Fred Hersch: Celebrating Walt Whitman
“ Certainly, this 'Leaves of Grass' piece is a fairly positive uplifiting piece spiritually... encouraging us to look at the present and be alive in the moment ”
Fred Hersch is a working jazz pianist and composer based in New York City, with an outstanding resume of accomplishments (see his website for full details). In addition to his three-decade long daily fare as a leader and sideman on a multitude of gigs and recordings, he has, over the course of his career, undertaken a variety of special projects, such as solo performances, duo collaborations, his own trio and other ensembles, and composition.
In an understated way, Hersch has shown himself to be a major creative force in jazz, and with the recent release of the CD, Leaves of Grass and its associated concert tour, he burst further upon the scene with an innovative and profoundly moving Leaves of Grass, a composition set to Walt Whitman's poetry for a jazz octet and two remarkable vocalists. Recent All About Jazz reviews are instances of the glowing media reports on this piece. When I myself listened to the CD for the first time, I experienced the equivalent of an epiphany. Here was something genuinely original, refreshing, and powerfully awakening. I felt a sense of wonder and knew that a universal yet deeply personal statement was being made. The seamless integration of the words of a great poet, with jazz improvisation, special effects, and, above all, vocalizations that express the gamut of human emotions, was electrifying.
So, even though Fred has been previously interviewed by AAJ, I requested another conversation with him, primarily to garner some his thoughts about the Leaves of Grass project, but also to catch up with some of his reflections about his musical and personal life. I spoke with him by phone at his living loft in lower Manhattan, reaching him in the evening a few days after he returned from Lincoln, Nebraska, one of the locations of a nationwide tour. Taking precious time out for an interview, Fred conveys a naturalness, honesty, and warmth that is refreshing in a business thatas he fully acknowledgesis perfectionistically demanding and "pressure cooker time-consuming. Here is what he had to say in conversation with me:
All About Jazz: Let's go right into Leaves of Grass. You just completed your concert tour, which was coordinated with the release of the CD. What are some of your reflections about the tour?
Fred Hersch: It was great! Everything went well, in terms of not having any major travel problems or technical problems. Shuffling ten people around the U.S. is not easy. Pretty exhausting in a lot of ways. But I'm glad I did it. It was great to do six performances in the month, and get the piece up in front of an audience. We got some very nice local press, sold out Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, and received a great review in The New York Times by Ben Ratliff. So there were many good things that happened. And it was just good to play the piece multiple times. We'll have a few more performances through the end of this year, but this was the big CD release tour, and I'm pretty exhausted! But it was well worth it!
AAJ: You found it fulfilling.
FH: Absolutely. I think the piece has a lot of power when it is experienced live. And a lot of people got to check it out.
AAJ: The last concert of the tour was in Lincoln, Nebraska at a Walt Whitman poetry conference.
FH: It was at a Walt Whitman symposium in honor of the 150th anniversary of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which was first published in 1855.
AAJ: Did you get feedback about the performance from any of the Whitman scholars?
FH: I did a post-concert Q and A. People were generally very positive. There may have been people who didn't attend the Q and A who didn't like it or were offended or thought I left out things they wished were included but this was not an academic project and I didn't feel compelled to include "Whitman's Greatest Hits". I just set the poems and parts of poems that resonated with me.
AAJ: How did you first become interested in Whitman's poetry and specifically Leaves of Grass?
FH: Well, I've been interested in Walt Whitman since college. More recently, a friend of mine in England, the person who used to represent me and books gigs for me in the U.K., suggested a large scale setting of Whitman's poetry for an ensemble. And that was around 2000 to 2001. It wasn't until 2003 that my manager here in the U.S. was able to secure some live dates for the piece, even though it wasn't written yet! That way I had a reason to write it. For me, deadlines are always a good thing! Then I wrote the piece: I spent a large part of 2002 putting the libretto together and deciding which parts of what poems I wanted to set. Leaves of Grass is 600 pages in the complete edition, so that took 8 months. And then I wrote the actual piece in sketch form in January, 2003, up at the MacDowellColony in New Hampshire. That took about three and a half weeks. After that, it took three weeks to orchestrate and 10 days to copy the parts.
AAJ: Quite a time crunch!