Fred Hersch / Kurt Elling / Kate McGarry: Leaves of Grass

Robert R. Calder

On the eve of his 50th birthday Fred Hersch doesn't so much celebrate Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass -- or Whitman or even himself -- as indulge feelings alien to performing the text.

Fred Hersch / Kurt Elling / Kate Mcgarry

Leaves of Grass

Label: Palmetto
US Release Date: 2005-02-22
UK Release Date: 2005-03-07
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Pace Walt Whitman, I really don't know what I celebrate myself could really mean. There's something to be said for Louis Simpson's line (from the poem "Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain"):

the open road leads to the used car lot.

The overture to Fred Hersch's interpretation of Whitman's texts is nice, in a sort of Tender Land idiom for chamber brass ensemble with piano, bass and drums. I've been wanting to hear Tony Malaby's tenor saxophone for some time now, but he gets little to do here. Instrumental solos are rare, apart from, say, the walk-on or play-on part of Ralph Alessi as "The Mystic Trumpeter". Hersch sounds more interesting when steering the ensemble through the overture than when performing a later solo interlude. He has long since demonstrated his considerable qualities as a pianist and jazzman, and there are more signs of ability here, even without this being a terribly distinguished musical setting for poetry, or an adequate performance of same.

Nobody ought to mistake this for a jazz recording. There's no doubting Hersch's melodic creativity or his command of an American concert idiom amenable to performance by a chamber ensemble, whether of a jazz or European chamber wind ensemble instrumentation. (This performance's more-or-less jazz-based group bridges nicely between the two without any of the common clumsiness of instrumental style). Making no comment about Hersch's selection of passages from the massive (some would say inordinate) length of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, there's still doubt about the stylistic relationship between the literary material and the composed music, and there's worse than doubt about the performance.

Composers who perform their own works can at times be so concerned with what they want to get across as to skew things at odds with the written score. That can have amazingly positive results, as where Elgar turned on his symphonies in recording performances for the gramophone in the 1920s. The result is staggering, the very opposite of complacency. This performance, however, is not the opposite of complacency.

Kurt Elling, in his jazz vocalist manner, actually gives the impression of credulousness as he sings or recites in conversational speech the texts selected. There is more to setting any libretto, from wherever, than organizing background music to a fluent intonation of the words, and stringing them on however nice a tune, as if they weren't a literary or poetic text but an object of affection.

Here too the words are decidedly problematic in respect to any attempt at a straight performance in non-archaic style. "Barbaric yawp" plainly doesn't commend itself to Hersch as any kind of characterization of Whitman. The phrase may fit less well than a reference to unashamed lyrical and rhapsodic bombast, but Whitman's language does seem an ocean away from the, at times, very intimate and even confiding performance here.

Imagine Mel Torme -- or dare I say Sinatra? -- singing in his wonted style:

"A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,
The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full."

Kurt Elling's vocalization is similarly for the day-to-day, informal, conversational, even confiding -- not Whitman's long-breathed afflatus with its sweeping line. No music can mediate these words satisfactorily to Ellen's manner on this set, because the one dates the other: each one's limits exclude the other -- except when considered very superficially. George London managed much better with Hindemith's setting of Whitman long ago. He was a singer stylistically at home in both the middle nineteenth and the later twentieth centuries, and able to handle the words' mood and vocabulary.

A private recording of Benjamin Britten's tenor sidekick Peter Pears singing from the Great American Songbook (with Julian Bream chugging away on guitar -- it happened at a party) affords suggestions of idiom. That may not be what Fred Hersch wants, but I'm suggesting that what he has here won't do.

With what she has to sing here, the soprano Kate McGarry is more successful than the jazz baritone Elling. That probably owes something to the specific character of her voice. Then again, indeed as Hersch observes in his acknowledgments, Ms. McGarry's music was worked-on earlier with the aid of England's amazing Norma Winstone.

This sort of song cycle with a more-or-less jazz band has been something of an English specialty over the past decades, with Michael Garrick (himself a wonderful pianist), John Dankworth (with his wife Cleo Laine, a contralto who also sings falsetto) and Mike and Kate Westbrook all contributing to the tradition. There had to be recognition of the problems which occurred at a basic level and broadly when over sixty years ago a tribute song to Joe Louis was recorded by the Count Basie orchestra with Paul Robeson. And how does such a stock stage musical, as was made of Sunset Boulevard, relate to the grim original except by way of stale stylization?

Elling singing and speaking Whitman somehow lacks credibility, or at least asks for a more sympathetic than critical hearing. The latter, however, is what really matters.


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