What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name George Gershwin? “Rhapsody in Blue”? An American in Paris? Perhaps Porgy And Bess, or maybe even the incredible catalog of songs Gershwin penned with brother and exceptional lyricist Ira? You probably think of all these things and then some if you’re a fan of George Gershwin. And even if you’re not, chances are Gershwin’s music has invaded your life at one time or another, be it via movies, TV, commercials, or some other facet of the media.
What might be most amazing about Gershwin’s music, however, is how it so perfectly rocked long before rock and roll music was even conceived. He died way too soon in 1937 at the age of 38, but he created a vast assortment of musical works and songs that firmly grasped the jazz music that he loved so much. But within that jazz framework, Gershwin added his own melodies that transcended the times they were written. And with brother Ira, the two writers were like the Lennon and McCartney of their time.
Sony Legacy has recently issued The Essential George Gershwin, yet another in its quickly growing Essential series, featuring artists who have appeared on the various Sony/Columbia imprints through the years. This double disc collection was compiled by longtime friend to Ira Gershwin, Michael Feinstein, who has been famous for recording and reviving the Gershwin’s catalog, amongst other achievements. Feinstein’s choices here are often eclectic, showcasing both the familiar and sometimes more obscure versions of some of the most famous Gershwin pieces.
The very jazzy, city-sounding “Prelude No. 2 For Piano” played by George Gershwin himself opens the first disc. Within its short and sweet length, one can hear the various melodic themes Gershwin would explore time and again throughout his career. Blue hues embody the notes, bringing to mind the landscapes and attitudes of the New York City he grew up inside. One can close their eyes and listen to this instrumental and see the skyscrapers, the people bustling by and feel the general buzz of the city. Gershwin’s gift was certainly one that allowed the listener to “see” so many things just by listening to music with no words.
Gershwin later appears again on the second disc, playing “Rhapsody in Blue” which has been merged with additional orchestration from 1976. It is interesting to hear Gershwin play his perhaps most famous work, going about it at a rather brisk pace and clocking it in at less than 14 minutes (many “standard” versions are just a bit over 14 or 15). To hear the composer play his own music is always an interesting experience and nowhere is it more so than in this example.
But much of this collection is given over to the collaborations George and Ira Gershwin wrote, and rightly so. The wealth of material the two men came up with is almost staggering, and The Essential George Gershwin delivers the goods numerous times. Ethel Waters lays down a raw, jazzy rendition of “I Got Rhythm” while Maxine Sullivan & Her Orchestra puts forth what may very well be the finest recording of “Nice Work If You Can Get It”. Sullivan’s voice is both light and bittersweet, bringing out the best in the song’s melody.
Frank Sinatra weighs in with “Someone to Watch Over Me”, and really, there have been tons of better versions of this song recorded, most notably by Blossom Dearie. Sinatra’s take is fine, but it’s a bit by the books. Fans of Frank’s will undoubtedly enjoyment, but there could have been a more dynamic version picked. “‘S Wonderful” is another Gershwin tune that has been covered countless times, and here it is performed by Dinah Shore and Buddy Clark. Unlike “Someone to Watch Over Me”, “‘S Wonderful” gets a delightful reading by Shore and Clark and is certainly one of the better takes around.
Al Jolson contributes his classic version of “Swanee”, while Fred Astaire gets to handle both “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”, both from Shall We Dance with the former having been previously unreleased before this collection appeared. Both tracks are classic Astaire, another performer who often brought the best out of a song, especially a Gershwin song. Given the fact that “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” has since been slightly turned into an act of schmaltz by the dozens who have handled in through the years, it’s refreshing to hear Astaire handle it with a fresh face.
There are some great instrumentals to be found here as well. “Blues” by Harry James and His Orchestra is an absolutely scintillating take on the mid-portion of An American in Paris. Also included is Morton Gould’s medley of “Fascinating Rhythm / Someone to Watch Over Me” that is a treat for any fans of those tracks. And let’s not forget the riveting take of “I Loves You, Porgy” by Miles Davis that again is another example of what may be one of the finest versions ever recorded of a Gershwin song.
Elsewhere, there’s Alberta Hunter’s funky and sassy “Somebody Loves Me”, Rosemary Clooney’s stunning “A Foggy Day”, Ella Fitzgerald covering “I’ve Got a Crush on You” in her classic style, Billie Holliday completely crushing “Summertime” with her phenomenal voice, and Aretha Franklin turning in a great take of “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. And there’s more. Lots more, from Cab Calloway to Sarah Vaughan, all of these songs on this collection are certainly essential and timeless.
The recording quality varies, as a number of these tracks were recorded before the Forties. Yet this doesn’t detract from the listening pleasure, as the performances are all so thoroughly terrific for the most part. However, Sinatra’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” does suffer from a bit of tape noise near the end of the track that’s a little grating on the ears, sort of like nails going down a chalkboard. Other than that, these tracks are a joy to experience.
For old fans and new ones alike, The Essential George Gershwin covers a lot of ground and contains a lot of terrific renditions of these classics that so many have loved. It’s a worthy addition to anyone’s library. Jazz fan, rock fan, classical fan, show tunes fan, there’s something for nearly everyone here. Listen to Gershwin’s melodies and rhythms once again and feel how far a strong influence can reach millions through music.