May 2005

The Fred Hersch Ensemble - Leaves of Grass
Palmetto Records PM 2107
Format: CD
Released: 2005

by Eric Hetherington

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ****

Taking cues from jazz and classical idioms, Fred Hersch’s Leaves of Grass might best be described as a jazz oratorio. Composer-pianist Hersch is joined by an unlikely writing partner: Walt Whitman, the great 19th-century American poet. Hersch selected the lyrics for his music from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. He does a remarkable job selecting from Whitman’s prodigious output to arrive at an hour-long suite of music. The result is a potent combination of American poetry and music.

Hersch is joined by six instrumentalists and two singers, Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry. All of the musicians perform admirably, but Elling stands out. He approaches Whitman’s words as though he personally owns them, which is crucial to the success of this music. This approach is exemplified by his forceful pronouncement of "I celebrate myself." Some of the pieces have a mellow, lush sound, but other tracks, such as Parts IV and VI of "Song of Myself," come out swinging, revealing the composer’s jazz background.

This serious music demands your attention. It won’t end up as the soundtrack for a morning exercise, but it might be perfect for unwinding at the end of the day. The recording reveals a decent soundstage and deep bass, but it is slightly drier and more sterile than I would prefer. It does not offer the "you are there" realism many of us crave.

Fred Hersch’s composition lives up to the ambition and confidence it took to turn the work of a great poet into music. In his liner notes Hersch states that he hopes his work will lead people to read or re-read Whitman. Whether it succeeds in that regard or not, Fred Hersch’s Leaves of Grass is wonderful music.