Thursday, December 18, 2014

Even More Favorites - Large Ensembles
My "official' Top 10+ includes 3 recordings from large ensembles, each exciting and mind-expanding, with strong melodies, passionate solos and impressive arrangements.  The 3 on the list include "Views From the Inside" by the J.C. Sanford Orchestra (Whirlwind Recordings),  "The Offense of the Drum" from Arturo O'Farrill & The Latin Jazz Orchestra (Motema Music) and the irresistible "Mother's Touch" courtesy of Orrin Evans' Captain Black Big Band (pictured above - Posi-Tone Records).

Of course, there are others that deserve mention.

"Habitat" (Justin Time Records) features the enchanting music and arrangements of Christine Jensen and her 18-member Jazz Orchestra.

Alan Broadbent & The NDR Big Band - "America The Beautiful" - Jan Matthies Records - It's so good to hear the music of the pianist from New Zealand backed by the great ensemble based in Hamburg, Germany.

Here's one that should have been on my 2013 list but was released just before Thanksgiving.  "A Trumpet In The Morning" (New World Records) features the music of reed master Marty Ehrlich 
and his Large Ensemble (25 musician appear on the recording but not all at once.)

One of the members of the Ehrlich Ensemble, trombonist Michael Dease, released a swinging Big Band disc, "Relentless" (Posi-Tone Records.) 

I was pleasantly surprised by "When The Clouds Look Like This", a handsome recording from the Minnesota-based Adam Meckler Orchestra (self-released). Go to to watch the AMO in the studio. 

Bassist-composer Matt Ulery (pictured left) released "In The Ivory" (Greenleaf Music), a 2-CD set that combines folk melodies, his impressive quartet, the chamber ensemble eighth blackbird and vocalist Grazyna Auguscik.  

Wayne Horvitz had a busy 2014 with several impressive recordings including "At The Reception" (Songlines Recordings) featuring The Royal Room Collective Music Ensemble, a 14-member aggregation based in Seattle, Washington. 

Perhaps the most fascinating entry of the year is the true story of a wandering garbage barge put to music by saxophonist John Ellis and librettist/playwright Andy Bragen.  "Mobro" (Parade Light Records).  9 musicians, 4 vocalists and a sound designer come together to remind us just how wasteful we have been and continue to be, creating mountains and oceans of trash, much of which is not recyclable.  

Let's start 2015's list with Miguel Zenon's "Identities Are Changeable" (Miel Music), the latest adventure in the saxophonist's exploration of his Puerto Rican heritage and how the journey to North America continues to profoundly affect music and culture.  Released in early November, the CD features Zenon's splendid Quartet with a 12-piece reed and brass "Big Band." 

Just looking back on and listening to this recordings, I am continually impressed by the breadth and scope of American music.  2015 brings new recordings from the Maria Schneider Orchestra and Ryan Truesdell's Gil Evans Project - I'm sure there will be more to capture my fancy and yours!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

More of 2014 Favorites - Voices

Another fine year for vocal recordings, especially from the distaff side. My "official" Top 10 listed only Kavita Shah's "Visions" (certainly worthy) but here's a list of the others I enjoy and deserve to be considered "Best Of.." as well!

Brenda Earle Stokes - Right About Now - Magenta Label Group

Amy Cervini - Jazz Country - Anzic Records

Hilary Gardner - The Great City - Anzic Records

Melissa Stylianou - No Regrets - Anzic Records
(These 3 vocalists have banded together to create Duchess and their debut CD arrives in February 2015 on Anzic (of course!)

Kate McGarry/Keith Ganz - Genevieve and Ferdinand - Sunnyside Records

Somi - The Lagos Music Salon - OKEH/Sony

Nicky Schrire - To The Spring - (self-released)

Elizabeth Shepherd - Signal - (self-released)

2015 looks to continue the trend of fine young vocalists with new releases by CT native Allegra Levy (her debut recording of all originals is produced by trumpeter John McNeil) plus a sparkling collection of originals from Ashley Daneman titled "Beauty Indestructible" (her melodies will stick in your head for days - trust me, I know.)

Friday, December 12, 2014

These Are a Few of My Favorite.....(Pt 1)

At the risk of repeating myself from the 10,000th time, what a great year for creative music, Black American Music and contemporary classical music.  I have voted in several polls including the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll, in which the writers are limited to 10 new releases and 3 Re-issues or Historical releases. If you followed this blog as well as the column/blog published by the Hartford Courant from from 1997-2009, being confined to 13 is not easy for me.

For this post, I'll start with the list for the NPR poll. Next week, I'll get to the ones  that just missed making that list but deserve recognition. Click on the labels to go to pages that tell you more about the albums and more.

J.C. Sanford Orchestra (pictured above) - View From the Inside - Whirlwind Recordings)

Wadada Leo Smith - The Great Lakes Suite - TUM Records - features Henry Threadgill, John Lindberg and Jack DeJohnette (above left).

Darryl Harper - The Need's Got To Be So Deep - HiPNOTIC Records - This could easily have been at the top - the music and the concept are so fresh.

Kavita Shah - Visions - Inner Circle Records - Co-produced by Lionel Loueke, also chosen as my best vocal album of the year. Her show at The Side Door Jazz Club earlier this year was a knock-out.

Hafez Modirzadeh - In Convergence Liberation - Pi Recordings - stunning music from an ensemble that includes ETHEL, trumpeter Amir ElSaffir and the great vocal work of Mili Bermejo.

Arturo O'Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra - The Offense of the Drum - Motema Music - Also my choice for Latin Jazz album of 2014.

Eric Hofbauer Prehistoric Jazz Volumes 1 & 2 - The Rite of Spring + Quintet For The End of Time - Creative Nation Music - Brilliant arrangements of truly classic works by Stravinsky and Messien for the guitarist's top-notch quintet.  (For the Top 10, I only listed "The Rite..." but both are excellent.)

Orrin Evans & The Captain Black Band - Mother's Touch - Posi-Tone Records - Soulful, bluesy, creative and exciting, Mr. Evans struck it rich this year with this ensemble plus his work with Tarbaby.

The David Ullmann 8 - Corduroy - Little Sky Records -  Going back to this CD, I realize just his fresh this guitarist's music is - could easily be higher in the list.

Noah Garabedian Big Butter and The Eggmen - BJU Records - The music created by this bassist for his debut (!) is quite mature and great fun.

My picks for Historical Albums and/or Reissues include Charles LloydManhattan Stories (Resonance Records), Jimmy Guiffre 3 & 4 – New York Concerts (Elemental Music) and Charlie Haden/Jim Hall – Live 1990 (Impulse Records)

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Soprano Supreme + Trio Delight + Lee K Sells Out

With the release of "The Straight Horn of Africa: The Path to Liberation" (Some New Music), the adventurous soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome continues his exploration of solo performances.  This new recording, subtitled "The Art of the Soprano, Vol. 2", uses African percussion (courtesy of "slap tonguing and multiple overdubs), harmonics, circular breathing and sinuous melodies to tell a 21-song program and to seduce the listener.  Over the course of (now) 4 "solo" CDs, Mr. Newsome has explored the music of Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, the Blues and its African roots.  "The Path to Liberation" features lovely melodies, soprano saxophone choruses, abstract sounds, microtonal experiments, dazzling dances, most if not all inspired by the myriad voices of the African continent.

The use of overdubs brought to mind the "solo" work of Julius Hemphill, in particular his self-released 1977 masterpiece, "Blue Boye", reissued on CD in 1999 on Tim Berne's Screwgun label. The music is totally different - for one, the earlier recording spreads 8 tracks over 2 LPs and CDs (no cut shorter than 8:24) while Mr. Newsome's program runs around 54 minutes (no cut longer than 4:16 and 8 under 1:51). The saxophonist delves into the rich wellspring of the music from the African continent with tracks such as the pair of hypnotic dances "The Obama Song: The Man From Kenya" and "The Snake Charmer of Tangier" (hear below), the funky "Good Golly Miss Mali", and the birdsongs of "Sounds of Somalia" (played in the higher registers of the instrument and sounding like an orchestra of flutes.) He pays tribute to the Falasha community of Ethiopia on "Ethopian Jews" and creates swirling rhythmical lines on "African Nomads."  The playfulness of "When The Drum Speaks" and "Nightfall on the Owani Desert" sets the stage for the final track for the dancing sounds of "Highlife", a delightful romp over the "clicking" rhythms.

There are more "experimental" pieces, such as the striking "Dark Continent Dialogues" and the 4-part  "Microtonal Nubian Horn" spread around the second half of the program.  And, as one listens to these pieces, the sound of fellow soprano master Evan Parker might come to mind, especially the more hypnotic of melody lines such as the one the latter musician recorded on his 2006 Tzadik CD, "Time Lapse."

But, like Julius Hemphill before him and his contemporary Evan Parker, Sam Newsome continues to carve his own pathways through the world of music.  Much of the music on "The Straight Horn of Africa: The Path to Liberation" is exhilarating, making one return to this adventure time and again.  For more information about the man and his music, go to Also, check out this excellent interview with Mr. Newsome from the Wing Walker Music podcast:

Live gig of the week:
The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme welcomes back Cuban-born pianist Manuel Valera on Saturday December 13.  This time, he brings his very active Trio, an ensemble that includes the fine bassist Hans Glawischnig and the exciting drummer EJ Strickland (the twin brother of saxophonist Marcus Strickland.) Valera has had a busy 2014, releasing a splendid solo piano CD (my review here) and a powerful Criss Cross recording with his septet The New Cuban Express.  The Trio plays all sorts of music, from blues to Latin to Cuban to "straight-ahead piano trio music."

The Side Door opens at 7:30 p.m. and the first set starts at 8:30.  For more information, go to or call 860-434-0886.

Lee Konitz is playing this Friday night (12/12) at Firehouse 12 in New Haven with a quartet that features bassist Jeremy Stratton, the great drummer George Schuller and the wonderful pianist Alan Broadbent. It's the ultimate concert in the venue's Fall 2014 Concert Series and both sets are sold out (have been for awhile).  There's a waiting list so call 203-785-0468 or go to  Can't hurt trying.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

2 Great Shows This Weekend

photo by G Fonck
In a Fall Concert series that has been one of the strongest (schedule-wise) in its existence, Firehouse 12 in New Haven presents the season's penultimate show this Friday (12/05) and it's a doozy.   Trumpeter/composer Jonathan Finlayson, who works alongside and has studied with Steve Coleman, bring his Sicilian Defense to the performance space for 2 sets of exciting new music.  The 32-year old native of Berkeley, CA, has performed at the Firehouse before in ensembles led by guitarist Mary Halvorson and saxophonist Steve Lehman (both graduates of Wesleyan University) as well as the great Henry Threadgill.  His 2013 debut  with his Quintet, "Moment and the Message" (Pi Recordings), was a forceful collection of original material and features the band he'll work with in this concert including David Virelles (piano), Miles Okazaki (guitars), Keith Witty (bass, electronics) and Damion Reid (drums).

Expect this music to go in various exciting and surprising directions.  The first set that  Jonathan FinlaysonSicilian Defense will play is at 8:30 p.m. and is followed by a 10 p.m. show.  For more information, call 203-785-0468 or go to  To learn more about the young composer/musician, go to

The "Improvisations" series at Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor Street in Hartford, continues its impressive streak of collaborations featuring curators Stephen Haynes (cornets) and Joe Morris (guitar, bass) this Sunday (12/07) at 3 p.m.  Joining the dynamic duo is drummer and percussionist Chad Taylor.  The Arizona native grew up in Chicago where he first played with the legendary saxophonist Fred Anderson and bassist Malachi Favors (of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.)  In 1997, he and trumpeter/conceptualist Rob Mazurek started the Chicago Underground Duo (adding guitarist Jeff Parker a few years later), a group that reunites every year (although the trumpeter now lives in Brazil).  He also has worked with saxophonist Matana Roberts in the trio Sticks and Stones and is currently a member of guitarist Mark Ribot's Trio with the great bassist Henry Grimes. Taylor also is a member of Digital Primitives as well as bassist Eric Revis's Quartet.

Chad Taylor is well-known for his creativity as a percussionist; he can play as hard as anyone in creative music but also has a softer touch that really pulls the listener in.  This show should be quite enjoyable and exciting.  For more information, go to or call 860-232-1006.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Classical Creativity and Classy Chanteuse

Igor Stravinsky is enjoying a comeback in 2014, specifically his ground-breaking work "The Rite of Spring."  The piece debuted in Paris in May of 1913 as the score for a ballet choreographed by Serge Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes.  The evening of the debut was marked by the audience reacting violently, although more to the "violent" nature of the dancers than to the fiery music and, within a few nights, the "riots" were replaced by riotous applause.

Earlier this year, The Bad Plus issued their take on Stravinsky's score and now guitarist/arranger Eric Hofbauer has created an arranged for his Quintet.  The Boston-based Hofbauer has gone TBP one better by pairing "The Rite.." with his arrangement of Olivier Messiaen's "Quatuor Pour la Fun du Temps" and titling the work "Quintet for the End of Time" (more on that music below), releasing both CDs on his Creative Nation Music label.

The music is arranged for guitar, trumpet (Jerry Sabatini), clarinets (Todd Brunel), cello (Junko Fujiwara) and drums (Curt Newton). Hofbauer calls the project "Prehistoric Jazz: Volumes I & II", taking the monicker (as the guitarist writes on his website) "inspired by video footage of Leonard Bernstein rehearsing "The Rite of Spring" in 1987 where he instructs the timpanist to play like “prehistoric jazz.” The arrangements allow the band to play in numerous styles from early New Orleans to avant-garde to Chicago-style free. The "Rite.." opens with Brunel playing unaccompanied and sliding down into the recognizable melody like Gershwin's "An American in Paris" in reverse. Ms, Fujiwara moves easily from pizzicato to arco, often locking in with the creative work of Newton to truly drive the piece. Sabatini's trumpet tone is quite clean war he plays "open bore" and pretty funky when he employs a mute. Hofbauer's hollow-body electric guitar mixes the earlier styles of Freddie Green and Charlie Christian with stylistic hints of Mary Halvorson and Joe Morris. The guitarist's approach to the material allows the original music to breathe and expand without losing its power.  The musicians seamlessly blend the written and the improvised music.

Make sure to listen to "The Rite of Spring" in one sitting to get the true scope of what the Hofbauer Quintet is doing with Stravinsky's music and how the seemingly disparate elements fit. There is great power here as well as humor and an occasional touch of pathos. 

The Messiaen work, composed when he was in a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1940 and premiered in the camp in January 1941 by a quartet of prisoners playing piano, cello, clarinet and violin.  The composer, who was a devout Catholic, intended the piece as a work of hope -  yes, some of the music is often dissonant as if the war raging around Europe had stolen the beauty of the artist's creation. Yet, there are also many contemplative moments as if music could shut out the horror by the simple act of playing the notes.

The original work was written over a period of time including sections composed before Messiaen's imprisonment. Even in Hofbauer's arrangement, there are moments that stand out as odd, such as the funky "Intermede", which is the most joyful of pieces. Much of the work is uncluttered, with long stretches of quiet interplay for 2 or 3 instruments. The blend of cello and guitar really stands out, on the  plaintive melody on "Louange A L'eternite De Jesus" which is played by Ms. Fukiwara supported by the sparse, nearly inaudible (at times, guitar chords.  Hofbauer's creative work beneath the searching, keening, clarinet on "Abime Des Oiseaux" is fascinating as is his interaction with Sabatini on "Louange A L'immortalite De Jesus" (with Newton's percussive colors all quietly in support.) The arranger finds the heartache in "Foullis D'arcs-en-ciel", the piece taking on the feel of a New Orleans traditional blues before the Quintet literally turns "Pour L'ange Qui Annonce La Fin du Temps" into a nontraditional "second line."

photo by L Poussard
It's really hard to choose one volume over the other so be wise and purchase both.  This music will bring you hours of pleasure as you listen to the care and attention Eric Hofbauer put into making "The Rite of Spring" and "Quintet for the End of Time." While it's clear the Quintet can and does play with great virtuosity, this music is also emotionally strong and heartfelt. If this is "prehistoric", it's also timeless. Pay attention and the rewards will be many. Also, David Adler deserves major kudos for his superlative and comprehensive liner notes.  Listen to the music first, then read Mr. Adler's excellent essays (one for each CD).

For more information, go to

After a long day, what could more relaxing than curling up with a glass of wine and Melissa Stylianou.  It's quite possible husband Jamie Reynolds (the fine pianist/composer) might get a bit of jealous but, honestly, I was thinking of Ms. Stylianou's delightful new CD, "No Regrets" (Anzic Records). Produced by Oded Lev-Ari and recorded live to 2-track by James Farber in one day-long session, Ms. Stylianou is joined by a splendid trio of musicians - Bruce Barth (piano), Linda Oh (bass) and Matt Wilson (drums - plus guests Anat Cohen (clarinet on 2 tracks) and Billy Drewes (alto saxophone on 2 different tracks).

This is her 5th CD (2nd for Anzic) and is comprised of 9 standards, a smashing take on Thelonious Monk's "I Mean You" and a spellbinding duet with Wilson on William Yeats' "Down By The Salley Gardens." What stands out are the intelligent arrangements, the duet tracks, and the wonderful vocals.  If one has listened to jazz singers for any length of time, you have heard some of these songs dozens of times (if not more). Listen to the pleasing take of "I've Got It Bad" for Drewes' exciting alto work, the solid support of the trio and how Ms. Stylianou does not oversell the song.  She's right into the emotion of the love song.  Drewes digs deep into the blues on the delightful "A Nightingale Can Sing the Blues" Same approach with "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" except here it's Barth's ever-so-melodic support than frames and interacts with the vocal.  Ms. Cohen's clarinet is at its bluesy best on "I'll Never Be The Same", one of 2 tracks associated with Billie Holiday.  It's just voice, clarinet and Ms. Oh's expressive bass on the other Holiday treat, "Somebody's On My Mind."  The subdued arrangement, the sweet clarinet phrases and the intimate vocal gives the piece a timeless quality. Ms. Oh, who seems to be showing up on every 3rd CD I receive (no complaints here), opens the Mack Gordon-Harry Warren swinging "I Wish I Knew" by herself and then delivers a knock-out solo in the middle.

The program is bookended by 2 uptempo pieces, the sprightly "Nice Work If You Can Get It" (yes it's a love song but feels like a commentary on the session) and the cheerful duet with Barth on the Monk tune. While it's the final track, it's no leftover.  The duo dig right into with Barth matching the vocalist note for note and laying a forceful and tuneful solo.  Then, Ms. Stylianou "trades 4s" with the pianist, her playful scatting bringing the tune to its final verse and this delightful album to a happy close.

You should have "No Regrets" in your life - judging by this classy production, Melissa Stylianou and her friends don't seem to. This recording is like a warm fire on a chilly night, making you more comfortable, relaxed and satisfied. Can't ask for more than that!  For more information, go to or

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving 2014 - To Life!

As many of us sit down to a table of plenty, whether with family and friends or with a congregation, it's easy to put out of our minds those living through this holiday who don't have family, who do not have enough or who do not have good health. Imagine the families of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. or Officer Darren Wilson and how their lives at this moment in time are so turbulent and tragic. Say a prayer for those soldiers who are in Afghanistan or elsewhere in the world protecting our right to enjoy the fruits of the harvest. Take the time to wonder what it must be like to be a police officer in the United States or an immigrant picking fruits and vegetables in the Central Valley of California or stuck in detention centers in the Southwest.

All around this country (and the civilized world), people celebrate the "good old days", as if that's what they really were.  History has a way of evening out the lows and boosting the highs; our memories do the rest.  Sure seemed to be simpler times when I was a boy in the 1950s but what did I know of the issues in the Deep South?  President Kennedy was assassinated when I was in high school, Malcolm X less than 16 months later, and Dr. King and the President's younger brother Robert in 1968.  Detroit, Los Angeles, and other cities burned from the inside out and "white flight" became a serious reality. The Vietnam war raged on for over a decade, turning brother against brother. Drug use   and abuse started to go "mainstream" in the 60s and shows no inclination to disappear. The rich got richer, the poor poorer and those in the "middle" started a long, slow, slide downward. Politics became sport, sports became religion and religion became passé or devoutly evangelical.

For me, I hid behind the "sounds" for the longest time, preferring to retreat to the vinyl grooves or the CDs for solace and a reminder of what I believed real brotherhood could be.  Took a long time to realize that hiding is just another excuse for doing nothing but I have gone on to be involved in my communities. Haven't changed anyone's world other than my immediate family's but that is where true change begins.

Enjoy this Holiday season but do try and give back in any way that you are able.


Most readers and listeners know the events and the long road that lead to "Beautiful Life" (Greene Music Works/Mack Avenue Records), the new recording by saxophonist, composer, and educator Jimmy Greene. Both of his children were in attendance at the Sandy Hook Elementary School the day that a mentally disturbed young man forcibly entered the building and killed 26 people, 20 children and 6 teachers/administrator.   Jimmy Greene and his wife Nelba Marquez-Greene lost their daughter Ana, aged 6 years old.  Those of us who live in Connecticut were glued to the news outlets that mid-December 2012 weekend, shocked, saddened and angered. Greene, a native of Bloomfield, CT., had attended the Jackie McLean Artists Collective during high school and gone on to the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford and performed throughout the area, ultimately taking a teaching position in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.  Just months before Ana's untimely death, Greene had moved his family back to Connecticut upon taking a position at Western Connecticut State University.

The recording is a celebration of life, using the example of Ana Marquez-Greene's enthusiasm for living and music as its starting point.  The majority of the 12 tracks feature the rhythm section of Renee Rosnes (piano), Christian McBride (bass) and Lewis Nash (drums).  Guests include guitarists Pat Metheny and Jonathan DuBose, Jr,  pianists Kenny Barron and Cyrus Chestnut plus the string section of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and the Early Years Choir of the Linden Christian School from Winnipeg. Vocalists include Javier Colon, Latanya Farrell, Anika Noni Rose and Kurt Elling. Ana's voice is heard on the opening track, singing "Saludos" and "Come Thou Almighty King", recorded at a family Christmas party, accompanied by percussionists and by her father on quiet tenor sax on the former and older brother Isaiah on piano for the latter (in-between, Jimmy Greene and Pat Metheny play a solemn, reverential, version of the prayer.)

The music pays tribute and looks forward without ever becoming maudlin or mawkish.  Pieces such as "Last Summer" and "Seventh Candle" are filled with buoyancy and joy, the former featuring a sparkling solo from Ms. Rosnes and the latter featuring strong work from Greene on soprano sax and bassist McBride.  Both cuts show Lewis Nash at his best, propelling the music forward on waves of cymbals. Kenny Barron plays 2 duets with the leader, the sublime "Where Is Love" (from Lionel Bart's score for the play "Oliver") and the achingly tender "Maybe" (from "Annie").  The latter track finds Greene on soprano, hewing close to the melody his daughter loved to sing.

Javier Colon sings Greene's stunning "When I Come Home", his handsome tenor blending with with the leader's feathery yet substantial tenor saxophone phrases.  Elling's voice shines on "Ana's Way", which describes the child's zest for living and love of family - when the Children's Choir enters, the song shimmers.  Hartford-area resident and family friend Latanya Farrell delivers a powerful vocal on "Prayer", a setting of "The Lord's Prayer" for quartet and strings.  Anika Noni Rose, also a native of Bloomfield, speaks Greene's powerful message of hope, forgiving and love on the final track "Little Voices" with Greene overdubbing flute, soprano and tenor saxophones over the Children's voices repeating "Remember me" as the song fades.

"Beautiful Life" is a powerful album, a beautiful reminder of a spirit removed far too soon from her earthly existence.  Instead of grief, Jimmy Greene focusses on joyous memories, on healing, on beauty and on hope.  As a parent myself, I am brought to tears by the loving care that Greene put into this program, making very sure that there was no anger expressed, no vitriol towards the troubled young man who changed the family forever.  One is humbled by the Greene family's deep faith and insistence that, despite all the pain, horrific images, and tragic loss, love wins.

A portion of the proceeds from "Beautiful Life" will go to The Ana Grace Project of Klingberg Family Centers ( and The Artists Collective ( For more on Jimmy Greene and his music, go to

In the summer of 2008, pianist/composer Fred Hersch contracted a particularly vicious case of septic pneumonia.  Earlier that year Hersch, who has been HIV-positive since the mid-1980s, had been in the midst of a particularly busy touring schedule and had lost a lot of weight.  He stopped eating and his doctors decided to take him off the antiviral medication to give his body a rest.  He did start to eat again but the HIV flared up, causing an infection in his brain and creating AIDS-related dementia. By June, he went into septic shock, his organs shut down one-by-one and Hersch fell into a coma that lasted more than 2 months. When his doctors brought him out of the coma, be could not talk, eat, swallow, had no power over his limbs and he, in his own words, "had to completely rebuild himself."

Fred Hersch returned to performing in late 2009 and released his first new Trio recording in 2010, "Whirl." The musicality we had come to expect from his performances seemed to be intact, his solos strong and inventive and his interactions sharp.  He also began work on a long-form piece taken from the dreams he had during his coma.  Working with lyricist Herschel Garfein, the composer created a work he calls "My Coma Dreams", a work of theater for Trio (bassist John Hebert and drummer John Hollenbeck), a 4-piece brass and reed section (trumpeter/flugelhorn Ralph Alessi, trombonist Mike Christianson, clarinetist and alto saxophonist Bruce Williamson, plus the flute, clarinet and tenor sax of Adam Kolker and a string quartet (Joyce Hammann on violin and viola, Laura Seaton on violin, Ron Lawrence on viola and Dave Eggar on cello). Playing the roles of narrator, Hersch, his partner Scott Morgan and more is the incredible Michael Winther - he is the connecting tissue of the work, the face and voice of the dreams, and the focus of our attention.

New York Daily News photo
Palmetto Records has issued the DVD of "My Coma Dreams" taken from the live performance at Miller Theatre on the campus of Columbia University in March of 2013.  The 87-minute production includes animation and graphic design by Sarah Wickliffe plus the brilliant video system design of Eamonn Farrell and sound design of Jody Elff. Not only do the words tell the story but Hersch's music takes us through the experience as well. What stands out to the viewer is that, for Hersch, the experience is not grim - scary certainly, but these dreams have humor, are filled with music and images that are cinematic.  Scott Morgan is the one doing the suffering. But, also the person doing the caring, the sitting, the holding, the praying and he emerges from the narrative as the "hero" - he never gives up hope even as his partner is just lying there being kept alive by machines and the doctors refuse to give prognoses.

The music that Hersch provides for this work of "Jazz Theater" is, not surprisingly, quite impressive, ranging from blues to classical interludes to duets to Monk's "I Mean You" (there's even a dream starring Monk and one wonders if Hersch's unconscious mind channelled the final years of Thelonious Monk's life which he spent in the apartment of the Baroness Pannonica de Konigswarter.)  When Winther sings "The Knitters", his excellent voice stands out as he tells the story of Hersch watching women - perhaps Amish women - as they work on various projects, only communicating in whispers. As the song transitions, the story changes to Hersch and his brother watching his parents and their friends talking, interacting and the young boy wonders if his "fate is being knitted in the room below." Meanwhile, the horns and strings play this expanding arrangement, their sounds wrapping around the voice like a warm sweater.  "Jazz Diner in the Woods" is a tour-de-force for all involved (John Hollenbeck truly knows how to drive an ensemble), a swinging track that is an audience favorite.

In the final analysis, "My Coma Dreams" is about time lost but life regained. Though Fred Hersch seemed lost to the world, his "inside" appears to be quite alive.  He admits early in the performance that these dreams may have occurred as he was either going into or coming out of the coma.  The live performance is smartly captured - like many videos of live shows, one can't help but wish he had been in attendance yet this story grabs ahold from the opening minutes and, even though one knows the eventual outcome, the solo piano piece that represents the composer coming out of his coma state still brings tears.

Fred Hersch has returned to performing on a full-time basis and continues to create music in which one feels great emotion, a strong sense of swing, and beautiful lines of melody.  We are such lucky people that he has survived, he thrives and he educates us on just how precious time and life are.

For those who believe that there is no hope for their situation in life, know that there are foundations, doctors, nurses, therapists and others who are trained to bring you back from the brink.  A portion of the proceeds from the sale of "My Coma Dreams" will go to Treatment Action Group ( To find out more about Fred Hersch and this production, go to