Unconscious Lessons of a Jazzman

Fred Hersch
Fred Hersch is a jazz pianist who has long since gone beyond jazz, and his irreducible gift or skill is for solo playing. The enormous variety in his touch, and his sophisticated sense of musical narrative through arranging and improvising, render him special. Beyond that, he's a composer in several idioms, a bandleader for groups of many sizes, and a setter of texts to music. A jazz pianist can't do much better.

Or so you'd think. Parallel to the development of the nonprofit performing-arts theater circuit in America has been the development of jazz as an opportunity for multimedia pieces. The next bar for people like Mr. Hersch to clear is word-and-image-based storytelling. This is fundamentally different from leading a jazz group.

In “My Coma Dreams," Mr. Hersch's ambitious new work, which had its debut last weekend at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University, his musical strengths—and those of his 10-piece ensemble—complement real stories from the boundaries of consciousness, presented in words and video projections. In Sunday afternoon's performance the music did its part to imitate unconsciousness and the absurdity of dreams; it was finely executed, sometimes quite moving, but secondary to and sometimes dragged down by the spoken narrative.

The story describes his dreams during a two-month coma in 2008, brought on by pneumonia. (Mr. Hersch learned he was H.I.V. positive in 1986 but, as his program notes indicate, the coma was brought on by a pneumonia not associated with H.I.V.) It is a 90-minute song-cycle about the strangeness of coma-state perceptions versus real events—memories from the past, or actions around the patient's bed that might somehow influence the dream in real time. Though, of course, who knows? As Mr. Hersch put it during a monologue, all his coma dreams could have taken place three minutes before waking up, or three seconds.

They were Mr. Hersch's words, though he sat silently at the piano. They were spoken by the actor and singer Michael Winther, who assumed the voices of Mr. Hersch; his domestic partner, Scott Morgan; and his doctor, Michael Ligouri. The dreams, revealed in narration or song, tended to be about entrapment or love, but there were also asides about Mr. Hersch's admiration for Thelonious Monk; the definition of a coma; the amusing wrongness in the portrayal of comas in television dramas; and St. Vincent de Paul, the namesake of the Manhattan hospital where Mr. Hersch lay.

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