I’ve known of the jazz pianist Fred Hersch for a number of years, but in general I’m not very interested in jazz, so I rarely listen to it, with the exception of certain singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Cleo Laine. Hersch is somewhat unusual in jazz circles, being not only openly gay, but being HIV-positive for more than fifteen years. His HIV status informs his music, and he is well regarded in all his work for his imagination of his playing and compositions. In the past couple of months I’d read several articles about his latest CD, “Leaves of Grass,” settings of poems from Walt Whitman’s magnum opus of the same title. The songs are for two vocalists (Kate McGarry and Kurt Elling and a ten-member ensemble. Fred Hersch directs and plays the piano.
As a classical musician I would put “Leaves of Grass” into the “jazz song cycle” category. The songs are related in both literary and musicial thematic material. Some of the songs are more successful than others. “Why Should I Wish to See God” is my favorite of the set. On the other hand, the setting of “The Mystic Trumpeter” is cheesy, with obvious “musical text painting” trumpet sputtering in the background. The stronger songs outweight the duds, however, and I recommend this disk to jazz lovers as well as those like me who don’t really like jazz but are interested in the expansion of the concept of the song cycle.