In the process, he has continued to pursue the impulses directed by his incessant creative curiosity. Once again, Hersch has proven to be as unpredictable and artistically undaunted as ever. It seems that Hersch considers an idea (like his jazz/classical melding within Red Square Blue or his extensive solo interpretations of wide-ranging material); refines it with painstaking precision; and then executes his vision with equally explorative musicians and singers. Importantly, Hersch does include singers in his works as appropriate. For example, he recognized the until-then underappreciated talents of Andy Bey and invited Bey to sing on Passion Flower, Hersch’s CD tribute to Billy Strayhorn, several years before the jazz critics lionized Bey.
Hersch’s putting-to-music of Walt Whitman’s master work, Leaves Of Grass, follows the same process. Hersch has been inspired by Whitman’s poetry for years, ever since he was a student at the New England Conservatory of Music and especially after the poet’s works relieved Hersch’s boredom during a tour in Paris. The idea of recording the poetry as jazz has been gestating ever since. The refinement? Hersch has been scheduling Leaves Of Grass concerts for the past two years, involving available musicians as well as Kurt Elling and Norma Winstone. In addition, the overture to Leaves Of Grass, "A Riddle Song," was the first track on Hersch’s CD, Fred Hersch Trio + 2, and some of the musicians from that Palmetto CD return again on Leaves Of Grass. In fact, the roots of Leaves Of Grass could extend to Hersch’s one-of-a-kind work with Janis Siegel, Short Stories, which also reflected on the human condition through narrative music.
But listeners who expect Whitman’s poetry to be converted to jazz swing will be disappointed. Shrewdly, respectfully, Hersch makes the poetry the centerpiece of Leaves Of Grass, as it should be, and he fits the melodies to the cadence of Whitman’s words. Faced with the daunting task of boiling 500 pages of poetry down to over an hour of music, Hersch laid out dozens of pages of poetry, sang the lines, and, unrestricted by the legal demands of Whitman’s estate, mixed and matched poems according to their cadence and consistency.
One of the revelations of Hersch’s foreshortened version of Leaves Of Grass is the musical allusions contained in Whitman’s poetry. "The Mystic Trumpeter" from the "From Noon To Starry Night" section couldn’t have been a more perfect platform for trumpeter Ralph Alessi, commenting musically upon the words sung by Kate McGarry: "Hark, some strange trumpeter, some strange musician.../Now pouring, whirling like a tempest around me./ Now low, subdued, now in the distance lost." Even without hearing Alessi, one can imagine the sound of the trumpet through Whitman’s vivid description.
The other vocalist, Kurt Elling, is a natural for the project, so much so that it’s hard to imagine another contemporary male jazz singer with the same degree of appropriate innate talent for the delivery of poetry, since many of Elling’s own recordings combine poetry with jazz singing. While Elling can sing poetry with the depths of meaning that Hersch intended, his volume rising to emphasize certain phrases like "these formless wild arrays" in "Spirit That Form’d This Scene," he can seamlessly move into swing at the slightest suggestion. On "A Learner With The Simplest...," Elling makes work the spoken canonical structure that Hersch wrote as workers’ descriptions are overlaid successively for accumulative emphasis.
Teachers, take heed, though. Hersch doesn’t avoid the sensual nature of much of Whitman’s poetry, though the most controversial of it remains omitted. Indeed, Whitman’s "Calamus" poems are what attracted Hersch initially to the poetry. "My lovers suffocate me...,/Coming naked to me at night." Or: "I wander all night in my vision...,/Bending with open eyes over the shut eyes of sleepers./The sleepers are very beautiful as they lie unclothed./They flow hand in hand over the whole earth.... ." "The Sleepers," like all of the other abbreviated poems that Hersch incorporates into his version of Leaves Of Grass, includes the lines that appeal to the musician and omits lines like: "The gash’d bodies on battle-fields, the insane in their strong-door’d rooms, the sacred idiots, the new-born emerging from gates, and the dying emerging from gates,/The night pervades them and infolds them."
And yet, in contrast to the sensuality and morbidity as evidence of his confounding perplexity, Whitman can evoke the wonder of a child, particularly in the somewhat eponymous poem, when he answers a child asking him the definition of grass: "I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord.../Or I guess the grass is itself a child./And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves./I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise." Paradoxically, despite the controversy of Walt Whitman, he is one of the most unabashedly American of poets as well, striking a chord with U.S. readers as he describes the nation’s energy and industry. Criticized for his unblushing descriptions of everyday life in America, the good with the bad, the scandalous with the heroic, Whitman is no Carl Sandburg, that's for sure. Nonetheless, Whitman often is quoted in schools for his patriotic poetry like "I Hear American Singing" or "O Captain! My Captain!" his elegy written upon the assassination of Lincoln.
As Hersch brings to musical life the poetry, or at least the selected portions of Whitman’s oeuvre, he remains in large part in the background, allowing the singers to call attention to the arresting nature of Whitman’s poetry. Occasionally, though, Hersch does come forth into the spotlight, his now-well-recognized sound playing the interlude of "At The Close Of Day" with Drew Gress on bass and John Hollenbeck on drums, backed lightly by horns and wordless voices. The assemblage of musicians does let loose on the jazziest of the arrangements, "The Sleepers" in a flowing meter of three, especially when tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby lets loose a soft pillowy solo consistent with Elling’s light upper-register delivery of the words.
Now that Hersch’s version of Leaves Of Grass is done, he probably will move on to the next project that he has been refining, he being an artist who continues to move forward with new ideas instead of revisiting the past of his career. But Leaves Of Grass as impressive in its aesthetic synthesis as was Hersch’s jazz collaboration with the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Out Someplace may yet become his most widely recognized album, as the libraries of communities, schools, universities and English literature departments stock it for the studied appreciation of literary intellectuals who may know little or nothing about jazz.