Music

Jazz pianist Fred Hersch conveys medical peril

Stephanie Berger Photography

In June of 2008, Fred Hersch, a renowned jazz pianist and composer and a New England Conservatory faculty member, had just come off a demanding tour, and wasn’t feeling well. Exhausted and feverish, he told his partner, Scott Morgan, that he was going to take a bath to cool off. Sometime later, Morgan heard Hersch calling from the bathroom: “I can’t get out of the tub.”

Morgan called 911, and Hersch, who has lived with HIV/AIDS since 1986, was rushed to nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village. By then, he was in septic shock, diagnosed with pneumonia and organ failure. His doctors induced a coma in order to help locate the source of the infection and reboot his system. Hersch remained in a coma for eight weeks, and didn’t eat solid food or drink liquids for nine months. But he recovered, and by January was playing at the Village Vanguard.

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The tale of this harrowing ordeal is told on the new DVD “My Coma Dreams,” which is being released on Monday in recognition of World AIDS Day. It’s available at Amazon, and also from the AIDS advocacy organization Treatment Action Group, whom the proceeds benefit, at its website (www.treatmentactiongroup.org/mcd).

“My Coma Dreams” is unique — a theater piece that features a single actor/narrator, but is carried in large part by instrumental music. It’s moving and funny, with an unflagging narrative drive over its 90 minutes. At its core are eight dreams Hersch recalled after regaining consciousness. After recovering his fine motor skills, he wrote them out and called his friend, the composer, librettist, and director Herschel Garfein, with whom Hersch had worked on his setting of poems from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”

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Hersch first conceived of “My Coma Dreams” as an instrumental suite. He knew he wanted a visual element, but something more than simply “a slide show, where people read the dreams in a program book.” Garfein, for his part, realized almost immediately that “My Coma Dreams” could be told as a story on stage.

Garfein interviewed Hersch and Morgan, as well as Hersch’s doctor. He came up with a scenario in which Hersch and Morgan tell the story, both beautifully realized by the singing actor Michael Winther. The eight dreams are each given different musical treatments: sometimes as accompaniment to the spoken narrative, sometimes as orchestral breaks or solos by Hersch and his 11-piece ensemble. There’s a dream about Thelonious Monk that takes off on the Monk tune “I Mean You”; a comical patter song that seems to draw on every bad gig Hersch has ever had; music for a “dream instrument” that combines bowed viola and plucked cello; an expansive, ruminative piano solo that conjures a mysterious dream called “The Orb.”

There is only one sung segment, “The Knitters,” which describes a group of women in long brown gowns knitting. They could be Hersch’s nurses, or they could be the Fates. In the end, they fly away as a flock of birds.

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In the dramatic production, which had its premiere in 2011 as part of the respected Peak Performances series at Montclair State University in New Jersey, Winther shares the stage with the band, and Sarah Wickliffe supplies a variety of projected images: photos, computer-generated graphics, hand-drawn animation. (The DVD is taken from a 2013 performance at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre.)

Garfein conceived a couple of narrative masterstrokes — one of them a comical discourse on the treatment of comas in film and TV, the other a history of St. Vincent’s Hospital that traces the institution back to its namesake, the 17th-century French priest St. Vincent de Paul. The connection of this now closed charity hospital, known for its work in the early days of the AIDS crisis, to the history of this charitable order, serves as sidebar to the main narrative, and also helps carry the story forward.

The St. Vincent’s episode is part of the “puzzle” Garfein had to solve, combining instrumental jazz with theatrical story-telling. “I could never put the audience in a situation where they said, ‘Oh, Jesus, there’s the actor again — can’t we get back to the music?’ Or, on the other hand, ‘Stop playing the music and tell me what happens!’ ” It’s a balance he and Hersch have achieved with remarkable effectiveness.

As an onstage participant — composer and “band pianist” — Hersch himself plays an odd role, an experience he describes as “trippy.”

“There I am, playing the piano, next to someone who’s playing me, saying my words. And if things had gone just slightly different, I wouldn’t be alive to write this music, let alone play it.”

Hersch was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 1986, and his recovery from this unrelated illness was far from guaranteed — walking, speech, memory, and fine motor skills were all in peril. Damage to his vocal cords due to the lengthy intubation meant he even had to re-learn how to swallow. Amazingly, the only thing he’s lost is his singing voice. His playing, he says, is better than ever.

“The way I look at it is, if I play a wonky chord or something, I’m alive to play it,” he says. “So I don’t micromanage. I swing for the fences, and whatever happens happens.”

Jon Garelick can be reached at jon.garelick4@gmail.com.
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