In a unique jazz performance set to the poetry of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” Ann Arbor will be one of only six cities to experience the Fred Hersch Ensemble live. The concert, which will take place Thursday at 8 p.m., is the first time in Hersh’s career that he has paired his music with poetry.

Music Reviews
Fred Hersch leads his band this Thursday at the Mendelssohn Theater. (Courtesy of UMS)

No stranger to the world of jazz, the tour marks the release of Hersh’s third album with Palmetto Records, but with more than 20 solo or bandleader albums and nearly 100 other recordings as a sideman or featured soloist, Hersch, both the composer and pianist of the work, has been a professional jazz artist for 30 years.

Hersch chose specific poems based on what he calls in a written statement sentiments of “appreciation of the present moment, wonder at the miracle of nature in all its forms, freedom to be oneself and express that openly, and above all, open-hearted love of all beings.”

Ironically, Hersch, who is openly homosexual, chose not to use the “Calamus” poems — commonly known also as the “gay poems.” He also decided to leave out some of Whitman’s most famous works, such as “O Captain, My Captain” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

He decided to put “Leaves of Grass” to music shortly after reading one of Whitman’s poems, “Song of Myself.” “The words of Walt Whitman remain extraordinarily relevant today. They sound so contemporary that it is hard to believe many of the texts I have set to music were written more than 150 years ago,” Hersh said.

Performing alongside Hersch at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater will be an eight-piece band and two vocalists, Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry. Elling is a six-time Grammy Award nominee. The band is composed of several musicians from Hersch’s recent release.

Hersch said of the piece, “For those who have not spent time with ‘Leaves of Grass,’ I hope this piece will make you curious to do so,” Hersh said. “For those who know and love these words already, I hope my musical interpretation will allow you to consider them in a different light.”


Fred Hersch Ensemble

Thursday, March 10 at 8 p.m.


At the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater

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