Fred Hersch, more than dreaming

Fred Hersch isn’t a meditation guru. He’s a composer and jazz pianist.  But he does know something about that elusive goal of living in the moment.

“If you think too far ahead you drop the ball. This is why tennis and jazz are very similar,” he says, in the documentary “The Lives of Fred Hersch.”  He continues, “you have to play what is in front of you and what appears, and react to it.”

On Friday night he’ll be performing a solo piano concert at Chapin Hall in Williamstown, Mass.  “People should come expecting original music, and definitely some things by Thelonious Monk and some reworked standards,” he says.

Like the notes that arrive at his finger tips, the final order of the program will be spontaneous. “I’ll be deciding as I go,” says Hersch.

Hailed as one of today’s finest jazz pianists, Hersch is up for two Grammy Awards for his latest disc, “Alone at the Vanguard.”    Apart from his skills as both improviser and composer, Hersch’s health condition over the last 25 years has provided plenty of opportunity to stay present, both literally and figuratively.

In 1986, Hersch was diagnosed with HIV.  Soon after, he went public about his condition. More importantly, he survived the darkest era of the AIDS epidemic, when seemingly an entire generation of artists died in their prime.  Advancements in treatment, though, haven’t meant the end of problems.

In late 2009, Hersch suffered a precipitous decline, as a persistent cough led to a major infection. Late that year he was rushed by his partner to an emergency room, where doctors put him under a medically induced coma that lasted for two months.

“After I came out of it, it was a good 8 months til I could eat, talk or walk.  It was a near death thing and was going down hill fast,” says Hersch. “If I’d not gotten to the hospital when I did, I might not be talking to you.”

It seems an understatement to say that Hersch had a determination to continue with life and music.

In the year after rehabilitation was complete, he recorded two new albums.  He also began remembering the dream world of his coma, which included dancing a tango aboard a luxury airplane and hanging out with Thelonious Monk.  At first, he just typed out the fantasies into a computer file and got on with things.  But eventually he shared them with a friend, the writer and director Herschel Garfein, who fashioned them into a dramatic scenario that mixes the surreal dream world with the cold reality of the hospital.

The resulting show, “My Coma Dreams,” with original music by Hersch, was developed at Montclair State University last spring and subsequently had a short run in San Francisco.   Hersch describes the event as “jazz theater” and says that future productions are in the works.

“The people who’ve seen it have been moved and inspired by it and that’s what we want as artist,” he says. “So we achieved what we set out to do.”

Accomplishing what he sets out to do is typical of Hersch, who lists a large number of current projects, including a new set of songs for jazz vocalist Kurt Elling, and supervising a spring performance of his 2005 song cycle “Leaves of Grass” at the New England Conservatory, where he’s been a faculty member since 1980.  Touring, recording and teaching are ever on-going.

“I don’t sit around. I’m always doing stuff and I’m clinically and energetically better than I’ve been in years. The drugs are working,” says Hersch. “In November I had a full month of touring with my trio to eight countries. I came back in fine shape. Five years ago, I would have been whipped. It’s remarkable.”

“As an artist, we never know what’s going to come along and strike our fancy. I try to be open but also instigate things,” he says. “You have to roll with life and have patience and also know when to push yourself.”

Originally appeared in the Times Union.

Previously on My Big Gay Ears:

“Jazz and the Queer Aesthetic” in JazzTimes

Fred Hersch profile in the New York Times

Fred Hersch’s Whitman tunes



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