Recording of the Month
I think we have something rather special here.
Recordings of Rhapsody in Blue that use the original
scoring by Ferde Grofé are nothing new. In 1976 Michael Tilson
Thomas made a groundbreaking recording for CBS Sony in which,
through a feat of painstaking technical wizardry, Gershwin’s
own piano roll performance of the solo part was grafted on to
a new recording of the Grofé orchestration (review).
I doubt that was the first recording of the Grofé version but
it seemed to open the floodgates and nowadays it is a bit unusual
if a recording comes along that employs the full orchestral
Here Steven Richman is using the Grofé orchestration and his
pianist is the excellent Lincoln Mayorga. I mean no disrespect
to Mr Mayorga when I say that an equal amount of interest is
generated by the presence of one man in the band. This is Al
Gallodoro, something of a legend among jazz reed players. The
Chicago-born Gallodoro (1913-2008) played with the Paul Whiteman
Orchestra from 1936 to 1965 after which he continued an active
solo career for the rest of his life. Unbelievably, his final
“gig” took place less than a month before he died at the age
of 95! Jimmy Dorsey, no less, described him as “the best saxophone
player who ever lived”. On this album Al Gallodoro makes a fabulous
contribution to Rhapsody in Blue. I can’t recall hearing
the opening clarinet solo played with such panache before. That
famous upward slide is so elastic that it seems Gallodoro will
never get to the top but get there he does. Then he proceeds
to inflect the rest of the solo in a unique and completely distinctive
way, bending notes this way and that. Actually, there’s a bit
of sleight of hand going on here. Annotator Don Rayno reveals
what has been done. In his words: “As an historic homage to
Al, we have put together the opening solo beginning with a live
1938 Whiteman Carnegie Hall performance by Al of the slide,
segues into our recording, almost seventy years later, showing
the remarkable continuity of Al’s playing.” To be quite honest,
I didn’t pick that up just by listening. The join is seamless
and it works perfectly. Combining the old performance and the
new one in this way seems to me to be a perfectly valid gesture
and in a way it’s in the same spirit that produced the Gershwin/Tilson
Thomas recording of Rhapsody that I mentioned earlier.
As for Gallodoro’s solo as a whole, well it’s a quite extraordinary
performance. For goodness sake, the man was a couple of months
shy of his ninety-third birthday when this recording was set
down but he plays with the verve and flair of a man half that
Thus launched, the rest of the performance of Rhapsody in
Blue takes its cue from that solo. It’s a superb, fizzing
account of the piece: the band plays with style, vitality and
pungency while Mayorga is as good a soloist as you could wish
to hear. The whole thing has the unmistakeable aura of the ‘Roarin’
Twenties’ about it; I found it irresistible. Though the performance
is particularly notable for its energy and sheer joie de
vivre, the Big Tune is played for all it’s worth too. When
it arrives (10:14), the melody warmed most gorgeously by the
smoky saxophones, you’re reminded that this is one of the Great
American Tunes. There are many fine recordings of Rhapsody
in Blue in the catalogue, not least the aforementioned Gershwin/Tilson
Thomas version, but this is one of the very best that I’ve heard.
The programme begins with another sparkling, inventive concert
piece that includes a major solo piano part. The Variations
on I got Rhythm are heard in Gershwin’s own orchestration.
The piece is usually heard in a 1953 orchestration, which Don
Rayno describes as “bloated”. Gershwin’s own scoring is for
a relatively small band – thirty-two musicians are used here
– and it’s undeniably true that in this form the work acquires
great clarity and the primary colours of the orchestration are
both arresting and hugely entertaining. Once again Lincoln Mayorga
is a superb, dashing soloist.
The disc also includes a selection of Gershwin show tunes, all
in orchestrations by Grofé made for Paul Whiteman, who recorded
all of them in the 1920s. Without exception the tunes are memorable
and some of them - Somebody Loves Me and The Man
I Love, for example – are absolute classics of the genre.
One piece, the perky Yankee Doodle Blues is heard twice.
The second airing takes the form of a modern recording made
by Jack Stanley, a sound recording historian, using a 1909 Edison
Fireside phonograph with a wax cylinder and acoustic horn. The
result, distantly heard and through something of a curtain of
hiss, has a certain period charm but, with great respect to
Mr Stanley, it’s nothing more than a novelty and I’m unsure
how often people will want to listen to it.
My own favourites among the show tunes included Somebody
Loves Me, properly taken up-tempo and with the muted trumpets
and reeds creating a fabulous sound. I’ll Build a
Stairway to Paradise is pretty irresistible too, as is The
Man I Love, which features a succession of superb instrumental
solos. Al Gallodoro is well to the fore, playing all three of
his reed instruments, in a scintillating account of Fascinating
And Gallodoro takes centre-stage for an unforgettable performance
of Summertime, in which he’s accompanied by Lincoln Mayorga.
Here’s a master jazzman at work, indulging in some fine improvisatory
flights of fancy and Mayorga is a wonderfully responsive partner.
It’s worth saying a word about Harmonie Ensemble/New York, an
ensemble that I’d not come across previously. It was founded
as long ago as 1979 by Steven Richman and its membership includes
members of several leading New York orchestras as well as a
number of top jazz players from the city. One name that caught
my eye was that of the concertmaster in Rhapsody in Blue.
It’s Kurt Nikkanen, whose recent recording of Walton’s Violin
Concerto has recently been much
admired on this site. With players of this calibre in the
ensemble it’s small wonder that the playing throughout is razor-sharp.
Steven Richman clearly has this music in his blood and he directs
crisply and with evident affection for the music.
The production values associated with this CD are superb. The
recorded sound is clear and up-front, as you’d want for music
such as this – but not in an aggressive way. The booklet and
sleeve contain a wonderful selection of atmospheric black-and-white
photographs. The booklet includes an interesting essay by Don
Rayno but this is only a précis of a much more substantial article
that’s available to download from the Harmonia Mundi website.
Though it’s a much longer read I’d strongly recommend accessing
the full article. It’s packed with information and it reads
very well. Your appreciation of the recordings will undoubtedly
be heightened by reading Mr Rayno’s full comments – and it’s
only there, for example, that you’ll learn about the splicing
that’s been achieved in the clarinet solo in Rhapsody.
I found the Harmonia Mundi site difficult to navigate – a bit
too clever for its own good, to be honest – but this
link should take you direct to the article.
This disc offers relatively short paying time but that’s its
only “shortcoming”. On one level it’s hugely entertaining. However,
the disc does much more than this. The performances, though
they wear their scholarship lightly, are every bit as historically
informed as, say, a performance of a Handel concerto grosso
on baroque instruments. As such, it adds greatly to our understanding
and appreciation of Gershwin, that tragically short-lived genius.
This is not only a mandatory purchase for all Gershwin fans
but also should excite many other collectors.