Enthralled as he was with the sounds and songs of his 19th century America— from minstrel tunes to Stephen Foster to opera — Walt Whitman, no doubt, would have dug jazz had he hung around for the 20th. Enough of his admirers and disciples certainly did. Take Langston Hughes, a poet whose work reflects America singing and swinging. Sailing to Africa at age 21, Hughes said he tossed a trunk of college books overboard — but kept Whitman’s masterpiece, Leaves of Grass. And the finger-popping beats, as Fred Hersch notes in the liner to his new CD, picked up Whitman’s “strange beauty … his improvisatory language, his freewheeling verse, his subject matter and his irreverence.”
Hersch has been pulled to Whitman several times in his life. At the New England Conservatory in the 1970s, as a young gay man coming out for the first time, Hersch says he found “validation” in Whitman. In the ’90s, by then a successful pianist touring in Paris, Hersch said he was “mysteriously seized with the urge to read Whitman” and, tracking down a copy of Leaves, plowed through the classic “Song of Myself” in a sitting.
And now, with his 10-piece ensemble, Hersch has released his own ambitious Leaves of Grass (Palmetto) with an overture, two instrumental interludes and 17 vocal pieces drawing on Whitman’s 600-page masterpiece. To flip through Whitman’s Leaves alongside Hersch’s libretto is to appreciate the monumental shaping and culling involved in the making of the new album. In “The Sleepers,” for example, he takes the first and third stanzas, then skips pages of text to pull just two more lines to succinctly close with.
Merging poetry and music is almost always more difficult than it seems. And as much as Whitman talked about singing and songs (by one count, he uses variations on sing and song more than 300 times in Leaves) in freeing his verses from predictable rhythms, he also made it harder to corral them to melody. Sometimes Hersch simply lets the words have their way and lets his vocalists — Kurt Elling and, in a secondary role, Kate McGarry — give a straight, unadorned recitation. (In one section, when the rest of the ensemble repeats after Elling, the effect is like some weird liturgy from Church of Walt.) Often, when the words are sung, the cadences remain speech-like, with varying degrees of success, sometimes giving us a Whitman who’s a bit of a blowhard, sometimes decorating the words with too-obvious effects, but often hitting the balance just right.
When he’s cooking, Hersch concocts true songs that leave you humming; lines that don’t seem particularly singable on the page ring in the ear. (How about “Prodigal, you have given me love — therefore I to you give love! O unspeakable passionate love”?) The song “My Lovers Suffocate Me” becomes a low-down bluesy vehicle for Elling. It’s the kind of leap that you wish Hersch had made more often. Couldn’t the bard have one up-tempo smoker?
But that’s less important than what Hersch has achieved. The best songs of his Leaves deserve a life beyond this record and the current tour (with the same fine band as on the disc, by the way) and Whitman’s sesquicentennial year.
8 p.m., Thursday, March 10, Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre (911 North University Ave., Ann Arbor; 734-764-2538).
W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org