The Fred Hersch Ensemble
Leaves of Grass FIVE STARS
As Fred Hersch points out in his liner notes, since the syncopated rhythms of Walt Whitman's poems led directly to the bebop of the Beat Poets, why not set Leaves of Grass to jazz? Selecting 17 passages from Whitman -- 11 of them from Song of Myself -- Hersch adds four horn players, a cellist and two vocalists to his trio to create "a small-scale oratorio." Kate McGarry caresses the spiritual lyrics in "Song of the Universal"; in "The Mystic Trumpeter," she scats with Ralph Alessi, who in turn contributes a cutesy trill on flugelhorn at the outset of "I Celebrate Myself." On "The Sleepers," Whitman's fantasy of universal brotherhood, Tony Malaby's tenor sax complements Kurt Elling's falsetto, with the rhythm section providing a sleepy, minimalist drone. In "A Child Said, 'What Is the Grass?'" Hersch's orchestration soars from tenderness to ecstasy.
Most people, perhaps understandably, will browse over jazz-piano-guy-with-nerdy-name-plus-some-poet and walk on by. But if the Venn diagrams of your interests include Whitman and jazz, why not have them intersect? What I assume, you shall assume; we contain multitudes. So does Leaves of Grass. -- Michael Bowen
Our Shadows Will Remain FOUR STARS
You'd think a guy with an Entertainment Weekly Record of the Year award (for 2000's Come To Where I'm From) would stay the course. Nope. Joseph Arthur moved to New Orleans to work on Our Shadows Will Remain. As a result, he's grown out of the songwriter-with-a-guitar niche; this album is wildly orchestrated -- with drum machines, vocal modulations and even the City of Prague Philharmonic. But it's not overblown. In fact, if he wanted to, Arthur could be a straight-ahead pop songwriter (proven by his contribution to the Shrek 2 soundtrack, "You're So True"). But he's just too tortured an artist (especially on "Stumble and Pain" and "Leave Us Alone") to take that route.
Still, there are plenty of memorable melodies here: "Can't Exist" recalls the raw fun of the Replacements. And "Wasted" could be thrown up on the turntable of any New York dancehall. Some of this stuff is too dark for me, but there's so much going on in these songs that you just keep listening. -- Ted S. McGregor Jr.
Publication date: 2/17/05