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Fred Hersch film airs in REEL Jazz series at Bryant Lake Bowl

One of the most intriguing, poetic, captivating, brilliant, prolific, imaginative (how many adjectives am I allowed to use?) pianists working today, Fred Hersch, almost died last year. He spent more than two months unconscious at New York’s St. Vincent’s Hospital as a result of AIDS-related complications. He lost the ability to eat solid food; his muscles atrophied; his right vocal chord was paralyzed. With intensive physical therapy, he learned to walk and eat again.

Hersch is back — playing, recording, composing, teaching, touring. One of the few openly gay jazz musicians, he has been HIV-positive for more than 20 years, surviving longer than most people diagnosed in the 1980s. Now he is living with AIDS. The virus and the disease have made him fruitful. “For many years, I was very driven,” he has said. “I wanted to put a lot of stuff out there just to make sure that people heard me.”

The “lot of stuff” includes 26 recordings as leader, 16 as co-leader, 22 as featured soloist, and more than 60 as sideman; 10 have been Grammy nominees. His latest release is a solo outing, “Fred Hersch Plays Jobim” (Sunnyside, 2009).

“Let Yourself Go: The Lives of Fred Hersch” (2008) airs tonight at the Bryant Lake Bowl Cabaret Theater as part of KBEM’s ongoing REEL Jazz Film Series. An intimate feature-length documentary, it focuses on Hersch’s music, his health, and his work as an educator and includes concert performances.

You can order the DVD if you want, but why not share the film with friends at the BLB? If you haven’t been to the intimate cabaret theater, it’s a unique experience. There’s cabaret seating (little tables and chairs) at the front, raised stadium-type seating in the rest of the small room. You can order off the excellent menu (try the Pad Thai) and drink beer. Every so often, you’ll hear the thunder of balls and the clatter of pins from the bowling alley on the other side of the door.

“Let Yourself Go” marks the twelfth REEL Jazz film event since the series was launched in April 2008 by KBEM’s Kevin Barnes. He’s working now on a winter season that might include two new films: “Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress: The Story of Oscar Brown Jr.” (possibly with director Donnie Betts in attendance) and “The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi” (best known as the composer of the music for the early Peanuts specials). He hopes to schedule another night with film collector Bob DeFlores, perhaps with a big surprise.

Barnes’ series is one of those Twin Cities gems that make me happy to live here. Jazz films are hard to come by and seldom screened; props to this year’s Sound Unseen for including three in this year’s schedule. Some REEL Jazz film events are well-attended, some more sparsely. Each begins with a live jazz set.

“The series is just another way for people to connect to jazz,” Barnes says. “There’s the power of combining audio and video. Film makes it easier to tell the story. It elucidates the lives of people. … Plus there’s the Bryant Lake Bowl, which feels like a funky little New York screening house. It’s one of the most interesting spots in town. You combine an incredible film with bowling, a Belgian beer list and wine list to die for, and a space that’s like a mini-Fringe every night. It’s a multilevel experience.”

By the way, Barnes is very open to suggestions for his series. If there’s a film you’d like to see, or if you hear or read about one that sounds interesting, drop him an email at KevinB@jazz88fm.com.

“Let Yourself Go: The Lives of Fred Hersch.” Bryant Lake Bowl, 810 West Lake St., Minneapolis. Thursday, Nov. 5. Doors open at 6 p.m., live jazz at 6:20, film at 6:30 ($10). Seating limited to 80. Reserve with KevinB@Jazz88fm.com.

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