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Master class

Fred Hersch and Jason Moran key in to each other’s genius

'We're both students of the whole jazz piano tradition. Of course, we express it very differently,'' says Fred Hersch (pictured), who will play with Jason Moran on Tuesday. "We're both students of the whole jazz piano tradition. Of course, we express it very differently,'' says Fred Hersch (pictured), who will play with Jason Moran on Tuesday. (Steve J. Sherman)
By Andrew Gilbert
Globe Correspondent / March 4, 2011

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At first glance, pianists Fred Hersch and Jason Moran might seem like a musical odd couple. Separated by two decades in age (which adds up to about four generations in the accelerated sweep of jazz time), Hersch is given to rapturous lyrical flights, while Moran tends toward off-kilter lines and knotty chordal clusters.

But Hersch and Moran have long held each other in high esteem, and their duo performance Tuesday at New England Conservatory’s jewel-like Jordan Hall is just the latest encounter between two of jazz’s most celebrated artists.

In addition to sharing an employer — Moran started teaching at NEC last year, and Hersch first joined the faculty in the 1980s — they’re linked by several seminal associations, including studies with the late Jaki Byard, the encyclopedic master whose piano approach encompassed nearly a century of jazz history. More recently, they’ve both built bands around drummer Nasheet Waits, who powers Moran’s long-running Bandwagon with bassist Tarus Mateen and Hersch’s former trio with bassist Drew Gress.

“I find Jason very intriguing conceptually,’’ says Hersch, 55, noting that he hired Moran for one night in a weeklong run of piano duos at the Jazz Standard in 2007. “I thought people would say, ‘Hersch and Moran? What an odd combination.’ But it’s not that odd. We’re both students of the whole jazz piano tradition. Of course, we express it very differently. He moves me into different areas than I might otherwise go, and I do the same for him, hopefully in a fun and challenging way.’’

Moran always seems game for a musical challenge that takes him out of his comfort zone. Since breaking into the scene with altoist and ace talent scout Greg Osby in 1997, he’s come to embody jazz’s progressive mainstream as a player, composer, and bandleader whose intellectually rigorous music is designed to work on several levels simultaneously.

Last year, the MacArthur Foundation awarded him a coveted “genius’’ fellowship, news he received in Boston while shopping at Utrecht Art Supplies. He’s reticent about revealing his plans for the $500,000 windfall, but he did mention an idea for an opera based on a major American architect.

“I didn’t have an inkling I was up for it, and I was thrilled,’’ says Moran, 36. “You want to make great music, effect change, and spread enlightenment. Sometimes you get great gigs. This is a different kind of validation. It’s a kick in the butt. Way after this is gone, I still have to be making provocative music.’’

Born and raised in Houston, Moran was drawn to jazz after hearing a Thelonious Monk album in junior high. By the time he was attending the prestigious High School for the Performing and Visual Arts he was playing jazz every opportunity he could find. In 1993, he moved to New York to study with Byard at the Manhattan School of Music. Later he took private lessons with Muhal Richard Abrams and Andrew Hill, but it was Byard who fundamentally shaped his outlook.

“After the first five minutes I played at our first lesson, he said ‘You play too loud. You’ve got to learn how to touch the piano,’’’ Moran recalls. “That was one of his big things. He had so many different kinds of touch. He could make the piano sound like an orchestra or make it sound like a piccolo.’’

One of the bonds linking Hersch and Moran is their shared passion for passing on jazz’s secrets. They first got to know each other as faculty at a Carnegie Hall teaching residency, and they’ve continued to collaborate as educators.

“When I was teaching at Manhattan School of Music, I’d bring my students to Fred’s apartment and he’d give a two-hour master class, focusing on touch,’’ Moran says. “In recent years he’s really been an influence on how to approach the piano, especially when it comes to tenderness.’’

No jazz pianist wrings more drama and beauty out of solo recitals than Hersch. He recorded a ravishing solo session at Jordan Hall in 1998, “Let Yourself Go’’ (Nonesuch). And last week he released “Alone at the Vanguard’’ (Palmetto), just his second album since recovering from a harrowing attack of AIDS-related dementia that left him comatose and unconscious for two months (he’s premiering a major work based on the experience, “My Coma Dreams,’’ on May 7-8 at New Jersey’s Montclair State University).

It took months of physical therapy just to be able to sit at the piano again, but judging by his recent work, Hersch hasn’t lost a step, and is fully ready to match chops and wits with Moran.

“Piano is a percussion instrument,’’ Hersch says. “It can be an orchestra or it can sing. Both of us in different ways are very rhythmic. With two pianos, you’re playing with somebody who can make as much sound as you. You have to think of yourself as half of a whole.’’

Andrew Gilbert can be reached at jazzscribe@aol.com.

FRED HERSCH and JASON MORAN

At: Jordan Hall at NEC, Tuesday, 8 p.m. Tickets: Free. 617-585-1260, www.necmusic.edu