seemed like every three months or so in the late 1990s, there would be a story
in one of the big three jazz magazines about lingering (or downright overt)
homophobia in jazz. Inevitably, Fred Hersch would feature prominently, along
with two or three other out-of-the-closet musicians. That is part of who he is,
but it is not the whole story—there is the music too. Things got seriously real
for two months in 2008 when Hersch went into a pneumonia-related coma, but he
emerged with the inspiration for an ambitious new suite. Charlotte Lagarde and Carrie
Lozano document Hersch at work performing in night clubs and preparing for the
world premiere of My Coma Dreams in The Ballad of Fred Hersch, which screens
during DOC NYC 2016.
you dig Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, you probably already know of and
appreciate Hersch. He was a sideman to the greats (we see clips of him played
in Art Farmer’s combo), but developed into one of the more popular leaders on the
scene today, especially when playing with his trio or solo. As you might
expect, he has an affinity for ballads, but he will unleash his inner Thelonious
Monk in one of the Coma Dreams movements.
If you are still skeptical, Jason Moran vouches for his artistic integrity,
which should convince anyone.
on, we see Hersch play a homecoming gig in Cincinnati and meet his mother, who
keeps a fridge stocked with beer and frosted mugs in case any jazz musicians
drop by. We also meet Hersch’s spouse Scott Morgan and Herschel Garfein, the
director-librettist of My Coma Dreams.
Fortunately, they are both rather charismatic figures, because the reserved
Hersch is much more engaging when he performs.
Ballad is an observant
record of a high-profile jazz musician’s working methods and the challenges he
faces when stretching outside his comfort zone. In that respect, it compares
very directly to Robert Mugge’s Saxophone
Colossus, which followed Sonny Rollins as he prepared to debut Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra with
the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony. If anything, Lagarde and Lozano soft-pedal issues
of sexuality and jazz, despite some less than edifying history. However, nobody
can consequently accuse them of exploiting their subject to score political
To their credit, the filmmakers also have enough
confidence in Hersch’s music to let him play the film out. As a documentary profile,
it might get too bogged down in questions of rehearsal lunch-breaks and the
like as far as civilian viewers are concerned, but this is the reality for jazz
headliners of his caliber. It is a very nice film, but it does not have the
emotional kick of I Called Him Morgan, I Go Back Home—Jimmy Scott, or Thomas Chapin Night Bird Song, which is probably just as well for Hersch and Scott
Morgan. Recommended for Hersch’s admirers and those who are interested in the
creative process, The Ballad of Fred
Hersch screens this Saturday (11/12) as part of this year’s DOC NYC.
Labels: DOC NYC '16, Documentary, Fred Hersch