Leaves of Grass finds pianist Fred Hersch and a stellar ensemble of musicians performing Walt Whitman's classic poetry to music. Hersch has long displayed an organic mix of Keith Jarrett's blissed-out focus, Bill Evans' epic patience, and Tommy Flanagan's straight-ahead sense of swing. Combine all that with a deft post-bop harmonicism, classically trained technique, and finally the epic poetry of Walt Whitman and you get this gorgeously cerebral album. Interestingly, Hersch has apple picked from various parts of Leaves of Grass, only including certain parts that truly spoke to him. The result is a semi-classical-sounding oratorio that makes room for spoken word sections, sections done in vocalized song, and outright improvisation. Giving life to Whitman's actual words are singers Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry, who instill each phrase with precision and eloquence. Similarly, Hersch's backing ensemble, including trumpeter Ralph Alessi, tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby, trombonist Mike Christianson, clarinetist Bruce Williamson, cellist Erik Friedlander, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer John Hollenbeck, helps deliver an atmospheric and nuanced backdrop for Whitman's poetry. Hersch's Leaves of Grass will certainly not be to everyone's taste -- poetry and jazz rarely are -- however, as an exercise in combining the two mediums, Hersch has not only succeeded, but also created one of the best albums of his career.
AllMusic Review by Matt Collar