“Eclectic fusion, extreme hyper-virtuosity, ambient mood, and lots of groove” are words Matt Herskowitz (M.M., ’91, piano) uses to describe the music that has become his unique voice. Indeed, the 39-year-old pianist-composer seems to have found his niche. Upon hearing the debut album of Herskowitz’s trio, MaD Fusion, Dave Brubeck wrote: “This is the final straw. I’d better retire now.”
Herskowitz’s musical beginnings were unlikely. There were no musicians in his family; “In fact, all of my family is tone-deaf,” he offers with a warm laugh. His mother played Van Cliburn piano recordings to put him to sleep at age 2, and he was given a 16-key toy organ at 3. He was drawn to classical music from early on. His tastes began broadening throughout his teen years, and he was exposed to jazz while studying piano at Curtis.
His time at Juilliard was rich with exploration. He recalls working with some “very progressive teachers” from whom he “learned a lot.” He studied composition informally with David Diamond, participated in new-music concert series, and collaborated with the Dance Division by composing for new works. And jazz, he says, “was all around,” even though the Jazz Studies program had not yet been born. He found frequent opportunity to play jazz both at Juilliard and around the city.
Studies with Vladimir Viardo (the 1973 Van Cliburn Competition winner) in the mid-’90s brought a multiplication of successes in his solo piano career, including a first prize at the Second Orford Arts Center International Competition that led to the recording of Glazunov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 for Chandos Records. Over time, however, he found the creative limitations of a solo piano career unsatisfying and realized the need to focus on his own music. Immersion in jazz and time away from classical performance followed, as did the integration of styles that had become his musical palette.
Herskowitz’s solo Christmas album, Gabriel’s Message, was the means to—and first product of—this integration, featuring original arrangements with both written music and improvisation. His trio MaD Fusion’s debut album,Forget Me Not, further explored the combination. At first, presenters were hesitant to book a show that included improvisation, jazz, and classical music, but a few years later, “people started asking for the mix,” he says. “There’s more demand for that than there is for a classical recital—original music that’s accessible and incorporates lots of different styles yet is still concert music.” His piece Bach à la Jazz is a good example. It was conceived when he was hired to play a Bach prelude in the style of Glenn Gould for the Oscar-nominated film Les Triplettes de Belleville. He recounts how, at the recording session, he “started doing a jazz improvisation on it, and it ended up being in the movie.” The work’s current form seduces the classical music listener by beginning with a performance of the prelude and then segueing into a jazz arrangement. “People love it,” he asserts. “The idea that classical audiences aren’t into new and funky music is not what I’ve seen.”
MaD Fusion—the trio’s name plays off the first initials of its members, which also include Mat Fieldes (M.M. ’97, double bass) and David Rozenblatt (B.M. ’95, M.M. ’97, percussion)—officially began in 2002, though the trio has been playing together since Juilliard days. Its debut album, Forget Me Not, released in 2005, was nominated for Québec’s Félix Award for best album of the year in jazz interpretation and led to tours in Belgium, the U.S., and Canada. “We are this crazy, half-electric, funk, fusion, contemporary classical, world, jazz group,” says Herskowitz—and one that is finding a home within a wide spectrum of concert series. For example, MaD Gershwin, a recent project of Gershwin arrangements that combine written and improvised music, was performed at the Lyric Chamber Music Society of New York last fall and is scheduled for performances at the Etnafest music festival in Catania, Sicily, and the Montreal Jazz Festival this July.
In addition to maintaining a busy tour schedule, Herskowitz’s upcoming projects include the creation of the next MaD Fusion album (which he describes as “more pop in nature with funk, groove, and some classical elements”), collaboration on two albums with pop diva Lara Fabian, and an upcoming album with a new band called Fly Little Sociopath, Fly, with saxophonist Charles Papasoff and singer Coral Egan.
In 30 years? He would like to be still creating and producing. “If Dave Brubeck is still doing it at 90, why not?”
MaD Fusion will be featured at a Lunch with an Alum on Monday, April 21, at 1 p.m. Students can meet and speak with MaD Fusion over lunch by submitting an R.S.V.P. to firstname.lastname@example.org or registering on one of the sign-up sheets posted throughout the building.