The Fred Hersch Ensemble: Leaves of Grass (2005)
For Leaves of Grass, pianist/composer Fred Hersch has set the poetry of Walt Whitman to music. Without a doubt that this is a very great record. Hersch's compositions, which showcase the singing of Kurt Elling (mostly) and Kate McGarry, are jazz, but, happily, they are not otherwise easily classifiable. They bring a modern post-bop drive to Walt Whitman's celestial verse, thanks in large part to John Hollenbeck's drumming. Fortunately, Whitman's speech-like cadences easily lend themselves to swinging.
One could point out highlights on Leaves of Grass. However, the entire work flows as a unified, organic piece, with the motives that assert themselves in "After The Dazzle Of Day" demonstrating their growth from "A Riddle Song" and "Song Of the Universal." And Whitman's expansive poetry links him to a universe pulsating with joyous life. So this music also pulsates, swings, if you will, and it embraces multitudes: rhythmic variety from Latin to some 4/4 swing with dancing (not walking) bass; superb Tricky Sam is now plunger-muted trombone by Mike Christianson. The horn solos are uniformly wonderful and full of wonder. Ralph Alessi, surely a giant on today's scene, displays flexible tonal mastery, climaxing "After The Dazzle Of Day" with a shining sound. Like Kurt Elling, he must be heard here. Bruce Williamson contributes some wailing alto, and Tony Malaby, another giant arising, plays some breathy, memorably warm tenor. And Erik Friedlander adds profoundly masterful cello work.
In fact, this could be considered as a memorable Kurt Elling record; he is that good here. Leaves of Grass might be his best recorded performance ever. He sings Whitman's words as if he wrote them himself. His singing on this recording is indispensible. Plainly put, Leaves of Grass is indispensible.
Track Listing: A Riddle Song (overture); Song of the Universal; Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand; Song of Myself: Part I ("I Celebrate Myself"); Part II ("A Child Said, 'What is the Grass'"); Part III ("A Learner With the Simplest"); Part IV ("I Exist as I Am"); Part V ("I Am He That Walks"); Part VI ("Through Me Forbidden Voices"); Part VII ("Now I Will Do Nothing But Listen"); Part VIII ("I Believe a Leaf of Grass"); Part IX ("I Fly Those Flights"); Part X ("My Lovers Suffocate Me"); Part XI ("Why Should I Wish to See God"); The Mystic Trumpeter; At the Close of the Day (instrumental); To You/Perfections; The Sleepers; Spirit That Form'd This Scene/On the Beach at Night Alone; After the Dazzle of the Day
Personnel: Fred Hersch, piano, music; Raplh Alessi, trumpet, flugelhorn; Mike Chistianson, trombone; Bruce Williamson, clarinet, alto sax, bass clarinet; Tony Malaby, tenor sax; Erik Friedlander, cello; Drew Gress, bass; John Hollenbeck, drums, percussion; Kate McGarry, voice; Kurt Elling, voice.