Kenan Auditorium was graced by the soulful words of Walt Whitman reinvented in music by the Fred Hersch Ensemble. This was the last performance in the 2018-19 series UNCW Presents. The series has been bringing imaginative and top-quality programming in the past couple of years and is becoming another jewel in Wilmington’s rich cultural life. High points this season have been appearances by the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Silk Road Ensemble (reviewed in Winston-Salem the following night).

The performance by the Fred Hersch Ensemble turned out to be another high point. The career of Hersch has spanned about 40 years to date. One of America’s prominent jazz pianists and composers, he has recorded dozens of compositions, and received many awards and Grammy nominations.

Hersch has had a decades-long engagement with Whitman’s classic Leaves of Grass. The centerpiece of Hersch’s setting is “Song of Myself,” a work whose themes speak strongly to us today, perhaps more than they spoke to Americans when they were written: “appreciation of the present moment, wonder at the miracle of nature in all its forms, freedom to be oneself…,” as expressed eloquently in the program notes. From Hersch’s first reading of the poem, nearly 30 years elapsed until the 2005 premiere of the work heard tonight.

It is a work of great beauty. With settings of 20 poems, the piece unfolds through composed sections with jazz solos interspersed. Hersch conducted from the piano, and the result was tight rhythm; the performing group of ten was finely coordinated throughout. The sound often resembled chamber music; the open lines between the instruments and the lightly dissonant harmonies sometimes reminded the listener of Copland. Hersch himself described the work in the notes as akin to “a small-scale oratorio.” From its start in bass and percussion with a crescendo to an upbeat jazzy main idea, it is a bit over an hour to the triumphal full-ensemble ending.

The piece has a standard jazz rhythm section, with piano, bass, and percussion. The single solo instruments were trumpet, trombone, and saxophone, with a fourth player switching among several instruments. There was also a cello, sometimes reinforcing the bass, sometimes carrying melodic lines. With this ensemble, the music could shift easily from concert to jazz combinations. Some of the memorable moments were when the solo instruments had sustained passages richly underlining the words of the poems.

The words were mostly sung, occasionally spoken, by a pair of performers, Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry. Both artists have wide-ranging recordings and honors. Elling is one of the most renowned jazz singers on today’s scene and has been so for a long time. McGarry hasn’t been on the scene quite as long, but in her rich and finely inflected singing, whether in words or scat, she more than held her own. The inclusion of a male and female singer and differing instrumental combinations gives the piece a good deal of variety. The majority of the players took solos, including Hersch himself. His playing was always refined and reached points of significant vitality. All of the solos in the range of instruments were imaginative and expressive, with the easygoing skill of master players savoring their art.

In the panoply of colors and styles, one moment which stood out was the first entry of McGarry using vocables to set the atmosphere. There was another such passage later, when McGarry engaged in dialogue with the trumpet (Nadje Noordhuis). The intimacy of this duet, and its quiet reflective quality, were haunting, in a way the high point of the performance. Other wonderful moments were brought out by the percussion at various spots gently underlining the words, creating an almost otherworldly atmosphere. The music of “The Sleepers,” with Elling intoning the text interspersed with obbligato-like instrumental lines, was especially evocative.

If there was anything which might have heightened the beauties still further, it would have been passages of greater momentum. The piece centers so much around reflection and expression that one wished at times for accumulation and climax. The ending poem, “After the Dazzle of Day,” is a few minutes long, of which the grand ending character lasts for about a minute. One would have appreciated more of this.

The other thing, of a more mechanical nature, would have been printing the titles of the poems in the program. As is typical in vocal settings, it isn’t always easy to understand the words. And with so many poems, titles would have helped the listener identify and organize the progression of the work.

That said, the re-creation of this great, very American poet in the poetic sounds of American music is a memorable lyrical and musical experience. It is no wonder that Hersch’s Leaves of Grass remains a part of his group’s regular repertory. Happily, it is also recorded. Its beauties and imagination should find an appreciative audience into the indefinite future.