Sangeeta Michael Berardi

Two years ago, Burrill Crohn and a friend were in the midst of a conversation on Tinker Street when, as Crohn recalls, “this little guy, whose hands are shaking, who had been looking at us, came up and, stuttering, asked if we were talking about music. When we told him that yes, we were discussing the solo classical and jazz concert by pianist Warren Bernhardt that we had just attended, he asked to join the conversation. An hour later, after he had told me his story, it was as if a voice was speaking to me, telling me I’ve got to make a film about this guy. I had no money and no commercial intent. I started filming the next day.”

Woodstock resident Crohn, whose film credits include several award-winning documentaries about jazz made during the 1980s and 90s, discovered that ‘the little guy whose hands were shaking’ was Sangeeta Michael Berardi. A jazz guitarist who has played with many of the pioneers of ‘free jazz’ including Roswell Rudd, Archie Shepp, Alice Coltrane, Rashied Ali, Karl Berger, Eddie Gomez and Pharoah Sanders, Berardi has recorded under his own name and on the albums of many others. He has been described by trombonist Roswell Rudd as “the original cat with the cosmic fingers.” Now 73, Berardi has been suffering from Parkinson’s Disease for the past dozen years — an incurable degenerative disease that impairs movement and coordination, affects nearly one million Americans. What’s unusual about Berardi is that, rather than resign himself to his physical inability to play the guitar as before, he is integrating the disease into his music, to, in his words, “translate the unique rhythms of my Parkinson’s tremors into musical statements.”

Crohn’s film, Playing with Parkinson’s, aims to document Berardi’s startling approach and determination. The film, now ready for editing and sound mixing, centers around a two-day recording session at NRS Studios in Catskill in June of last year. Produced by pianist/composer John Esposito on his Sunjump Records label, the session was Berardi’s first in 15 years. Not coincidentally, Esposito had produced Berardi’s previous session and performed on it as well, as he did during last year’s two-day session.

“There’s something magical being in the studio,” Berardi recounted during a two-hour phone interview from his California home. “It was something that I’ve always loved. I had for a number of years thought it was lost forever. I recall a few years back talking with [drummer] Peter O’Brian and John Esposito and saying, ‘Man, one of the saddest things about this situation — I don’t dwell on that, I’m realistic — is that I’ll never be able to make music with you guys again. I had more or less accepted it was time to move on.’”