Published since 1999
R.J. DeLuke is an indefatigable jazz fan and arbiter elegantiarum who aspires to ultimate hipness; also an upstate NY freelance writer for various media.
Accolades for Leaves of Grass, Fred Hersch's tribute to the poetry of Walt Whitman are deserved. The music is special, the words uplifting, the execution totally professional. But to hear it performed live, as it was at the elegant and historic Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in Troy, NY, on March 13, is a grand experience, full of life and inspiration and beauty.
Hersch, always a fine pianist and an expressive jazz musician, has penned a marvelous work. Just about all live work surpasses recorded music, but Leaves of Grass doesn't contain a lot of improvisation for the musicians, and so it's not going to be a wild departure from the original source. Yet the eight instrumentalists and two vocal artists that perform the work live bring it superbly to life. There are few stops left on its tour, so catching it may be an impossibility. Those who were able to experience it are richer for it.
"I had no idea where these words would take me, but I followed my instincts... Hersch has written about the music. Grand instincts they are. The result is a work that is in parts moving, joyous, reflective, expressive and elegant. And make no mistake, Hersch's "instinct could not have been better when he selected Kurt Elling to be the main voice. He is magnificent throughout. A poet of sorts, himself, and a well-read individual with scholarly interests (a former Divinity School student), Elling seems perfect in the role · so much so that it is difficult to imagine anyone else pulling off · both the spoken word and the sung verse with the aplomb that Elling brings.
Whitman's verse comes from hundreds of pages of poetry in "Leaves of Grass, written in the 1800s (Whitman lived 1819-1892), but, as Hersch says, it sounds contemporary, speaking of the triumph of man, the individuality of humankind, the common thread of humankind, and of the indomitable spirit and spirituality. Putting it to music, it would seem, is a mammoth undertaking and Hersch has created a master work. It is jazz? Well, there are few moments of improv (though it's probably easy to assume Elling doesn't do things exactly the same in any two performances), but the words jazz doesn't apply. It's music. Trumpeter Ralph Alessi has even called it a chamber piece. Like Ellington said, music only exists in two forms. There are elements of jazz and swing in the music, and buoyant Latin beats. There are moments of intricate delicacy, moments that are boisterous and moments of majesty.
The music is performed in two contiguous suites, started with the thick tones of the contrabass, joined by percussion, an overture of horns, then a fine wordless vocal by Kate McGarry stellar in her role soon joined in harmonization with Elling. The music took off from the start and the listener taken on an invigorating adventure. "Come sing me a song no poet has yet chanted, intones McGarry early in the suite. And indeed, in both music and verse, that could be the theme of the night.
McGarry's soprano is poignant in her moments as lead voice. She approaches the words with expression and a sense of awe that is passed on. But Elling is the main voice and performs with his typical polish. The strength and flexibility of his voice is perfect for the music, and his way of elocution is fitting for the words of Whitman and the vision of Hersch. It's a difficult book to sing, with melodies varying in meter and in feeling, but he makes it seem easy. He holds one's attention throughout. He's also stylish and classy, befitting the whole presentation.
Each of the musicians deserves a nod for their superb execution. Alessi sparkles with technique and tone behind McGarry's voice in his moment of improvisation, and Mike Christianson's trombone, particularly with plunger mute, is very hip. John Hollenbeck's drum beats and various sprinkles of percussion are vital to the sound. Kudos, as well, to Bruce Williamson, clarinets , alto sax and bass clarinet; Tony Malaby, tenor sax; Gregory Heffernan, cello, and Drew Gress, bass.
Who knows if this superb piece will be revived from time to time, but Hersch has accomplished a moving and wonderful work and it will stand tall for a long, long time.
Players: Fred Hersch, piano; Ralph Alessi, trumpet; Mike Christianson, trombone; Bruce Williamson, clarinet, alto sax, bass clarinet; Tony Malaby, tenor sax; Gregory Heffernan, cello; Drew Gress, bass; John Hollenbeck, drums, percussion, Kurt Elling, Kate McGarry, voice.
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