For Fred Hersch, 2008 was the year of living dangerously.
A singular creative force in jazz since the late 1970s, Hersch has inspired many of the most celebrated pianists to emerge in recent decades, from Brad Mehldau and The Bad Plus' Ethan Iverson to Vijay Iyer and Taylor Eigsti. Long out as a HIV-positive gay man, he suddenly dropped off the scene about three years ago when he was struck by AIDS-related dementia. Close to death's door, he fell into a coma toward the end of the year, remaining unconscious for two months, which left him so weak he was unable to sit at the piano, let alone play it.
After arduous months of rehab and physical therapy, Hersch returned to the stage last year, and he's quickly resumed his prodigious output, releasing two critically acclaimed albums and undertaking several ambitious long-form projects. On Tuesday at Yoshi's, he renews his charged relationship with vocalist Nancy King, a brilliant, largely unheralded singer with whom he recorded a ravishing, Grammy-nominated live duo session released on MaxJazz in 2006.
"She's the greatest jazz singer alive, all the way around, if you look at the whole range of her qualities," said Hersch, 54. "She's a fearless improviser, incredible reader of lyrics, outrageous natural musicianship, great time, inhabits a song in a deepest way. She doesn't know anything about music technically. We have a list of tunes and I just pick them. I set the tempo and groove and she just sings. It's real jazz, no rehearsal, just things we know and like to play."
A farm girl who fell in love with jazz as a teenager, King started performing in 1959 with fellow University of Oregon students Glen Moore and Ralph Towner, who gained fame years later in the pioneering world-jazz ensemble Oregon. She moved to San Francisco in 1960 and immediately landed a gig with the under-recorded bebop saxophonist Pony Poindexter, who was also a master scat singer. Under the tutelage of Poindexter and Jon Hendricks, who was at the height of his fame with the seminal vocalese combo Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, King soon became an accomplished scat singer herself. She also met her husband, altoist Sonny King at the Jazz Workshop, and ended up holding down a Monday night gig at the club for two years, while also gigging with San Francisco luminaries like Vince Guaraldi, John Handy, and Flip Nunez.
Over the years, King has recorded intermittently, with consistently thrilling results. She and Moore teamed up for three wondrously idiosyncratic albums on the Justice label in the early 1990s. With her longtime duo partner, guitarist Steve Christofferson, King has delved deeply into the American Songbook on a series of intimate recordings for the CBC. Despite being widely revered by her musical colleagues, she's never broken out of her cult status. Her mercurial career has often taken her off the beaten path, where she's invariably thrived creatively, despite ending up further from thriving urban jazz scenes.
"I went to Helena, Montana to visit my sister, and I ended up staying for a while so I found a great piano player," said King, 70, a longtime resident of Portland, Oregon. "Everywhere I've ever gone, it doesn't matter how remote, I've always found a pianist or guitarist to play music with. I've been extremely fortunate."
Oftentimes, jazz's greatest improvisers have found her. In 1998 her old friend, bassist Ray Brown, recruited King to perform alongside her much better known peers on his CD Some Of My Best Friends Are Singers (Telarc), which also featured Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kevin Mahogany, Marlena Shaw, Etta Jones, and Diana Krall. He ended up taking the project on the road, which put King in the spotlight, to the occasional confusion of audiences.
"Nobody knows me, so when Ray took me to Europe with Diana Krall and Kevin Mahogany, everybody knew all the musicians on the poster, but who's that?!" King recalled. "I got to be Diana's bodyguard on that gig. Every time we went out people would mob her and they were so rude. They'd come over when she was trying to eat, lean over the table and shove a CD in her face. I would stand up and put my arm up in front of her and say, 'Excuse me! Miss Krall is eating. Please don't bother her now, she'll be happy to sign your CD in a moment.'"
In her late fifties, King started finding herself in high-profile gigs, like her collaboration with Elvis Costello and Deborah Harry in saxophonist Roy Nathanson's staged jazz production The Fire at Keaton's Bar & Grill (the cast also featured the great Oakland jazz singer Kenny Washington, another brilliant artist who seems to forever hover on the edge of widespread recognition). Despite several well-received shows in Europe, the project never picked up the kind backing required for an extended theatrical run, though Six Degrees Records released an excellent cast album in 2000.
Vocalist Karrin Allyson featured King on five tracks of her brilliant 2006 Concord album Footprints, including a wild version of "Everybody's Boppin'" that reunited her with former mentor Hendricks. But it was King's gorgeous duo album with Hersch, Live at Jazz Standard, and its Grammy Award nomination that finally put her on the New York City jazz map. She's returned several times for performances with the pianist, while also landing choice gigs on the West Coast. Like Hersch, she knows all about survival, and the necessity of closely hewing to one's creative compass.
"I've never given up, I've never given in, and I've never given out," King said. "Well, I did give out a little when I was younger, along the way, here and there, but as far as my music, I've never compromised in any way. It would be nice to have had some money. I live month to month still. I'm alone. My husband died in 1981 and I never remarried. I raised three boys by myself and I'm still singing and I'm still here and I'm still happy."