Twelve years ago, we came perilously close to losing Fred Hersch. The acclaimed pianist and composer, who has been living with HIV since the mid-1980s, fell gravely ill: at one point he was put in a medically induced coma for two months.
Remarkably — you might even say miraculously — Hersch recovered and flourished. "Coming out of a coma for that length of time, you pretty much can't do anything," he told Terry Gross on Fresh Air in 2010. "I couldn't walk, I couldn't eat, I was on a feeding tube for eight months, I couldn't swallow, I had no hand coordination, I couldn't hold a pencil. So I had to completely rebuild myself, and now I'm back and playing and feeling, if anything, better than I did before all of this."
But Hersch wasn't content to pick up where he left off. He'd had some haunting experiences during his coma, strange and vivid dreams that he felt compelled to transform into art. The result was My Coma Dreams — a transfixing piece of jazz theater he created with writer-director Herschel Garfein, starring the Broadway actor Michael Winther as a proxy for Hersch.
In his 2017 book Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life in and Out of Jazz, Hersch recalls the surreality of that first performance: "There I was on stage, playing music that by all rights I shouldn't have been alive to write, and Michael was portraying me a few feet away — and my piano playing itself was a central character in the story."
Hersch and his collaborators revisited My Coma Dreams in 2013, at Columbia University's Miller Theater. I was present for this richly layered and emotionally resonant performance, which later saw release on DVD. This Friday, Hersch will make it widely available on YouTube — but you can catch it here right now.
The performance features an 11-piece ensemble stocked with serious improvisers like trumpeter Ralph Alessi, drummer John Hollenbeck and multireedist Adam Kolker. Among the string players are cellist Dave Eggar and violinist and violist Joyce Hammann. As a multimedia piece, My Coma Dreams also features animation by Sarah Wickliffe and computer imagery by Eamonn Farrell.
For the most part, My Coma Dreams is an inviolable work — it can only be absorbed in full, preferably without distraction. But there is one tune that Hersch has extracted from the whole: "Dream of Monk," a sauntering piece that sounds just as you'd expect. It appears in a fine trio version on Hersch's Alive at the Vanguard, released in 2012.
As you may recall, WBGO caught up with Hersch in early April, when the coronavirus pandemic was raging through New York (but not yet a major issue in many other parts of the country). At that time, he was playing a daily mini-concert on Facebook Live. Hersch later released a live EP with Esperanza Spalding, as a benefit for The Jazz Foundation of America; we featured it in Take Five.
For more information about Fred Hersch, visit his website.