[Dixielandjazz] Jazz & Poetry - Where is Jazz Headed? The Intellectual approach.

Steve barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Wed Mar 16 07:33:28 PST 2005

Well, I know Charlie Suhor is going to love this. The combination of Walt
Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" and music, some of which is jazz.

Hey Charlie, weren't we there in Greenwich Village 50 years ago when this
approach was very popular? Or has that Smokey haze clouded my mind?

Let's see, how can we adapt OKOM to poetry? Maybe with poems like the
Midnight Ride of Paul Revere? Suggestions?

Steve Barbone



Whitman's Magnum Opus, Unfurled for a Jazz Breeze
Extended works of jazz composition, especially those based on a theme, rev
up grant agencies, theater bookers and critics. It is just the automatic
logic of the culture business: good or bad, they are something to talk
about. But it is rare to find a long piece of jazz that really validates its

The pianist and composer Fred Hersch has done it with "Leaves of Grass," an
oratoriolike piece for octet and singers based on Walt Whitman texts. All
the evidence of its craft is on the album version, just released by
Palmetto. Its first complete performance in New York, on Friday night at
Zankel Hall, made clearer how strong and balanced a piece of work it really

Having said that, let's be clear that "Leaves of Grass" is only partly jazz.
Of its 20 discrete pieces (to go by the album's track divisions), many are
in the vein of sophisticated musical-theater composers like Adam Guettel;
some tilt more toward Aaron Copland. A smaller group of them really are
jazz, with little pockets of improvising.

But on a more basic level, "Leaves of Grass" demands a leap of faith that
basically only classical music audiences are used to: hearing venerable old
poetry set in through-composed, nonrepeating streams of modern music.

Two singers were drafted to serve the text: Kate McGarry, a fresh-voiced
singer on the divide of jazz, pop and folk whom we will be hearing more
about soon; and Kurt Elling, who has a decade of work in jazz behind him.
But Ms. McGarry was used mostly for changes of pace. There was much more
here specifically written for Mr. Elling, who is well suited to the run-on,
repetitive, incantatory Whitman: his baritone heats up quickly and keeps
pushing ahead on its own wave of momentum, rather than constantly
readjusting its own dynamics. "Leaves of Grass" brought the best out of Mr.
Elling, who sang with superb pitch, a sense of responsibility and
understanding toward poetic text, and a lot of different smooth and serrated
shadings in his voice.

Mr. Hersch has clearly thought hard about the cadence of Whitman's lines,
and very little in his adaptation sounds forced. Mr. Elling, for his part,
gracefully handled the shifts from singing to poetic recitation, especially
in the long sequence taken from "Song of Myself." Within that sequence, he
read one passage as prose. It begins: "These are really the thoughts of all
men in all ages and lands, they are not/ original with me." Read it out loud
yourself: it is a conversational voice.

Every once in a while I felt Mr. Hersch had thought too hard. A lot of
Whitman's images evoke voices or music, and in certain places Mr. Hersch
literalized them. "The faint tones of the sick" - woozy tenor saxophone
notes. "The slow march play'd at the head of the association" - a snare-drum
march. "Hark, some wild trumpeter" - well, you know. And just before Mr.
Elling recited, "I hear the violoncello," the cellist Greg Heffernan struck
up the opening bars of Bach's cello suite No. 1, to lead back into more of
Mr. Hersch's original writing. That's cute, but Whitman was the opposite of

The work had symmetries and a few well-timed pauses from the singing; one of
them, "At the Close of the Day," a jazz trio piece, came with fascinating
harmonic movement, in the vein of some of Wayne Shorter's or Bill Evans's
ballads. Mr. Hersch has been playing it as a stand-alone tune in clubs, and
it works in that setting as well as it did here.

At a little more than an hour total, "Leaves of Grass" is a manageable
length. I have often experienced audiences palpably losing interest in
long-form jazz pieces well before the finish. This one brought a full house
to its feet. 

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