Fred Hersch and Kurt Elling: Poetic Collaboration at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival

The tenth annual Healdsburg Jazz Festival was my third. And it won’t be my last. Amidst the wineries, bike trails, rolling hills and galleries of Sonoma County, Jessica Felix and company have been putting on one of the nation’s finest, if one of the least hyped, jazz festivals. For the tenth anniversary, many past performers returned, a cast as compelling as any at Monterrey, Montreal, or Montreux. The second weekend boasted the likes of Cedar Walton, Billy Hart, Joshua Redman, Bobby Hutcherson, Charlie Haden, Kenny Barron and Bobby Watson. Not able to spend ten days in such surroundings, I opted for the first weekend (May 30-31), featuring the Charles Lloyd Quartet/Trio and, most intriguing, the Fred Hersch Trio with Kurt Ellling.
I don’t remember when I first became a true believer in the art of Fred Hersch. He’s the “pianists’ pianist,” a mentor and teacher to many of today’s most accomplished artists while his own performance chops are often overlooked by general audiences even if highly acclaimed by critics. A master of nuance, an oblique interpreter, and inventive composer, Fred has particularly worked creatively with vocalists. His setting of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was his first collaboration with vocalist nonpareil Kurt Elling, an interaction delightfully reprised this night in Santa Rosa. Elling, in addition to his physical control and emotional power, has vaulted to the top of the kingdom of jazz singers, his generation’s answer to Jon Hendricks and Mark Murphy, an inventive interpreter and lyricist who has given new life to not only Walt Whitman but to such diverse works as “Body and Soul” and John Coltrane’s “Resolution.” I’ve seen Hersch at Jazz Standard in Manhattan, the Artists Quarter and Orchestra Hall in the Twin Cities; Elling at Birdland and back home at the Dakota in Minneapolis. To see them together, I didn’t question my choice to attend the festival’s first weekend.

The first set belonged to the Fred Hersch Trio, his usual configuration on record, featuring the often astonishing drummer Nasheet Waits and Hersch’s new bassist, John Hebert. They opened with Fred’s tribute to Kenny Wheeler, “A Lark,” a romantic, lilting waltz, then moved into an instrumental rendition of “At the Close of the Day” from Leaves of Grass. Here the lyrical piano was counterbalanced by the crackling, sheet metal sound of Wait’s brushwork, the cymbals barely audible. Waits, like Hersch, is a master of subtlety—he coaxes sound with a mere look at his apparatus, and the threesome collaborated to surround the listener in goosedown. Fred’s intricate piano lines created “Sad Poet” in tribute to Antonio Carlos Jobim, while Waits alternated sticks and mallets, often using one of each. The Brazilian mood continued, evoking the joy of carnival with Egberto Gismonti’s “Free Flying.” I was expecting Monk but Hersch went with two Ornette Coleman compositions, albeit “Forerunner” was given a Monkish wash in dissonant notes and hesitating rhythms, repeating phrases and slippery exchanges between bass and drums. “Lonely Woman” was presented in tandem with the Miles Davis/Bill Evans classic, “Nardis,” featuring dischordant piano lines and explosive percussion. The trio closed out the set with a yin and yang presentation of two great standards, the Sammy Cahn/Jules Styne “Some Other Time” and Irving Berlin’s “Change Partners.” The former found Hersch at his most Evanescent elegance, the latter a fractured rearrangement yielding a modern masterpiece. Yet the best was to come in the second set.

The second set opened and closed with piano/voice duets. Fred’s “Stars” was a prophetic exchange—surely the “stars” were aligned in perfect harmony this evening. The simple melodic line, elaborated first by Hersch and then by Elling, gave ample space for each musician to display his genius in phrasing. The closing tune, originally Fred’s instrumental “Valentine” transformed by Norma Winstone’s lyrics as “A Wish,” was a beautiful finale, the sympathetic team of Hersch and Winstone now transferred to the equally compelling Hersch and Elling, the pianist’s pianist meeting the singer’s singer. Expectedly, the full quartet performed from Leaves of Grass, here the most beautiful “The Sleepers” with Hebert’s basslines in counterpoint to Elling’s dramatic gestures of voice and hands, with Hersch’s closing bars the most exquisite sounds of the night. Perhaps equally anticipated, Elling presented his vocalese masterpiece based on Dexter Gordon’s sax solo on “Body and Soul.” It’s a feat of endurance, vocal dexterity and acapella accuracy for Elling, as well as an opportunity to hear Hersch’s abstract comping and Waits’ full-throttle soloing. Two not-so-standards filled out the set, “You Are Too Beautiful” where Elling managed five notes for each syllable, and “Bye Bye Blackbird” where both Hersch and Elling evoke horns, Kurt through his abstract vocal scatting, Fred through his own sax-simulated phrasing; Hebert’s glissando evoked a talented vocalist while Elling engaged Waits in call and response.

Poetry transcends form. Fred Hersch and Kurt Elling, whether reinterpreting Walt Whitman or inventing language in the moment, are complementary instruments, contrapuntal minds, weavers tying souls together with silken thread.