Personnel: Fred Hersch (piano); Fred Hersch; Bruce Williamson (clarinet, alto clarinet, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, bass saxophone); Drew Gress (bass instrument); Kate McGarry, Kurt Elling (vocals); Erik Friedlander (cello); Tony Malaby (tenor saxophone); Ralph Alessi (trumpet, flugelhorn); Mike Christianson (trombone); John Hollenbeck (drums, percussion).
Audio Mixers: Fred Hersch; Matt Balitsaris; A.T. Michael MacDonald.
Liner Note Author: Fred Hersch.
Recording information: Avatar Studios, New York, NY (10/05/2004/10/06/2004).
Editor: A.T. Michael MacDonald.
Fred Hersch has consistently proven himself to be not only an adroit, imaginative pianist, but also a captivating interpretive talent. While many jazz musicians are content to rework the same standard tunes year after year, Hersch has applied himself to composers diverse as Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lennon & McCartney, and Bill Evans. With LEAVES OF GRASS, Hersch's compositional gifts take a front seat--he's recorded original material before, but never on the scale of LEAVES.
With LEAVES, Hersch sets the classic poetry of Walt Whitman to music, in a sprawling multi-part suite or (in classical-music terms) oratorio for a medium-sized group and two singers. Those expecting "swing" in Hersch's usual classy manner may be a bit disappointed--Hersch is rather subdued, with swing supplanted by pointed, quirky ensemble writing recalling two major American composers named Charles (Ives and Mingus). Kurt Elling's singing is front-and-center, alternately wailing and sailing like a jazz vocalist and thundering with the authority and depth of an opera singer. LEAVES OF GRASS is a commanding listen, but well worth it for those treasuring Whitman's poems and Hersch's inventive compositions.
Down Beat (p.66) - 4 stars out of 5 - "While the cadence of Whitman's words often take the singer far from his swinging comfort zone, the direct nature of his delivery and innate theatricality allow him to embody the lyrics."
JazzTimes (pp.72-3) - "[T]he poems seem to grow from and reflect upon one another as the music gracefully shifts between awestruck pastorales, proud celebrations and magical nocturnes, with a few flickers of genre thrown in along the way."