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Fred Hersch : Leaves Of Grass On Record And In Concert

Walt Whitman loved to walk, whether through the teeming streets of mid-19th century New York or the natural environs on its fringe. His poems celebrate the sounds he heard: chattering pedestrians, the clangor of a passing marching band, the robust voices of the opera. In his setting of Leaves of Grass for two voices and octet, Fred Hersch encapsulates the ebullience of Whitman in a single motif, the signature phrase of “Song of Myself”—“I Celebrate Myself!”  The melody moves from the “I” on the tonic up a major seventh, to the syllable “ce-”, just a few vibrations shy of resolution, sustaining that an instant before drifting down the scale to complete the word and landing on the tonal resting point for “myself”. In that declaration resides the germ of Hersch’s monumental cantata, speaking to the restlessness of the soul grounded in self-assurance.

Hersch’s love for the poet’s work dates back to the period 30 years ago when his own identity as a musician and gay man began to take shape. A decade ago he rediscovered the work. Now he has released a recording and toured the country, with virtually the same ensemble presenting the piece live. That tour made a stop in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I caught the show.

Leaves of Grass (Palmetto) transcends the petty distinctions of genre. Hersch draws on the tradition of art song in fashioning pieces that move with the elastic rhythms of Whitman’s verse. The poems defy the limits of conventional song form, and Hersch lets them determine the rhythmic flow with melodies that meander. As they wander, the tunes happen upon all manner of melodic felicities, turns of lyrical wonder like bits of poetry heard in the conversation of strangers. Hersch connects them with great subtlety—the score, I’m certain, would yield much to careful study. The composer’s framework matches the poet’s discursive, organic structure.

The piece springs into action with a leaping declamation by the horns. The voices emerge slowly, wordlessly; first Kate McGarry, then Kurt Elling.  McGarry serves almost as mistress of ceremonies—singing the first full song “Song of the Universal”, then stepping back for Elling who recites “Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand”. Elling has the ten-section “Song of Myself” all to himself. In Elling, Hersch has found the perfect voice and personality for the material. On the recording, he treats the verses like the love songs they are, steeping his vocals in tenderness, culminating in his reading of “The Sleepers”, a touching text that concludes with the words, “They flow hand in hand over the whole earth from east to west as they lie.” Hersch pushes Elling into his upper register, creating a sense of vulnerability and padding the vocals with a soft, almost anxious ostinato in the woodwinds. Tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby contributes a breathy commentary.

As good as Elling sings on the CD—and take it from me as someone who has been cool to his work in the past, it is superb—live he is even better.  At the University of Michigan, the show was staged in a theatrical venue, and it proved to be the perfect space. Elling in particular was at home beneath the proscenium arch. He commanded center stage, adding a theatrical dynamic to the proceedings. Ever the swaggering hipster mystic, he embodied Whitman. His voice pirouetted with the spirit of the poems, bringing an element of understated jocularity to the live performance. It was a show to deposit in the deepest recesses of the memory bank. Not to dismiss McGarry’s contribution; her translucent delivery supplies a cleansing contrast to Elling’s richness. She directs the piece to its climax with her reading of “Spirit That Form’d This Scene”, her delivery touched with anguish. This sets up first the instrumental interlude “On the Beach at Night Alone”, leading to “After the Dazzle of Day” and Elling’s reiteration of the “I celebrate myself” motif echoed by trumpet, a triumphant closing bound to lift audiences to their feet.

Emulating Whitman’s own catholicity, Hersch draws from a cornucopia of Americana sound for the sonic atmosphere with which he swaths the voices. There are marches and waltzes, contemporary jazz with a Latin feel, amorphous free jazz utterances, suave, Ellingtonian crooning. The ensemble—Malaby, Ralph Alessi (trumpet), Bruce Williamson (alto saxophone, clarinets), Mike Christianson (trombone), Erik Friedlander on the CD or Gregory Heffernan live (cello), and Drew Gress (bass)—serves as much a Greek chorus as a pit band, and the score allows each principal a chance to contribute his improvisatory aria. Christianson has some juicy plunger spots behind Elling on the slinky blues setting of “My Lovers Suffocate Me”. Still the ensemble’s role is primarily to support the singers. Hersch’s well-chosen colors shimmer in live performance. The live show also yields even greater appreciation for drummer John Hollenbeck’s ability to shape and color the performance in a firm, yet understated manner.

Though Hersch, Elling, and colleagues have delivered the definitive renditions of this work in both its live performance and the recording, its depths and emotional subtleties beckon other musicians. University or college presentations would serve the useful function of further bridging the ever-narrowing classical-jazz chasm. Hersch has created a new masterwork of vocal literature, one that embraces the diversity of American music. He has also brought to the fore a vigorous expression of the American experience, so much needed in these times of willful reactionary distortions of the American spirit. Leaves of Grass celebrates an all-encompassing spirituality that locates the divine “in the faces of men and women... and in my own face in the glass”, so much needed in these times of sanctimonious palaver. Hersch’s setting of Whitman’s verse serves to remind us that it is as vital and necessary now as it was more than a century ago.