Fred Hersch Leaves of Grass
In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman, the poet of democracy, sought to express the still-young nation's ideals. Fred Hersch has realized his dream to pay homage to the poet by crafting an intelligent and, often, moving account of carefully selected excerpts from Whitman's masterpiece. Not the first jazz artist to attempt to transfigure a literary work into music, the pianist has approached this daunting task with great skill. Other jazz composers have engaged literary themes: Duke Ellington's Such Sweet Thunder and later John Dankworth took some of the Ellington work and composed others for Cleo Laine using Shakespeare's texts (titled Shakespeare and All That Jazz). Dick Hyman did the same for Maxine Sullivan's appreciation of the Bard, Sullivan, Shakespeare and Hyman. Steve Swallow melded gorgeous melodies with the epigrammatic work of poet Robert Creeley in Home, sung with grace and passion by Sheila Jordan.
Many of Whitman's poems are word marathons, not easily subdued to accommodate musical notation. Unsurprisingly, there are echoes of other visions of Americana. Working within a melodic framework that at times suggests, among others, Aaron Copland and Jimmy Giuffre, Hersch's personal compositional gift emerges from the more generic strains.
The March 11th concert at Zankel Hall, a concert recreation of the original recording, proved to be an event. The audience, full of adoring fans and stalwart denizens of the jazz community, happily shared in the realization of Hersch's long-held dream.
"A Riddle Song (Overture) projects the openness of the poet's vision of America, the promise of discovery and the chance to begin life anew. Singers Kate McGarry, used sparingly but effectively and Kurt Elling blend well. He handles the "What is the grass passage from stanza 6 of "Song of Myself tenderly. The writing for ensemble, an octet, is exemplary. In the best jazz orchestral tradition, the band becomes integral to the experience and does not exist as an afterthought or merely to set the stage. Tony Malaby (tenor saxophone), Bruce Williamson (reeds) and Greg Heffernan (cello), especially, shine in brief solo spots.
Especially imaginative is the composer's blues-drench setting of "My lovers suffocate me (stanza 46). "I am he that walks with the night (stanza 21) should find its way into the working repertoires of more than one singer.
Hersch resists the temptation to make this project about his playing. He fulfils the role of band pianist with aplomb, stepping out only here and there. When he takes the spotlight, as in "At the Close of the Day , his solo is well worth the wait.
This is a fine work. Perfect? No, but at times truly moving and graceful. Like Whitman, the aggregate experience is wonderful, demonstrating the many facets of the poet set in song.
Trumpeter Luca Bonvini also honors the poet in a session that focuses on his musical allusions to the "mystic trumpeter . Unlike Hersch's Americana-themed approach, Bonvini opts for more contemporary jazz expression. He has a fertile musical imagination and fashions a completely different sound world for Whitman's words. Unfortunately, the resulting ethereal air often seems too chilly for the robust nature of Whitman's texts.
It bodes well nonetheless that jazz artists continue to search for projects that test their skills and stretch the listeners' ears. There is much to be admired in these adventures.
Tracks and Personnel
Leaves of Grass
A Riddle Song (overture); Song of the Universal; Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand; Song of Myself: Part I ("I Celebrate Myself"); Part II ("A Child Said, 'What is the Grass'"); Part III ("A Learner With the Simplest"); Part IV ("I Exist as I Am"); Part V ("I Am He That Walks"); Part VI ("Through Me Forbidden Voices"); Part VII ("Now I Will Do Nothing But Listen"); Part VIII ("I Believe a Leaf of Grass"); Part IX ("I Fly Those Flights"); Part X ("My Lovers Suffocate Me"); Part XI ("Why Should I Wish to See God"); The Mystic Trumpeter; At the Close of the Day (instrumental); To You/Perfections; The Sleepers; Spirit That Form'd This Scene/On the Beach at Night Alone; After the Dazzle of the Day
Fred Hersch, piano, music; Raplh Alessi, trumpet, flugelhorn; Mike Chistianson, trombone; Bruce Williamson, clarinet, alto sax, bass clarinet; Tony Malaby, tenor sax; Erik Friedlander, cello; Drew Gress, bass; John Hollenbeck, drums, percussion; Kate McGarry, voice; Kurt Elling, voice
Bonvini Luca slide trumpet; Marcotulli Carla vocals; Cecchetto Roberto guitar; Brown Cameron double bass; Gandhi U.T. drums