Whitman’s ‘Leaves’ Turned Into Music

When pianist Fred Hersch set out to compose an extended piece inspired by Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” there was one specific voice he had in mind.
Though they had never worked together before, Hersch conceived of his most ambitious project as a perfect vehicle for vocalist Kurt Elling, the most flamboyantly creative male jazz singer to emerge in the past decade. It wasn’t just that the Chicago baritone was a poetry fanatic and an accomplished lyricist. Hersch knew that Elling had the presence to deliver Whitman’s most ecstatic verse and the chops to handle the hybrid composition, which flows from jazz to Copelandesque soundscapes to open improv to sensuous word painting.

“I pretty much had Kurt Elling in mind from the very beginning,” Hersch says in a phone interview from his Manhattan apartment. “I really respect his musicianship, his diction. When you’re singing lines like ‘I celebrate myself’ and ‘I sing myself,’ you have to own it. I could have gone the direction of more classical singers, but I wanted people to really hear the words.”

Hersch composed “Leaves” in early 2003 at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, with the support of a Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, and premiered the piece at Western Michigan University in March of the same year. He’s presented it a handful of times since then, including at last year’s Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C., and recorded it in October for the independent jazz label Palmetto. In the only West Coast appearance on a six- date tour that includes stops at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center and Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, “Leaves” makes its California premiere tonight at Herbst Theatre as part of the concert series celebrating the 25th anniversary of San Francisco Performances.

“I think Fred is one of the most gifted musicians,” says San Francisco Performances President Ruth Felt, who has presented Hersch in a wide variety of contexts over the past decade, including a joyous collaboration with choreographer Bill T. Jones, “Out Someplace”; a piano duo with Jeffrey Kahane; and solo recitals. “When he approached me with this project, it was a new direction for him, and I was intrigued. He sent me some excerpts, and I thought it would be an ideal event for our 25th anniversary.”

“Leaves” is written for a 10-piece chamber jazz ensemble balanced between brass, woodwinds and strings. It’s a group ideally suited to navigate Hersch’s hybrid composition, with Ralph Alessi on trumpet and flugelhorn; trombonist Mike Christianson; Bruce Williamson on clarinet, alto sax and bass clarinet; Tony Malaby on tenor sax; Greg Heffernan on cello; and vocalist Kate McGarry. Rounding out the rhythm section are bassist Drew Gress, a longtime Hersch collaborator, and drummer John Hollenbeck, both members of the extraordinary new music/jazz group Claudia Quintet.

Culled from the 600 pages of “Leaves of Grass,” the Whitman masterwork first published 150 years ago, the piece is constructed as a seasonal cycle, opening with a spring invocation, “Song of the Universal,” sung by McGarry.

The heart of the piece is a 35-minute section delivered by Elling, “Song of Myself,” but in the second half, opening with the improvisational segment “The Mystic Trumpeter,” the balance tips back to McGarry — a very deliberate decision on Hersch’s part.

“I felt that Whitman could turn into a very guy thing,” he says. “The way the piece is structured, the female presence is more in the second half, where there’s more improvisation, and it’s more reflective and intimate.”

In discussing his passion for Whitman, Hersch is quick to dispel any notion that he was drawn to the poet by their shared sexual orientation. As one of the most high-profile gay musicians in jazz, Hersch hasn’t shied away from projects that called attention to his orientation or his HIV-positive status.

Producing a series of benefit CDs for Broadway Cares/Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS — most recently “Two Hands, Ten Voices,” an album of duets between Hersch and a striking array of female vocalists — he’s played a major role in bringing jazz musicians into the fight against AIDS. But composing “Leaves” was a matter of inspiration and stretching his creative wings rather than claiming Whitman as a gay icon.

“What was risky for me was tackling an evening-length work,” Hersch says. “They’re great words, and it has nothing to do with Whitman being gay and me being gay or any of that (stuff). I think Whitman is a great American force. There’s a connection between Whitman and the Beat poets, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Jack Kerouac. Whitman embraced democracy in a really good way. I think at this moment in history it’s important to hear what he had to say.”

As the spiritual forefather of the Beats, Whitman was also an irresistible draw for Elling, who first started gaining attention as a chance- taking artist with a strong literary bent in the mid-’90s. Inspired by vocalist Mark Murphy’s interpolation of seminal Beat texts on his 1981 Muse album “Bop for Kerouac,” Elling has created a dynamic vocal approach in which verse and prose comfortably intermingle with lyrics and scatting.

Elling’s literary aspirations have led to some fascinating multimedia collaborations with artists at Chicago’s renowned Steppenwolf Theatre. He put together a show drawing on Ginsberg’s poetry, and another exploring the different artistic currents of Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. In 2002 he presented a collaboration with Terry Kinney, who founded Steppenwolf with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, called “Grand Obsessions and Petty Delusions,” in which he deconstructed the lyrics of standards like “All of You.” Although his projects can be cerebral, Elling’s singing always packs an emotional wallop, drawing direct inspiration from Chicago saxophone titans such as Johnny Griffin, Eddie Harris, Von Freeman and Ira Sullivan.

While his jazz persona is in the foreground throughout “Leaves,” the project draws on his earlier training in European classical music.

“It makes me think of a small-scale oratorio, which is really the way it comes off,” Elling says from Los Angeles, after attending the Grammys in his capacity as a top official of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. “It’s one of the more organic, elegant examples of that. Fred has really tailored his work so nicely to Whitman’s words. It isn’t so much a juxtaposition as a logical and beautiful extension of the poetic idea. The sections have such coherence and deliberate compositional integrity, they almost pronounce themselves.”