Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Fred Hersch’s Coma Dreams Premiered Memorably in New Jersey

My Coma Dreams: the title of Fred Hersch’s eclectic new multimedia suite evokes a lurid, surreal netherworld. At the world premiere yesterday at Montclair State College in Montclair, New Jersey, the brilliant jazz pianist and an eleven-piece ensemble conducted by Gregg Kallor revealed it to be definitely surreal, less lurid than one would imagine, blackly amusing and ultimately a genuinely heartwarming portrait of joie de vivre triumphing over enormous odds. In order to facilitate a cure for a particularly virulent case of pneumonia, the doctors at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York put Hersch into a medically induced coma, from which he was not expected to emerge as his old self, perhaps not at all. Yet he did, and after what must have been a grueling rehabilitation process, resumed playing, touring and ultimately making a beautifully lyrical solo album, Alone at the Vanguard, this past December. Hersch’s newest work makes a good companion piece to John Kelly’s The Escape Artist (just reviewed here), another harrowing narrative with a similar gallows humor, also set at St. Vincent’s.

With a narrative by Herschel Garfein, spoken and often sung by actor Michael Winther, the suite shifts between the dreams that Hersch was able to remember from his two months in the coma, along with Hersch’s own observations and those of his doctor and his lover, who maintained a resolute vigil throughout the ordeal. The transitions between narrative voices can be awkward – sometimes it’s less than clear who’s telling the story. But to paraphrase Garfein’s program notes, the story takes a back seat to Hersch’s musical interpretation of it, and of the dreams, often stunningly lyrical, haunting and also uproariously funny.

In one of the early dreams, Hersch finds himself bound and gagged in the back of a van. How he tries to ransom himself from his kidnapers is characteristic of the wry surrealism here, and it’s vividly portrayed via a frantically pulsing, Mingus-esque tableau that gave drummer John Hollenbeck a deliciously amusing interlude to sprint from the scene, less Keystone Kops than Dragnet. Another dream involves a party on a plane – and then another plane, albeit one either set in another century, or with costumes to match. “One cool airline!” is Hersch’s interpretation, the band swinging through a sultry tango-flavored piece lit up by the string quartet of violinists Joyce Hammann and Laura Seaton, violist Ron Lawrence and Deoro cellist Dave Eggar.

The most stunning number on the bill relates to a dream concerning a duo improvisation in Brussels that is fraught with anxiety but ultimately works out well. Beginning with a hypnotic, plucked pedal figure on violin, much of it is essentially a one-chord vamp that builds to an almost cruel suspense with a long, surreal, noir Twin Peaks piano solo whose bright, lurid menace is literally breathtaking. That tune is soon followed by an equally vivid one where Hersch – a Thelonious Monk devotee – finds himself in a cage alongside the guy with the beard and the hat. There’s a composition contest: whoever comes up with a piece of music first gets out. Hersch busies himself while Monk relaxes with a grin; the music gives Hersch an opportunity to literally channel Monk’s playing, with every subtle and not-so-subtle weird dissonance, smokily warped blues phrase and roll he can come up with – and there are many. It’s the longest section here.

The two funniest ones are parodies, and both got the audience roaring: the first a sendup of a schmaltzy girl-in-a-coma afterschool special tv show, the second titled Jazz Diner, a cruelly entertaining account of another dream where Hersch finds himself playing straight man to a diva doing hours and hours at a jazz diner in the woods. Just when the satire starts to feel interminable, Hersch decides he’s had enough and makes the piece interesting,  Steven Lugerner‘s tenor solo beginning as something of a spoof but soon taking off with an energetic unease. By contrast, Hersch offers a requiem, stately and elegant with the strings gently amping the sadness, for the now-shuttered St. Vincent’s – the first New York hospital to have an AIDS ward, which Hersch credits with saving his life more than once.

There are also songs, and strangely, neither Hersch’s cerebral wit nor his purist melodicism translate to them: the effect is like following Monk with Journey, or more accurately, Andrew Lloyd Webber. But except for one of them, they’re over soon. There’s also a video component, which at best is redundant and at worst is distracting (jazz audiences like to watch the musicians). But the strength of the compositions, and the playing, transcends these minor flaws. The rest of the ensemble included trombonist Mike Christianson, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, multi-reedman Adam Kolker and bassist John Hebert: one hopes that this stellar crew can be part of the Manhattan premiere of this powerful and compelling work.

May 9, 2011 Posted by | concert, drama, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Jentsch Group Large – Cycles Suite

Composer/guitarist Chris Jentsch specializes in modern big band jazz suites. This is his third, beginning with the 1999 Miami Suite, continuing with the riveting, haunting 2007 Brooklyn Suite – a bonafide 21st century classic – and now with the even more ambitious Cycles Suite. If the Brooklyn Suite was Jentsch’s Dark Side of the Moon, this is his Wish You Were Here. Built around a ferocious four-bar phrase that begins as a horn motif and gets more and more intense as it takes on new shapes and voicings, the Brooklyn Suite careens like a stolen taxicab barreling along a potholed Atlantic Avenue of the mind at 4 AM. It’s all tension and suspense, and the central hook is a melody that ranks with the best of them: Jumping Jack Flash, the Bach Toccata in D, Black and Tan Fantasy and any other iconic musical phrase you can imagine. Following up such an accomplishment is always difficult. This one is even longer, but it’s considerably different – where the Brooklyn Suite was savage and reckless, the Cycles Suite is thoughtful and expansive, cleverly referencing its predecessor in its darkest, most pensive moments. 

Jentsch owes a debt to both Steve Ulrich (of Big Lazy and innumerable film and tv soundtracks) and Bill Frisell. The opening cut here, Arrival is dark, skronky, distorted funk, sounding like Big Lazy with a horn section. The fifteen-minute second track, Cycle of Life is a suite in itself, shifting from languid and atmospheric into a tango, separated by a pointed tritone played by the horns. Home and Away, clocking in at almost twenty minutes has a similar architecture, opening with a jangly, pastoral Frisell-style guitar motif that melds with the band as they rise to a big, romantic crescendo, individual instruments lending their voices, fading in and out of the mix as the procession continues. Then a portentous echo of the Brooklyn Suite, Jentsch eventually taking over with an austere, round, slightly distorted guitar tone, the band working a comfortable Basie-esque riff evocative of neon, exhaust and maybe another round of drinks.

Darkness begins to fall with track four, Old Folks Song, the piano beginning it with a three-note chromatic hook straight out of Jentsch’s previous album, shifting to gritty reggae and then to wistfulness as the horns swell and fade. The delightfully titled Route 666, another mini-suite, kicks off with as much of a romping feel as an ensemble this size can muster, trumpeter Mike Kaupa pushing the revelry, such that there is. The rest alternates between quiet and skeletal and lushly ebullient, without any of the diabolical vibe alluded to by the title. The final cut, Departure brings back the suite’s two most resonant, poignant motifs and then lets them fall away somewhat abruptly yet aptly – after all, nobody gets to decide how they want to go out. In the big, lavish arrangements, the compositions’s often vividly melodic sensibility and some very inspired playing by an A-list of the New York jazz scene, there’s a lot to sink your ears into here. Headphones very highly recommended.

May 11, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment