It would be an understatement to call Fred Hersch audacious for appending his name to one of the towering achievements of American literature. But rather than come across as impudent, his labyrinthine transfiguration of Walt Whitman’s epic emerged — at this perf, at least — as both radical and respectful, brave and vulnerable, much like “Leaves of Grass” itself.
As on its recorded version (released on Palmetto late last month), Hersch makes no attempt to deflect attention from Whitman’s poetry. His ensemble, supple and confident, invariably deferred to singers Kate McGarry and Kurt Elling, who did a marvelous job of, respectively, channeling the wonderment and sensuality inherent in the text.
McGarry was the more electric of the two, imbuing pieces like the wraithlike “Song of the Universal” with a gymnastic elegance without calling attention to technique for its own sake. Her male counterpart was more of a presence, something of a given, since Hersch was clearly intent on highlighting the male-centric sexual tenor of many of Whitman’s song-poems.
Hersch is normally at his best when he’s the only figure onstage, since his imaginative flights often leave accompanists with a severe case of whiplash. In this context, however, he played the role of shepherd more often than that of lone wolf, coaxing his bandmates on while using his dexterous left hand to fashion fills that were alternately jagged and pillowy.
He did take some solos, which invariably showcased his impeccable rhythmic sense as well as his harmonic sophistication.
Reedmen Tony Malaby and Ralph Alessi exhibited similar grace, the former giving Elling a gauzy bed to stretch out on during “The Sleepers,” and the latter taking an expected but intriguing turn on “The Mystic Trumpeter.”
Program suffered from a bit of an identity crisis, with Hersch culling elements from light opera, straightforward jazz and musical theater; the latter brought the piece an occasional and unwelcome blowsiness. Even in those stretches, however, Hersch’s “Leaves of Grass” left little doubt that it will be appreciated — and dissected — for some time to come