Tuesday, November 08, 2016

DOC NYC ’16: The Ballad of Fred Hersch

It 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.

If 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.

Early 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 points.

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.