Ode to Walt Whitman strikingly experimental yet pleasingly conventional

CHARLESTON – Pianist Fred Hersch has a reputation for challenging and evocative projects. But little can match the depth and profound power of his latest work, the musical recasting of “Leaves of Grass.”
With an ensemble of two brass, two reeds, cello, bass, percussion, piano and two voices, Hersch presented, for only the fourth time anywhere, Walt Whitman’s epic ode to the transcendental spirit of mankind. The performance at the Sottile Theatre was the third installment of the Wachovia Jazz Series.

The music, which Hersch composed, was diverse and abundant – at times Ellingtonian, classical, bluesy – as it was driven by the text. Melodies and rhythm sprang straight from Whitman’s words, allowing the music to sound, at turns, pleasingly conventional (soaring melody, warm harmonic underpinning) and strikingly experimental (unexpected turns of phrase, thrilling shifts in meter).

Hersch’s work is in keeping with the long tradition of “text painting,” which is what Franz Schubert did with his song cycles, for which he composed music reflective of the meaning of the song’s poetry.

In Hersch’s case, this could be as fundamental as a trumpet sounding when Kate McGarry, the female voice, tells of hearing a trumpet.

Mostly this was more nuanced, as when Kurt Elling, the male voice, gave a litany of items (objects, professions, types of people, emotions) and there was a sound (a warm trombone for a lawyer, for instance) from the ensemble somehow indicative of each.

Spoleto USA Festival
What: Wachovia Jazz Series
When: Thursday at 9 p.m.
Where: Sottile Theatre at the College of Charleston

Elling was, perhaps, the best choice to convey Whitman’s unruly prosody. The famed jazz baritone, a six-time Grammy nominee, captured, with grace and ease, the poet’s near schizophrenic personalities and moods, with his compelling range of vocal gifts.

His diction was superb, something Hersch knew would be crucial, allowing him to overcome some of the woollier phrases, such as “the little light fades the immense and diaphanous shadows,” which ring with color and implication but would be mushy in less skilled hands.

Hersch feared his arrangement might be seen as a guy thing, so he was deliberate in adding a female role.

He also didn’t want Elling appearing as a singing Whitman. Indeed, Elling is no equivalent of an Elvis impersonator. The sheer force of his charisma, the gravitational attraction of his stage presence, certainly magnified Whitman but not to an overwhelming degree. Elling was always Elling.

There’s a certain gratifying historical completeness to seeing Whitman get his jazz due. Whitman was a catalyst for poets who followed him – from Carl Sandburg to Henry Miller to Allen Ginsberg to Jack Kerouac.

Hersch thought it important to revisit Whitman at a time when sameness is overvalued and diversity sows the seeds of suspicion. The assertion carries weight. The whole of “Leaves of Grass” is about abundance and variety. He revels in our differences, celebrates our diversity. When he sings of himself, he’s really singing about all of us.

“What I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” he intones in “Song of Myself.”

This is the America that Whitman celebrated. It’s uplifting and it feels good.

Hersch’s adaptation captured this spirit of unblinking, unsentimental togetherness.