Gershwin by Grofé: Symphonic Jazz

George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
“I Got Rhythm,” Variations for Piano and Orchestra (1934) [8:29]
The Yankee Doodle Blues (1922) [3:15]
The Yankee Doodle Blues (acoustic recording on a 1909 Edison Fireside phonograph) [3:16]
That Certain Feeling (1925) [2:36]
Somebody Loves Me (1924) [2:47]
Sweet and Low-down (1925) [2:47]
I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise (1922) [3:24]
The Man I Love (1924/1938 - first recording of 1938 version) [5:28]
Fascinating Rhythm (1924) [3:08]
Summertime (1935) [4:05]
Rhapsody in Blue (1924) [15:31]
Lincoln Mayorga (piano), Al Gallodoro (clarinet/bass clarinet/alto saxophone)
Harmonie Ensemble/Steven Richman
rec. 2004-2007, Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, State University of New York, USA
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU 907492 [54:40]
Harmonia Mundi released this CD in April and has been a part of my collection since June. It has been my favorite Gershwin album since I heard the first five minutes. A procession of miracles, the dull title of the disc (Gershwin by Grofé: Original Orchestrations and Arrangements) is the only thing about the album that isn’t direct from the heavens.
How do I love Gershwin by Grofé? Let me count the ways. First, this recording uses a jazz band. You will no doubt have heard the “Rhapsody in Blue” performed in its “original jazz band orchestration” by several symphony orchestras. James Levine recorded that version brilliantly with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; in January I saw Kirill Gerstein and Hans Graf jam to the jazz orchestration in Houston, Texas. Conductors as diverse as Graf, Levine and Simon Rattle have championed the original version.
This CD does not contain that original version, in the sense that it is not played by the full brass and wind complements of an orchestra accompanied by eight violinists and a drummer, and recorded onstage in a spacious classical concert venue. This CD is played by an actual jazz band.
At my former home in south-central Texas I had actually been lucky to live an hour away from one of the most exciting old-fashioned jazz clubs in the United States. Jim Cullum’s Landing, on the San Antonio Riverwalk, was home to Jim Cullum’s band, an old-school ensemble dedicated to reviving regional tunes and styles of the 1920s and early 1930s. They championed the style of jazz which emerged in New Orleans after the Great War and, in the twenties, exploded across the United States. The main theme is stated a few times and then passed along between instruments, like a baton, as every player gets his turn to improvise a few licks. Jim Cullum’s ensemble is one each of trumpet (cornet), trombone, clarinet, piano, banjo (doubling on guitar), double bass, and drum set; this was fairly standard, though depending of the talents of the bandleader, one of the first three instruments might be replaced by a saxophone.
The attitude of the performers in a setting like this is one of pure fun. When I visited the Landing, a shoebox of a place with the band sandwiched into the corner, the players were having as good a time as I was. When it was time for them to take a break, Jim Cullum would grab the microphone and explain, “Besides playing in the band, we also do quality control tests at the bar.” This was not a joke. My friend once counted five glasses of white wine onstage during a set; at my last visit, Cullum’s drinking made his cornet playing into, shall we say, something rather distinctive.
The Harmonie Ensemble is a group much like this. I doubt they were drinking in the studio but they comprise basically the same instruments (with saxophones throughout and some extra players in the Rhapsody), and they are all having enormous fun playing this music. I can imagine the Harmonie Ensemble up on the stage at a club, grinning at the patrons, listening to each other’s solos with smiling appreciation, bobbing their heads in time with the music. The heart of this program, in fact all of it but two tracks, is joyful ditties from the George and Ira songbook, arranged for jazz band by Ferde Grofé, the in-house orchestrator for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Each song is delivered with exuberant enthusiasm.
Should I mention particular delights? There are too many! Take the delicious trombone solos in “Yankee Doodle Blues” and “Somebody Loves Me,” the dialogue between muted trumpets and so-sweet clarinets in “That Certain Feeling,” the superb saxophone work which gets “Sweet and Low-down” rolling, the guitar serenade in “The Man I Love,” or the brilliant trumpet solo in “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” and the jazzy chaos which breaks out when it’s over. The Harmonie Ensemble brilliantly incorporates a couple of violins into the ensemble throughout, so they do not sound out of place in “Rhapsody in Blue,” but they genuinely add to the fun (as does an oboe in “Sweet and Low-down” and “The Man I Love”). And if you have ever heard the jazz band orchestration of “Rhapsody in Blue” and wondered why, four minutes in, a banjo is audible for three or four bars, this recording will answer your question: it is here the whole time!
The second reason this album is special is that “Yankee Doodle Blues” is presented twice. The second time around, just for fun (as if another reason is needed!), the take is recorded on a 1909 Edison Fireside phonograph. It’s (almost) the same performance, but this time it really sounds like something from a silent movie. And the added bonus is that when the modern recorded sound returns, you realize just how brilliant the engineering is. This album sounds terrific.
The third reason this album is special, alluded to above, is that this is not your typical Gershwin compilation. Forget the famous stuff - you get the “Rhapsody in Blue,” tacked onto the end of the program like a glorious afterthought, and you get the “I Got Rhythm” Variations for an opener, but everything in between is from the George and Ira songbook. There is a premiere recording (“The Man I Love”), the utterly divine “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” “Somebody Loves Me” with its swooning violins, and that witty “Yankee Doodle Blues.” This is Gershwin at his best, his most intimate, on his home territory.
The fourth reason this album is special is the contribution of Al Gallodoro. Gallodoro, who alternates here between clarinet and alto saxophone, joined the Paul Whiteman Orchestra - the same band for which “Rhapsody in Blue” was composed - way back in 1936. He also served as bass clarinetist in the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini in the 1940s. Gallodoro performed in routines for Bob Hope and Milton Berle, and according to his personal website, specialized in “the Rhapsody in Blue for which he holds the distinction of having performed the clarinet slide over 10,000 times with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra!”
Al Gallodoro made these recordings when he was 93 years old, two years before his death in 2008. Age did not slow him down. There he is taking a star turn in “Fascinating Rhythm” (on which he plays alto saxophone, bass clarinet, and clarinet, in that order) and contributing dazzling, soulful saxophone playing to “Summertime,” here a duet between Gallodoro and pianist Lincoln Mayorga. The clarinet slide at the opening of “Rhapsody” is dubbed from an earlier performance (1938, with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, in Carnegie Hall!), but the rest of the solo is new, and its playfulness is utterly unlike any other. Listening to the inventive, emotive improvisations in “Summertime,” I remember Jimmy Dorsey’s claim that Gallodoro was the greatest saxophonist who ever lived.
Having now briefly mentioned the pianist, Lincoln Mayorga, I should at last note that he makes a glorious Gershwin player in “I Got Rhythm” and the “Rhapsody in Blue,” and a sensitive, elegant accompanist in “Summertime.” He makes for an intelligent member of the band in the other songs - listen for his light touch in “Somebody Loves Me.” There are no mannerisms, no fiddling, none of the faux-edginess of classical pianists who think they are being jazzy by noodling and acting unpredictable. There is just solid, golden-toned pianism, cheery playfulness, and a generous spirit at one with the music. This is not the showboating of a concert hall pianist like Earl Wild (though I love Wild); this is piano playing like you’d hear in a jazz club, with a backing band in which you can hear the bassist sawing away and the banjo strumming along to the “big tune” near the end of “Rhapsody.” Never have this many details of the orchestration been audible. And never, ever, has this music sounded so ecstatically like the fusion of two glorious sound-worlds into one new triumphant style.
There is a fifth reason this album is special. It is one of that tiny handful of records which actually makes life seem sunnier, which actually makes me a happier person. I put it on and I want to dance around the room. I heard it for the first time on headphones and the very next night made my family listen too.
But don’t just take my word for it. Read the equally ecstatic review by my colleague John Quinn. Or ponder this: while I was editing this review, a neighbor knocked on my door and said (verbatim), “What are you listening to? I love this music! I am going to spend more time standing in the corridor in front of your door so I can hear it!”
The cover of Gershwin by Grofé is a photo of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, with George Gershwin himself seated at the piano, smiling up at the camera. I suspect - no, I guarantee - that by the end of this album, you will be smiling back.
Brian Reinhart 
Even my neighbors agree: it’s the recording of the year!