Recording of the Month
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 (New 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. Original ‘jazz band’ version*** (1924) [15:31]
Lincoln Mayorga (piano) * ***; Al Gallodoro (alto saxophone/clarinet/bass clarinet)
Harmonie Ensemble/New York/Steven Richman
rec. May 2007 at the Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, State University of New York; **Rec. April 2004; *** Rec. April 2006
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU 907492 [54:46]
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 scoring.
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, which smoothly
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 age!
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 Rhythm.
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.
A hugely entertaining and historically informed CD that’s a mandatory purchase for all Gershwin fans