By now, everyone with a passing interesting in current-day jazz is familiar with the story of Fred Hersch, the HIV-positive pianist who was so ill with pneumonia in 2008 that he was put into a medically induced coma for two months.
Around the time of the release of his 2010 trio album 'Whirl,' we checked in with Hersch to see how things were progressing and found an artist who literally had a new lease on life, once again playing beautifully and with a vitality he hadn't felt in a long time. At that time he was beginning work on a long form piece called 'My Coma Dreams,' which made its world premiere May 7-8 at Montclair State University's Alexander Kasser Theater.
A decidedly lyrical pianist who nonetheless likes to keep the listener guessing, Hersch seemingly works in every context, ranging from his transporting solo gigs to the large ensemble multi-media extravaganzas like his 'Leaves of Grass' project and now 'My Coma Dreams,' which is undoubtedly his most ambitious work to date.
The stage was set with a screen for visuals (animation and graphic design) by Sarah Wickliffe. Hersch himself was at the piano and he was joined by 10-piece ensemble of a four-piece brass section, a string quartet as well as bass and drums. The 75-minute piece was directed Herschel Garfein, who also wrote a libretto that was based short sketches Hersch wrote down of several recurring dreams he had while in coma. The narrator/singer Michael Winther was in charge of story, relaying it in bits and pieces of the real world using the perspectives of Hersch, Hersch's partner Scott Morgan and others while the music and visuals represented the dream world inside Hersch's head.
Pairing musicians prone to improvisation with a theatrical setting can be an odd marriage. The trick is that there is a lot of moving parts to the production that go well beyond the fluid interaction between the musicians. At the same time, the audience needs Winther, the visuals, lighting and the band to hit its marks together if the piece is to project a focused idea. Did 'My Coma Dreams' have focus? Yes. Could it have used a bit more? Yes.
First, the good news. Hersch's music sounded great in the hands of the ensemble. The theater had a good live sound to it and made it relatively easy to pick out the points with the players deviated from the written page. As a jazz fan, we found that to be comforting. Watching jazz musicians play straight charts is to me akin to watching a lion pace in a cageyou can see the majesty of the animal up close but its all to obvious there's a lot more this cat could be doing. The horn players (most notably saxophonists Adam Kolker and Steven Lugerner) were able to step out, and Hersch himself took liberties as well, both when accompanied by the band and when the others dropped away.
Musical highlights included 'The Dream of Monk' segment in which Hersch dreamt that he and Thelonious Monk were each locked inside small cages next to each other in a room. Someone comes in telling them that whoever writes a song first gets released. The visuals were particularly strong for this piece too, as Monk's name and then song titles floated across the screen. But what got us was how Hersch channeled snatches of various Monk tunes, either real or imagined, into a song: a splash of one song here, a drop of another there, and so on. Fred Hersch has long been a great interpreter of Monk's thorny tunes and he puts all that skill on display with great effect.
Also extremely powerful was a piece called 'The Knitters,' which was something of a centerpiece to the performance, both because of its positioning and length, but also because it was the only piece that was sungthe rest of the stories featured more of a narrative from Winther, which would then give away to the music and visuals. The music here was uplifting and elegant, seemingly exactly what one would want to hear if they were stuck in a coma for weeks.
Not all the dreams where beautiful, deep or heavy (at one point there is a quick lecture on St. Vincent De Paul, the namesake saint of the hospital Hersch stayed in). Some of the dreams were also quite comical. The dream about the jazz diner, for better or worse, was the most memorable. The graphics showed a classic diner set in the woods, and the text of the dream is that Hersch is stuck accompanying an annoying singer. Here Winther has these little chick-boom-bah moments where he was seemingly channeling Bob Fosse instead of Hersch. This brought chuckles from some in the audience but came off as too cutethis wasn't helped by pictures of the menu with dishes like Strange Fruit Salad." If you are going to go comically absurd you have to go all the way, which the narrator did not.
This leads me to the performance of Winther. His Broadway and Off-Broadway background meant that he was used to playing it big for the audience but we would have liked more subtlety. This may not be entirely his fault because theater productions take a lot longer to pull together than a musical performance, and it could have been the way he was directed. He was also trying to do a lot, literally performing a one-man show with an orchestra onstage and a screen behind him. But whatever the reason it was, when he made an awkward choice the entire piece suffered. This isn't to say that he was bad, just that he could have been better.
Regardless of this criticism, we thought the piece on the whole was quite successful. The subject matter and back story are fascinating, and we truly got a sense of how much Hersch and his partner Morgan care for each other. The mixing of mediums is an extremely difficult balancing act, and the team here walked that tightrope with grace. As with anything performed live, it would be interesting to see it again after it has run a while. There's a lot of great root material here for everyone to continue to dig through and we would imagine it could go a lot of different places if it is given a chance.