Hersch's Whitman Sampler: Jazz Luminary Fred Hersch Unfurls Leaves of Grass, an Ensemble Vocal Work Based on the Classic Collection by Gay Poet Walt Whitman

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Walt Whitman's message needs to be heard," says out jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch, explaining the thinking behind his new recording, Leaves of Grass (Palmetto). "Whitman's universal message is about love and tolerance--of embracing real freedom to be who you are."

Writing for singers and orchestra, Hersch has composed musical settings of works by the great gay poet, releasing his own Leaves of Grass CD to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Whitman's landmark collection Leaves of Grass.

"What surprised me the most was how ultimately lyrical this whole work is, because in Whitman there is no rhyme and no meter," says Hersch, who wrote his Leaves in just six weeks. "I'm pleased that I was able to extract as many songs as I could--you know, tunes."

A seamless flow of 20 musical numbers, Leaves of Grass is Hersch's most ambitions undertaking to date. It's being performed in concerts around the country by jazz vocalists Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry with an ensemble of eight players, led by Hersch at the keyboard.

The music is tuneful indeed--even lush. Particularly soulful is "The Mystic Trumpeter," a haunting duet for trumpet and soprano, while "Song of Myself' is a tour de force for Elling. …