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"Leaves Of Grass" In Philadelphia

AAJ Staff By

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Fred Hersch Ensemble
Leaves Of Grass Concert
Kimmel Center, Philadelphia
March 12, 2005

The Perelman Theater, at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, was recently graced by the Fred Hersch Ensemble's performance of Leaves Of Grass, Hersch's magnificent rendering of Walt Whitman's poetry into the jazz idiom. As good as Hersch's record is, the concert presented the music with a resonance and vividness that can only happen in a live setting. Thus, on March 12, the music made the audience glow.

With the exception of Gregory Heffernan instead of Erik Friedlander on cello, the Ensemble's personnel was exactly as it appeared on the Leaves Of Grass CD, and they've been playing this music on tour, which meant that the performance was tight and assured. Not only was the band precise, but when the musicians improvised, the rhythm section was responsive as only the best jazz musicians can be. So when drummer John Hollenbeck, playing with both power and finesse, changed rhythms, the band responded with appropriate empathy and swing. And when Kurt Elling, ever the improviser and the explorer, took chances with phrasing, the band was with him, beautifully so.

Among the instrumentalists, everybody played very well. Fred Hersch was quite deferential, probably because he was necessarily busy conducting. But his piano playing was crystalline, and his comping was driving and forceful. Bruce Williamson took a fluid alto solo, swinging solidly over a Latin rhythm, playing quite diffently than he did on the album. Trumpeter Ralph Alessi and trombonist Mike Christianson were also most effective. Christianson's plunger muted solo was very good. Alessi's golden tone shook the rafters; his duet with the scat-singing Elling was haunting. However, it was tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby who really shined. His huge tone filled the hall, and his improvisations were both riveting and wildly imaginative. He has become one of the giants of his instrument.

But overall, it was probably Kate McGarry who was the most memorable performer that night. The acoustics of the Perelman Theater seemed to highlight her lovely voice. She sang with stunning resonance and clarity, and every line was swinging. She and Kurt Elling were an unforgettable vocal combination.

Leaves Of Grass is a stunning work. I believe it is destined for classic stature. And as good as Hersch's CD is, this concert remains something special, something grand, as good a jazz concert as I've seen in a 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.

Visit Fred Hersch on the web.

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