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Fred Hersch: Piano Poetry

Fred Hersch

Pianist Fred Hersch first encountered the poetry of Walt Whitman as a 19-year-old student at the New England Conservatory of Music in 1976. “Whitman’s ‘Calamus’ poems, which are about men loving men, were very powerful for me at age 19, when I was just coming out,” Hersch says. “To know that someone had written about that so beautifully 150 years ago meant a lot to me.”

Hersch continued to read the poet over the years, and there was one memorable moment on a European tour when the homesick musician bought Leaves of Grass in a Parisian bookstore and devoured the 1347-line “Song of Myself” at one sitting. It was then that he realized there was a lot more to Whitman than sexual frankness.

“I responded to his energy, the tumbling momentum of the words, the jazziness of it,” Hersch says. “The fact that this guy was just going for it, that he didn’t really care what anyone else thought. I had a feeling that this was a guy who was just expressing himself with no fear. I was drawn to his appreciation of the moment and his openness to nature and to all kinds of people and experiences. To me these are great American words, period. How I got to them is not important. What’s important is if I found something in those words to express myself through music in a way that connects with listeners.”

So when Hersch decided to set selections of Leaves of Grass to music, he avoided the more parochial poems-the ones about the Civil War, about New York or about the love between men. Instead he focused on the more universal poems and stanzas-those that made explicit references to music, or implied a musical delivery-that emphasized the connection of every part of the world to every other part.

The result is not quite a collection of songs (for Whitman rarely used regular rhyme or meter), not quite a jazz suite (for the ratio of improvisation to composition tilts decidedly in the latter direction) and not quite a classical oratorio (the jazz background of the pianist-composer, the two singers and the seven other musicians makes itself felt in their rhythmic phrasing and spontaneous variations). The CD version of Hersch’s Leaves of Grass (Palmetto) has no obvious precedent, but it does prove that jazz composition and a classic literary text can happily cohabit.

More than half of the 66-minute recording is devoted to selections from Whitman’s epic poem “Song of Myself.” It begins with John Hollenbeck playing a march figure on a snare drum as trumpeter Ralph Alessi, bass clarinetist Bruce Williamson and trombonist Mike Christianson perform an art-music fanfare. “I celebrate myself,” Kurt Elling croons as if he were Frank Sinatra singing a Harold Arlen song, “and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

From these famous first three lines, Hersch skips ahead, with a piano transition, to the 33rd line: “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,” which has a gentle, rolling melody reminiscent of Stephen Foster’s parlor songs. But just as quickly, the music changes again, to an abstract, free-jazz ballad full of cello and clarinet squeaks and unresolved piano chords as Elling declares, “I do not talk of the beginning or the end.”

Hersch skips over more text to introduce the famous line “A child said, ‘What is the grass?’ fetching it to me with full hands,” as a swing-era jazz ballad, complete with piano arpeggios, upright bass, brushes and a whispery baritone vocal. When Elling describes the grass as “the beautiful uncut hair of graves,” the verbal image is extended in pure musical language via a piano-and-clarinet duet. This segues into the poem’s 330th line, “I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,” and this section builds from a piano-trio ballad into a midtempo big-band arrangement that climaxes on “The smallest the same and the largest the same.”

“Leaves of Grass is 600 pages long. I went through the whole thing, marking titles and passages that might work for what I wanted to do. I laboriously typed them all in my computer and printed them out. Then I cut them up, and laid them out on my floor, which was covered in scraps of paper, and I started moving them around. Mostly I went with my gut, saying, ‘This I like and this I don’t.’ That’s the advantage of working with a dead author; there’s no estate to wrestle with. There was no demand that you have to use all of this or you can’t use it at all.”

Setting a published poem to music is an entirely different matter from collaborating with a lyricist on a song. A lyricist is always thinking about rhythm and rhymes and is willing to adjust phrasing to fit the melody. “Ultimately, the whole thing turned out to be very lyrical,” Hersch says, “which was a surprise to me, because in Whitman there is no regular rhyme or meter. So I didn’t expect as many tunes to come out as it did.”

Musical settings of poems-far more common in classical music than in jazz or pop-often strain with the conflict between words and music; the strange melodic intervals and awkward line extensions often destroy any connection between the vocal and normal human speech. Hersch has solved this problem by relying on the elasticity of jazz rhythm, especially in slower tempos, to create a fluidity that mimics informal speech. He then extends that fluidity by bridging most of the vocal sections with instrumental segues or interludes-some improvised, some notated-that lend a unifying continuity to the whole work. The composer balances Elling’s baritone with Kate McGarry’s soprano, the traditional jazz front line of trumpet, trombone and tenor sax (Tony Malaby) with clarinet and cello (Erik Friedlander).

“Kurt has been performing ‘The Sleepers’ in his live show with his trio for the past year,” Hersch says. “That stands on its own as a self-contained piece. But for me the whole CD is one blast from beginning to end; it’s an accumulative piece and there are certain compositional devices that will help the astute listener understand how they’re connected. I wish I could put a sticker on the CD saying, ‘If you decide to listen to this, listen to it all the way through.’ You can’t listen to this like a jazz album, where you can focus on individual tracks. It’s many different poems, but it’s all one piece.

“I began writing this without any model,” the pianist says. “I went into it without saying this has to be a jazzy piece or an Americana piece or an outside piece. It wound up with elements of all those. I like to think of it as a Fred piece.”

Originally Published