“Whitman and his universal message of love and tolerance and embracing real freedom needs to be heard,” says the gay jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch, discussing his new recording “Leaves of Grass” (Palmetto).
The disc features musical settings of the great gay poet Walt Whitman and coincides with the 150th anniversary of the first publication of the landmark collection “Leaves of Grass.”
“Just as Whitman is eclectic, the music covers a lot of territory,” says Hersch, who wrote the piece in a mere 6 weeks. “What surprised me the most was how ultimately lyrical this whole work is, because in Whitman there is no rhyme and no meter. I’m pleased that I was able to extract as many songs as I could – you know tunes!”
A seamless flow of twenty musical numbers, “Leaves of Grass” is Hersch’s most ambitious undertaking to date. The composition was commissioned, in part, by the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS. Performances on disc and in concerts around the country this month are by jazz vocalists Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry with an ensemble of 8 players, led by Hersch at the keyboard.
The music is tune indeed – even lush. Particularly soulful is “The Mystic Trumpeter,” a haunting duet for trumpet and soprano, while “Song of Myself” is a substantial tour de force for Elling. In fact, the work as a whole is more on the scale of an oratorio, such as Handel’s “Messiah,” than any typical jazz recording.
Such departures from expectations are typical of Hersch, who’s next disc, due later this year, will be with operatic soprano Renee Fleming.
“I’m not your cookie cutter jazz pianist, I’m not your cookie cutter composer. I’m pretty much Fred,” he says. “I’ve reached the point as an artist where I am myself.”
Hersch may have become a singular artist, but he’s also a newly “married” man. Last October he exchanged vows in New York with Scott Morgan, a non-profit executive. The two met at Birdland, a jazz club in midtown Manhattan.
“We were there to hear someone else. I was introduced from the stage and he came up to me… that led to e-mails and a first date,” says Hersch.
Himself a trained musician, Morgan is currently studying jazz piano and has even tried his hand at selections from “The Fred Hersch Fake Book,” a collection of Hersch’s best known songs.
“It took him a little while to be comfortable practicing in front of me. I give him tips sometimes,” says Hersch. “It think it’s really sweet.”