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DVD Review: Fred Hersch’s My Coma Dreams

A unique fusion of jazz and documentary theater

Pianist-composer Fred Hersch presents “My Coma Dreams”

For Fred Hersch, the summer of 2008 was but a dream. From June to August, the pianist and composer, who is HIV positive, was in a medically induced coma at New York’s now-defunct St. Vincent’s Hospital, battling sepsis brought on by severe pneumonia. Upon awakening, Hersch, who normally never remembers his subconscious sleep activity, vividly recalled a number of dreams experienced during his coma. Hersch has dramatized these visions in music and, with writer/director Herschel Garfein, transformed them into a unique fusion of jazz and documentary theater appropriately titled My Coma Dreams.

This Palmetto-label DVD, whose sales benefit AIDS research, captures a March 2013 performance at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. Under the guidance of conductor and musical director Gregg Kallor, Hersch heads an 11-piece ensemble, including a string quartet, a four-part reeds-and-woodwinds section, bassist John Hébert and drummer/percussionist John Hollenbeck. As Sarah Wickliffe’s graphics and animation fill an upstage screen, Broadway veteran Michael Winther portrays both Hersch, sharing insights the musician couldn’t express while comatose, and Hersch’s partner Scott Morgan, enduring a soul-deadening hospital routine as he virtually wills Hersch back to consciousness.

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