighbors in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. Barnatan, who will be showcased in this year’s Bank of America Chamber Music series, and Hersch, who headlines the Wells Fargo Jazz series, sat down together with Hersch’s Steinway Model B just out of reach, before shelf upon shelf of recordings. Perhaps it was coincidence that Barnatan, who grew up in Israel and recently completed his final season as inaugural artist-in-association of the New York Philharmonic, was seated beneath Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations. Or that hovering above Hersch, who grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is by now a defining presence of New York City’s jazz landscape, were recordings by saxophonist John Coltrane and a collection of American popular songs. We talked about what connects and separates the lives and careers of pianists on disparate musical paths.

Larry Blumenfeld: Let’s start at the beginning. Inon, when did you first discover the piano?

Inon Barnatan: My mother had an upright piano. She was a dancer, and there was a piano that she sometimes played. From an early age, I gravitated toward it. At first, I would pick up things mostly by ear. And when my mother would pick something out, I would somewhat obnoxiously correct her. They found out I had perfect pitch, and sent me to my first lesson when I was three or so. I made it very clear that I wanted to play that piano.

Fred Hersch: We have very similar stories. My grandmother was a pianist, and my parents thought that every middle class Jewish household should have a piano in the living room, so we had one. I picked out cartoon show themes and songs I’d heard on the radio starting when I was around 3 years old. I always improvised. When I was a child, I improvised things that would sound like Mozart or whoever I was listening to. It was really once I started playing chamber music that I discovered what was missing for me when I was trying to be a concert pianist. It was the social aspect of making music with other people. Then I found jazz, which was this great language you can use with other people.

Barnatan: I went to a performing arts high school, and I had a similar moment. Most of my friends were in the jazz department, so I was exposed to that atmosphere. There was something so enchanting and addictive about that kind of jam session interaction—responding on the spot and having a social aspect to the music. I even had a moment when I thought, maybe I’ll go in that direction. And I often still wish that I had more of that in my life. We would have jam sessions at the end of parties. I would improvise, but I never really took it seriously enough to study the language. Because it’s totally different.

Hersch: It is totally different. I had my own “I don’t want to be a classical pianist” epiphany when I was ten. I heard Horowitz’s Historic Return Carnegie Hall album. I thought—God I’ll never be this good, so why bother trying?

Barnatan: There’s a story that Horowitz said that if Art Tatum ever decided to be a concert pianist, he would quit.

Blumenfeld: In Fred’s autobiography, Good Things Happen Slowly, he describes another reason for gravitating to jazz—the way jazz prizes individualism as opposed to a standardized conception of excellence. Is there a distinction in how you each pursue your artistry?

Barnatan: I don’t think I was ever creative in the sense of feeling the need to compose. I’ve seen myself always as an interpretive artist, in the way that an actor has a script and brings it to life. Yet I always felt that there is a huge amount of creativity and individualistic approach that I can bring to that task. I never felt constrained by that role. In a way, the fact that I have this music to bring life to in the same way that an actor has a great role makes me feel enormous freedom to create that character, or to embody it. As a classical musician, I feel like I have more in common with an actor than with a jazz pianist.

Hersch: I’m an interpreter, too. I’ll take something by a jazz composer or any given song, and my idea is that I want to honor that piece but I want to filter it through my sensibility. It may be Thelonious Monk’s music but I’m not imitating Monk. I’m trying to be Fred within that. And you’re trying to be yourself within whatever piece you’re playing. I’m an interpreter, but I’m kind of also writing the script.

Barnatan: It’s a different framework. You’re an interpreter, but there’s a creative aspect: You’re creating something that wasn’t there in terms of the actual notes. I guess in some ways
it’s a difference between the what and the how. With you it’s, “What do I do with this?” And with me it’s “How do I do this?” In my case, the notes stay the same.

Hersch: But in a great classical music performance, I feel like the performer is writing the piece in a new way, forcing you to hear it with his or her sensibility. Even a piece you know well, in the hands of real master you feel like you’re hearing it in a new way. Or at least I do.

Barnatan: I agree, and that’s why I never felt constrained. I’ve always hugely admired the art of improvisation. It still boggles my mind every time I hear a great improviser. But as much as I respect it, I never felt that was something that I had the real desire to do.

Hersch: I think we’re at a point in history where there are some great composers who are also great pianists and interpreters. And there are pianists who compose. We’re kind of going back to an environment that once
existed a long time ago. In that C.P.E. Bach book, The True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, from the 1700s, he describes the skill set to be a working musician during that time. He’s kind of describing a jazz pianist, I think—playing from figures, improvising from themes, interpreting, accompanying…

Barnatan: There wasn’t yet a distinction between composer and performer. Only later did the two become more separate. And of course, they became more and more separate as centuries went along.

Blumenfeld: You both talked earlier about the language of jazz musicians as something quite different than that of classical musicians. What can we say about that?

Barnatan: When you’re a classical musician, you’re learning every note, and you’re inferring the character from them all. And then you’re thinking very much as would an actor with a script. If you read every word Hamlet said, you could then think, Okay, who is this person? How can I make this person real? How can I make him a living, breathing being as opposed to words on paper? Whereas in jazz, it’s a totally different way of dealing with material.

Hersch: Essentially, what we’re doing are themes and variations. That can be constricting and boring at first, but if you get to a certain point you can be really fluid with it. If you’re playing a 32-bar tune and you’re playing five choruses, you’re not playing 32 bars five times; you’re playing 160 bars of continuous music. That’s where it gets interesting. You can tell a story.

Barnatan: From my conversations with jazz musicians, I’ve realized that the way you learn is very different than the way I learn. The jazz musicians I know will refer me to recordings, to absorb what has been done.

Hersch: It’s an oral tradition, basically.

Barnatan: I think we envy spontaneity in a lot of aspects of jazz. That’s what’s lacking in what we do. There can be a lot of spontaneity within the confines of interpretation, but that’s on a very fine scale. Would I choose to play the Barber concerto tomorrow? Will I feel like that? I don’t know. But there is also tremendous amount of freedom in constraints, I find. The more you have to do the same thing, the more you find variations in every single detail within that thing.

One thing that has always amazed me is the speed at which musical decisions take place in jazz. The speed of calculation of reacting to something right now, which leads to something else and then it ripples out. You have to think so far ahead of the game.

Hersch: Well, I’ve taught for many years, and I use a lot of tennis analogies with jazz. You can’t think two shots ahead. It’s reactive. You can hear something or play something and think, What’s the implication of that? But if you go too far ahead you miss the ball, and if you are not keeping up you miss the ball. So you have to be in that perfect space. It should be a story that unfolds in real time.

One difference between classical and jazz pianists—and this isn’t universally true—is that a lot of classical pianists think about timing: What is the overall architecture of this piece?

Barnatan: Yes. Don’t do this now because in 30 minutes this other thing will happen and you don’t want to rob that moment. You want to build toward that moment that won’t come for a while.

Hersch: In jazz, it’s time itself. It’s groove. That’s of course why jazz musicians love Bach, because his music really grooves. Well played, it has a rhythmic dance to it and the beat is sacred.

Blumenfeld: Let’s focus on specific composers. Inon, you have been widely praised for your interpretations of Franz Schubert’s music. Fred, your versions of Thelonious Monk’s compositions are distinctive and authoritative. Inon, why does Schubert’s music appeal to you so much?

Barnatan: How do I describe the ways….? Schubert is many, many things. One of the main aspects for me is how much he can say with very little. The sparseness of the language compared to the significance or the implication of it is staggering to me. With just three notes or something very spare, he can say so much about the human experience or relate an emotion that other composers might only dream of expressing with many more notes.

Blumenfeld: Fred, couldn’t we say the same of Monk?

Hersch: Certainly. He’s one of our greatest jazz composers, yet everything Monk wrote fits on 96 pages. In Monk’s music, you must think about the implication of where phrases and accents are, and how they work with the harmony. Monk worked diligently on his tunes over long periods of time, to end up with what we would consider a sort of simple tune. He certainly would take the prize in jazz for doing the most with the least.

There are certain Schubert pieces that I really love. I love the string quintet—the F-minor four-hand piece.

Barnatan: All of which were composed in the last year of his life, I should say…

Hersch: I just love that four-hand piece.

Barnatan: We should play it together sometime.

*This article originally appeared in the 2018 Spoleto Festival USA program book.