Fred Hersch plays Leaves of Grass at Jazz at Lincoln Center (concert review)

The brilliant pianist and composer gave a rare performance of his long-form masterwork last week, setting the poetry of Walt Whitman magnificently to music.Before a note was played last Friday night, pianist and composer Fred Hersch went out of his way to secure a little co-operation from the crowd that packed the Appel Room of Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Please, no applause until the music ends, Hersch requested. What was to fill the room for the next 70 minutes — a rare performance of Hersch's Leaves of Grass song cycle — would be best presented and appreciated as a “unified dramatic arc,” uninterrupted by smatterings of clapping, he said.

Of course, he was right. The landmark long-form chamber-jazz piece, which has been performed just a few times before and after the 2005 release of  Hersch's album of the same name, was captivating and uplifting. As expected, Hersch plus his seven-piece ensemble, supporting star vocalists Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry, ennobled the celebration and gravitas of Walt Whitman's titular poetry collection with deep lyricism and musical bravado.  My only complaint is that after 70 minutes quickly passed, I wished that there had been more music.

In the jazz canon, Hersch's Leaves of Grass is a new-millennium masterpiece with an intriguing backstory. In his just-published memoir Good Things Happen Slowly, Fred Hersch dedicates a full chapter to the creation of Leaves of Grass. With characteristic candour, Hersch relates that the ambitious project was at first a blue-sky proposition shared in early 2002 with Robert Rund, his manager. Rund was so good at his job that he was able to line up three performances for the piece in 2003, even though Hersch hadn't committed a note of it to paper. Hersch rose to the challenge and made a stunning creative leap to craft his powerful and memorable work.

Hersch also wrote in his book that at the 2005 Leaves of Grass CD release concert at Carnegie Hall, when he heard McGarry sing his work's opening lines of Whitman's poetry, Hersch was moved almost to tears. In the Appel Room, I knew just how he felt. The combination of her voice and Hersch's music zooms in a listener's vulnerabilities. Indeed, moments after the work's invocation, I was getting a little choked up.

Although Hersch's Leaves of Grass is greater than the sum of its parts, there were circumscribed but impressive contributions by its instrumentalists that popped out of the lush and engrossing larger setting. Whether the material needed propulsive power or a cavalcade of colours, drummer John Hollenbeck met its needs. Nadje Noordhuis, who did not appear on Hersch's album as had most of her peers on stage, subbed ably in the role of what Whitman himself dubbed the “mystic trumpeter.” Tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby added impassioned melodies when the space was afforded. Hersch, who always dazzles in solo and trio settings, only took centre stage during his work's touching ballad At The Close Of The Day.

It was usually Elling or McGarry, conveying Whitman's words with absolute authority and warmth, who kept listeners transfixed. I can only imagine that every heart in the room was making connections between the timeless poetry and their own lives and present circumstances. I have my own reason for taking the work very close to heart, as you may read below. For Hersch, Leaves of Grass, which first cast its spell on him when he studied Whitman while at the New England Conservatory, was a glorious ode to nature, humanity and also love between men. (Hersch who is gay and HIV-positive, has been open about his sexuality and health for decades.) In his book, Hersch also wrote that after 9/11, he found solace in Whitman's art. For its part, the press release for Hersch's concert stresses Whitman's relevance with “the legendary poet's timeless ode to the miracle of nature and openhearted love of all beings seems especially vital in our present socio-political moment.”

Jazz fans are familiar with Eric Dolphy's proclamation: “When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone, in the air, you can never capture it again.” At the same time, Hersch's infrequently performed but continually resonant work makes a strong argument for artistic permanence. Yes, at the rate it's going, its creator and its cohorts will only play it a handful of times every decade, optimally in the splendour of surroundings such as the Appel Room, which afforded listeners a floor-to-ceiling view of Central Park and the bustle of humanity in cars as dusk fell. But just as Whitman's poetry has outlived him well beyond a century, so should Hersch's majestic, intimate, magnificent setting for it.

Bonus: Here's my 2005 review of Hersch's Leaves of Grass album.

Fred Hersch's masterpiece
The Ottawa Citizen 
Sat July 2 2005 
Page: L4 
Byline: Peter Hum 
Leaves of Grass â˜…★★★★

The Fred Hersch Ensemble (Palmetto)

The first sign that Fred Hersch's Leaves of Grass may very well be a classic is impossible to miss: It comes about two minutes into the first track, when Hersch's overture never fails to produce shivers.

That kind of visceral thrill is rare, especially for a somewhat jaded jazz critic. And what's better, it is just the first of many delights that Leaves of Grass generously offers.

Hersch, a 49-year-old New York pianist who has been releasing excellent, varied recordings for nearly two decades, outdoes himself with a deeply ambitious disc that lives up to its aspirations.

Hersch is most renowned for his exceptionally lyrical and adventurous solo and trio work, which respectively graced the Ottawa International Jazz Festival's stages in 1995 and again last year. But with Leaves of Grass, Hersch convened a nonet, including two vocalists, to set selected poems by Walt Whitman to music.

It was a great challenge to turn Whitman's stirring affirmations into songs, but Hersch's music consistently dazzles. It is rich and stirring, with unabashed emotion and the sound of life itself. The mix of a 19th-century poet's transcendent words and his faithful fan's music created more than a century later seems deeply unified, as if together they were a real-time collaboration.

Hersch seems to have chosen exactly the right players for his project, including trumpeter Ralph Alessi, trombonist Mike Christianson, cellist Erik Friedlander, reedmen Bruce Williamson and Tony Malaby, bassist Drew Gress and drummer John Hollenbeck. Throughout, their ensemble playing is gorgeous, maximizing the poignancy and declarative power of Hersch's orchestrations.

Solos bubble in and out of during the 20-song cycle, with Malaby's tenor saxophone standing out for its tender beauty. While Hersch is more architect than star on his own disc, his sumptuous sound is never far away, and his signature plaintiveness is naturally audible in his writing for the horns. Pianistically, he stretches out on his reflective ballad At the Close of the Day.

With Whitman's words so prominent, Hersch's choice of vocalists makes or breaks his project. Fortunately, Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry sing his melodies.

To hear Elling sing Whitman is to think that no one else could do it better. He's the most metaphysical singer in jazz, deeply resonant and able to make the most philosophical narratives seem immediate and profound. Even his wordless vocals in Hersch's opener, The Riddle Song, inspire shivers — such is the strength of his pure, in-the-moment commitment.

Elling's own discs, which mix his own high-minded lyrics with exhilarating scat solos and hipster attitude, are often very good. But Leaves of Grass may be his masterpiece.

McGarry is given less prominence, but she has a striking, clean way of singing and is never less than a dramatic presence.

A word or two about this disc's impact on me, beyond the shivers it still provokes. This spring, when my dying father was hospitalized, Leaves of Grass was the only music I could bear to hear. It alone had the power to console and boost my courage as I drove to the hospital at night.

I hope that you won't have this kind of need for Hersch's disc, or at least not any time soon. Regardless of your circumstances, if you are simply open to beautiful words and music that celebrate life, Leaves of Grass will hit you where you live.