Fred Hersch: Celebrating Life in a Musical "Leaves of Grass"

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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I found this approach especially welcome in an age that increasingly devalues the individual.
I attended the sold-out March 11, 2005 performance of Fred Hersch's (see April 2005 interview) Leaves of Grass at Zankel Hall, a relatively new and wondrous performance space in the belly of Carnegie Hall. This Palmetto CD has already been reviewed by two AAJ colleagues, and since I largely agree, I'll leave the parsing of the disk to them and focus myself elsewhere.

For once, I deliberately left my notebook at home. Already somewhat familiar with the CD, I wanted the performance to wash over me without the distraction of analytic scribbling. And so it did, bathing me in intensity; it also provoked so much thought that my original "Nite & Disk" idea turned into a "Shrinktunes" column instead.

First of all, it must be said that unlike some veteran jazz musicians who become more minimalist and/or "out" as they go (bored, perhaps?), Hersch keeps breaking new creative ground. In recent years, I've seen him play his 24 variations on Bach and a left-handed nocturne that Chopin would admire; I've also seen him kick butt with his trio at the Vanguard. In the memorable Songs and Lullabies (2003, Sunnyside), Norma Winstone gave voice and lyrics to some of Hersch's most popular compositions like "Heartsong" and "Sarabande," moving his music into new realms of meaning. That CD included his gorgeous "Endless Stars," which was inspired by the deep, clear night of the New England woods. Perhaps Hersch's several residences at beautiful, isolated artist colonies have deepened his pantheistic streak. Certainly this new piece emphasizes the miraculous in all living things, with a special focus on the marvel that is the human being.

I found this approach especially welcome in a society that increasingly devalues the individual. Take our fascination with "humilitainment," for example, where millions tune in their TVs to watch other people get fired, eat bugs, fail to win a mate, or be told that they've got the worst singing voice on the planet. There's a word for taking joy in the suffering of others—schadenfreude—and I expect it always existed; what's different now is that this appetite is being fed so often, and so publicly, that it seems to be overtaking us.

But happily, there's no sign of it in Hersch's Leaves, which is optimistic, healing, and exalts the ties between the individual and collective spirit: "I am of old and young,/of the foolish as much as the wise,/Regardless of others,/ ever regardful of others." It includes Whitman's most famous words—"I celebrate myself, and sing myself"—yet reminds us that the end of that sentence is "...every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." We're each made of the same stuff, with all its darkness and light, something that we too often forget.

In concert (as on CD), Kurt Elling's rather acerbic, commanding voice is the perfect vehicle for the spoken and sung poetry, and Kate McGarry's pure sweetness is the ideal yang for his yin. While Whitman's words ride comfortably on Hersch's melodies, at times I was reminded of Sondheim, who also starts with the lyrics, and often fashions a kind of bouncy singsong to accommodate them. But Hersch's tunes are always memorable, and I think that Whitman, free spirit that he was, would enjoy this jazzy vision of his poetry.

I can't imagine the task of combing through all 600 pages to distill the heart of this piece; that by itself is a gigantic achievement. It also shows a profound respect for words, which is another thing in short supply these days. I could easily launch into a diatribe about the dumbing-down of education, but I'll spare you that (if you're interested, let me know and I'll e-mail you a copy of one such polemic that I wrote for The Baltimore Sun). For now, I'll just mention the Orwellian tendency of our government to pervert the language— for instance, giving coal companies more leeway to dirty the air and then calling this the "Clear Skies Act." To be fair, the dilution of meaning is widespread (ever see a can of olives marked "mammoth"?). It reminds me of Humpty-Dumpty's insistence that "A word is what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less." As Orwell knew, once you simplify and dilute the language, you diminish people's ability to think; as such, I found it very refreshing that in both the original Leaves and its reincarnation, words are precious and precise and handled with care.

However, the significance of this work goes far beyond any writer's appreciation of its author and editor. For me it's the life-affirming nature of the work, from the heralding trumpets at the beginning to the serenity of "after the dazzle of day" near its close. I keep a copy of the CD in my car, where it calms me through honking traffic and restores my perspective, which can be over-vulnerable to the hassles of everyday life.

Leaves of Grass conveys spirituality at its most basic and uncorrupted: inclusive, embracing and joyful. In closing, I'd like to thank Walt and Fred for this dancing shaft of light which illuminates the "puzzle of puzzles...that we call Being." Bravo!

Photo Credit
Jimmy Katz

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