Fred Hersch: Celebrating Walt Whitman
FH: It was down to the wire! We had three performances that were well received, and on the basis of those, we got an archival recording and then secured future performances. At this point, the piece has been done ten times live, and there'll be four more performances this year. And hopefully we'll continue booking it. It's difficult to book because there are ten people involved, it's not cheap to present, and there are a lot of schedules to deal with, and so on. But I have faith that we will keep it going somehow.
AAJ: Were there any specific musical influences on the composition?
FH: You'd have to make that call! That's not anything I can say.
AAJ: You composed it basically as it came to you?
FH: The inspiration came from the words. The words suggested the music. That's pretty much how I went for it. I didn't limit myself. There are obviously places that are more jazz based, others that are "new music based, and others that have more of an "Americana vibe. But it's a big soup of stuff, just like Whitman's poetry was a big soup of stuff, so I feel as if it kind of came from him.
AAJ: Does the composition follow a particular musical form? A cantata or song cycle, perhaps?
FH: Not really. Maybe oratorio or cantata? It's a full evening piece, though. It's not just a setting of a bunch of songs. It has a full dramatic arc to it. But I don't know that there is an exact parallel in classical music for it.
AAJ: When you were composing the parts for the two singers, were you thinking of particular vocalists?
FH: Yes, it was written for Kurt Elling and Norma Winstone. They were my inspirations. Norma lives in London. So it was just impossible to include her on the recording and the tour on account of logistics and expense. But she'll be in the performance we're doing in Antwerp.
AAJ: The recording features Kate McGarry rather than Norma.
FH: She's doing all the U.S. performances as well and is sounding great.
AAJ: All the musicians in the ensemble were exceptional.
FH: It's a very strong ensemble. Everyone has real personalities. I have done it with substitute performers, but on this tour we've pretty much had the musicians who are on the CD, with the exception of the cellist, Eric Friedlander, who was unavailable. So it's a really neat thing to be able to have this same band throughout this tour. We had a great time with each other socially, and the music really flowed very nicely.
AAJ: Do you think of the composition as something specifically for this ensemble, or would you want to open it up to be performed by any fine jazz ensemble as part of the repertoire?
FH: Well, there's no real piano part - it's a scribble. So I couldn't just hand the parts to somebody and have them do it. I'd have to be part of it. And it requires two superior vocalists. I performed the piece last year with the Indiana University School of Music students, and I sat in with the students. We had several days of rehearsals, but in the end, I had to import a male vocalist, because no one at the School could really cover that part. The students did a great job, but we had two or three days of rehearsals, and with professionals that would be prohibitively expensive.
AAJ: There's a sense in which a given jazz performance is totally unique, and then there's a sense in which this piece, and a few others in the jazz repertoire, belong in the annals of jazz for many years to come. They're like large scale "standards. I suspect Leaves of Grass will emerge as such a "standard repertoire work. Leaves has that feeling about it, that it's going to last.
FH: Well, my classical publisher C.F. Peters has discussed whether or not it would be worth it to issue a score. But that would mean me having to write out a piano part and typesetting the score and parts, a big job and a large expense. And it also wouldn't be playable by classical musicians- it would have to be jazz musicians and sung by jazz vocalists. Peters is a classical publishing firm, so they usually deal with fully notated music. So, I don't know where this will end up, but right now, I'm really satisfied with the response. I've done a number of NPR shows. I was on "Fresh Air. I'm going to be on a big special on Leaves of Grass, the book. I'm taping it this week. At the end of May, the Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall performance will be aired on NPR on a series called Creators at Carnegie. There have been some nice reviews and interviews, as well. So, we're trying to keep the buzz going through this Whitman Sesquicentennial Year, if we can.
AAJ: Do you have any aspirations now to focus your life on being a composer?