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August 9, 2017 George Gershwin: He had rhythm, he had music…

George Gershwin


Rhythmic and melodious, Gershwin’s music fuses popular elements from the American melting-pot: the flattened notes and syncopations of African-American blues and ragtime; Hispanic rhythms; the aching cadences of Hebrew chant. More classical ingredients range from the harmonies of Chopin, Liszt and Debussy to the sprightly patter of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Little of this frothy broth appeared in Gershwin’s first hit song ‘Swanee’ (1919), but the ordinary tune and simple lyrics went with a swing, especially when sung by Al Jolson. Five years later came the leap into the audacious with Rhapsody in Blue, composed for bandleader Paul Whiteman’s ‘Experiment in Modern Music’ concert at New York’s Aeolian Hall. Popular jazz collided with Lisztian rhetoric and a melody worthy of Tchaikovsky.

Most of the music world delighted in the odd mix, and wanted more. Gershwin obliged, and spent what remained of his life straddling the popular and classical divide with an ease no other American of his generation could match; Irving Berlin characterised him as ‘the only song-writer I know who became a composer’. At his death Gershwin was widely mourned, and he’s continued to be indispensable. 

Yet Gershwin’s output has numerous hidden corners. In some ways he’s been taken for granted, not least by academia. 

In 2006 music scholar Howard Pollack delivered George Gershwin: His Life and Work, 884 pages of objective research. But a hole remains in the lack of any critical edition of the scores. Rhapsody in Blue alone exists in multiple versions, each with its own anomalies or cuts. The recorded legacy is equally tangled, and many key recordings remain out of print, among them Houston City Opera’s 1976 Porgy and Bess (the most generally satisfying).

Corporate blindness and shaky finances have no doubt played a part. But might there perhaps be lingering high-brow suspicion of the chameleon Gershwin?

Peering down at his concert works in 1929, the American commentator Paul Rosenfeld found ‘second-hand ideas and ecstasies’, ‘brutal calculated effects’, and no structural solidity.

Britain’s Wilfrid Mellers made similar, if more gentle, remarks some 30 years later.

In the Rhapsody and its successors, linking material can indeed be weak, but the relationship between melodies and context is subtler than critics have suggested. And even when our heads might agree with their comments, our hearts don’t. We keep on listening, keep finding sustenance, keep humming the tunes.

At the back of this gibing lies the notion of Gershwin as a force of nature, someone who created magic from the sounds of New York but lacked the schooling to expand the magic further. This is distorting. His passions in classical music ranged widely, from Bach to Alban Berg.

Musical training may have been piecemeal, but he sought out tutors throughout his life. His piano teacher Charles Hambitzer was an early influence; Gershwin said he made him ‘harmony conscious’. In the 1930s, Joseph Schillinger helped lighten his orchestrations; he also, more controversially, proposed mathematical formulae as a means of controlling material. Gershwin requested help from 20th-century gods such as Ravel, Stravinsky, Nadia Boulanger and Schoenberg (a tennis partner in Los Angeles). Henry Cowell and Wallingford Riegger, American experimentalists, also agreed; most others declined, not wishing to damage his natural gifts.

Debussy’s presence hovers round the harmonies of the placid Lullaby of 1919 for string quartet. The gestures of Italian verismo opera influence the 20-minute Blue Monday, doomed to one performance on Broadway in George White’s Scandals of 1922, though an important step toward Porgy and Bess. Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Chopin make their mark on Rhapsody in Blue, though not on its famous opening gambit, with the solo clarinet twiddling its notes then slithering and accelerating into the first theme.

Much of the Rhapsody’s colour range derives from its original orchestration by Ferde Grofé for Whiteman’s band. But the blue mood is embedded in Gershwin’s notes. The writer Carl Van Vechten told him he’d written ‘the foremost serious effort by an American composer’. An exaggeration then; an exaggeration now. Yet its passing fissures and banalities seem of no avail. Other American symphonic jazz from the 1920s belongs in a museum; only Rhapsody in Blue lives.

Despite the work’s success, Gershwin’s daily round continued unchanged. Always practical, he tailored his stage musicals to different star performers. The Broadway shows Lady Be Good! (1924) and Funny Face (1927) hung on the delightful pegs of Fred and Adele Astaire, crisply elegant dancers and singers.

His concert profile advanced alongside. In the Concerto in F for piano and orchestra (1925), the work’s abstract character emphasises its structural problems. But there’s still the lovely middle movement, a smoky, nocturnal beauty, featuring one of his most irresistible melodies.

Sections in the orchestral tone poem An American in Paris (1928) are more suavely knitted. Gershwin's complex personality seems ever reflected in his music’s brash energy, its innocent narcissism and braggadocio, also its lonely dark shadows.

His deepest longing was to create a full-length opera.

In 1926 after reading DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy he knew he had found his material. It took until 1934 for Gershwin to begin serious work on the story about Bess and the cripple Porgy, buffeted by fate in the black ghetto of Charleston’s Catfish Row. By then his dramatic skills had been strengthened through Strike Up the Band (1927), Of Thee I Sing (1931), and its darker sequel Let ’Em Eat Cake (1933): satirical musicals featuring big ensemble scenes, on the Gilbert and Sullivan model. Porgy and Bess, a work of much deeper emotions, added the easy flow of song, chorus and recitative found in Puccini. Further infusions came from African-American spirituals, and the modernities of Berg.

From its premiere in 1935, the opera had hurdles to overcome. Before opening night Gershwin consented to substantial cuts, only restored in full in 1976. Over time, changes in sensitivities and the social fabric have made the libretto’s broad characterisations susceptible to charges of racial stereotyping. But the big songs, topped by ‘Summertime’, remain unassailable, and Gershwin’s exuberantly dramatic effects often take one’s breath away.


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Goldmine Magazine Woodstock reunion festival featuring original acts scheduled at Brooklyn Mirage

The Brooklyn Mirage, a new outdoor venue, announces 2 More Days of 1969 — a two-day event that celebrates the 48th anniversary of Woodstock on August 18-19.

The post Woodstock reunion festival featuring original acts scheduled at Brooklyn Mirage appeared first on Goldmine Magazine.

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Discogs Blog I Died Contributing VHS Tapes In A Sweltering Warehouse And Am Now A GHOST

Does the Discogs submission form still work if you’re also no longer living and are also clearly a ghost? Who knows. In our series centering on Fox subjecting himself to awful conditions in the name of data entry and Discogs submissions, we continue our story. How is it thursday. How did I do 105 subs […]

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Discogs Blog I Died Contributing VHS Tapes In A Sweltering Warehouse And Am Now A GHOST

Does the Discogs submission form still work if you’re also no longer living and are also clearly a ghost? Who knows. In our series centering on Fox subjecting himself to awful conditions in the name of data entry and Discogs submissions, we continue our story. How is it thursday. How did I do 105 subs […]

from Discogs Blog
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The Real Mick Rock Jerry Garcia with the Grateful Dead live in London, 1972 

Jazzwise News


Flying north-west from Oslo on a propeller aeroplane, the first impression of Molde arrives via its surrounding terrain of misty, snow-topped mountains, dotted wooden inhabitations and sea-circled islets. The town of Molde is more conventionally concrete at its centre, but it takes only 10 minutes of uphill trudging to reach the surrounding wilderness. Here we have one of Europe’s very oldest jazz festivals, first sprouted in 1961, and now Norway’s leading, venerable institution.

For an old-timer festival, Moldejazz still retains a youthful sense of adventure, its programming boasting an emphasis on unlikely encounters, first time presentations and boldly variegated music forms. We could shake our bluesy hips, but we could also tremble under the full onslaught of free-squall. We could leaf through the standard Broadway songbook, but we could also nod cerebellums to the most advanced forms of avant-rap.

Gigs are plentiful over the six-day run, but most of the core sets can be caught by striding between the fairly close-proximity venues. Radical overlaps are few. The main Plassen library-cum-arts centre has a medium-sized theatre and a small jazz club, Storyville, which operates all year round. The big-name shows took place at the Bjørnsonhuset, and a couple of large-scale open-air gigs happened uphill in the grassy natural amphitheatre of the Romsdalsmuseet. As Molde is a relatively small town, most of its venues tended to fill up to near capacity, hosting artists that in bigger cities would have sold out spaces twice the sizes of these. A sense of communal intimacy, gathered.

On the first day, at 10pm in Storyville, the New York saxophonist Steve Lehman played to a smallish, unseated audience. Unseated in more ways than one! Word of Lehman’s new hip-hop outfit Sélébéyone (top) has perhaps not fully spread, or its approach was deemed too extreme, upon a sample listen. Well, essentially, this five-piece delivered one of the festival’s prime sets, supple and sleek, marrying rigorous twin-saxophone themes (alto/soprano) to an involved beat structure that combined electro-beats with Damion Reid‘s live twitch-drumming. The rappers are atypical types, HPrizm (of Antipop Consortium) adopting the US weird-hop stance, and the Senegalese Gaston Bandimic turning his Wolof tongue into part of the phonetically complex barrage. This is radical rap, forming the ideal fusion with radical jazz, providing a rare alternative to most of the previous stylish funkoid attempts, down the decades.

TerjeRypdal byOleBjornSteinsvik

On the second day, veteran Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal (above) rocked out! A front row press chair can be a dangerous place! Even though he remained seated throughout, not too easy on his feet, this had absolutely no effect on the immense power of Rypdal’s axe-work. There were a few numbers that involved a more ECM-friendly spaciousness, but Rypdal mostly ripped out extended distorto-spirals, his evil partner-in-the-devil’s-music being Hammond organist Ståle Storløkken, helping to reach the furthest corners of the cosmos. The music’s tar-slow and dub-heavy, Rypdal rearing up to a howling strike, making a sludge-rock start, then developing a prog aura, with distorted bass, skipping drums, and a roiling Hammond solo. With this Conspiracy quartet, Rypdal seems set on re-visiting his most rocking roots in the 1960s and 1970s, bringing out his bleeding extremes. It’s a reeling miasma, with each player periodically coming up for air, to solo, then dive back into the whirlpool once more. A quieter stretch involves a held organ tone, with Rypdal building shapes via wah-wah pedal, steadily increasing the bleed. Then, he whipped out a bottleneck, for some psychedelic blues, followed by an almost ludicrously gargantuan Hammond solo, almost hitting the Deep Purple patch.


A perfect example of Moldejazz’s unique programming was the Storyville set hosted by Mette Rasmussen, where this Danish alto saxophonist invited her preferred improvising partners, thereby creating a most unusual combination of Zeena Parkins (electric and acoustic harps), Craig Taborn (piano) and Barry Guy (bass, above with Rasmussen). An almost completely unfamiliar situation for all four players. An austere modern classical aura blooms first, until Parkins switches to her personalised electro-harp, bullying the improvisation towards a harder, louder rubble-spewing. This encourages Guy to adopt an equally aggressive stance, while Rasmussen works away at repeating phrases, doggedly inserting a spine into the midst of the surrounding amorphousness. Swerving away from her established free-bleating vocabulary, she wisely acts as the quartet’s steely structural guru.

On the fourth day, at 2pm, another winning set: German veteran Alexander von Schlippenbach leads his absurdist virtuoso combo Monk’s Casino (below), in a most sympathetic treatment of the Thelonious canon. Not many interpreters have managed to catch Monk’s twinkling gleam of ambling humour, but this crew are masters of ironic clowning, armed with a severe scalpel of thematic editing. They barely pause for breath, as each tune careens into the next, gaps tiny, pace flat-out, wriggles at maximum. Monk’s Casino play completely acoustically, except for (possibly) a very low level bass amplifier. Rudi Mahall (bass clarinet) and Axel Dörner (trumpet) make odd steps, sharp segues, and sudden solos that are literally lonesome outbursts. Monk is discovered at his most lean and wiry, as these cantankerous misfits wander the stage completely at ease and informal, so intravenously infected are they by the great centenarian’s music.

MonksCasino byOleBjornSteinsvik

A few hours later, the starry blues pairing of TajMo (Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’) packed the sunny uphill park, dividing their repertoires equally, and appearing to genuinely dig each other’s songs. Mister Mahal might have mostly remained seated, but that didn’t curb his dance moves, as he sang richly, playing guitar, banjo and harmonica, with his daughters on backing vocals, plus a fine horn section to lend even greater spirit. Their combination is winning!

I’d caught Herbie Hancock nearly a fortnight previously at the Gent Jazz Festival, where his set floundered around like a loose jam session, with much inward-looking noodling. The revered keyboardist’s Molde set was way superior, the band by this time having locked much tighter, with its leader in an extremely energised and extroverted state. There were still abundant solos, but these sounded more directed out to the audience than within the band, Hancock stalking around with his keytar, possessing energy to equal that of Chick Corea. Both of these veteran greats seem to enjoy the marathon set, a tendency very well justified in this case.

The programming at Moldejazz is so exceptional that we haven’t even had chance yet to mention the two artists who played a significant number of ‘in residence’ gigs, all of them in stretching settings. Vijay Iyer mainly repeated existing collaborations, mostly with fellow Americans, aside from the meeting with Norway’s own Cikada String Quartet. The pianist played duo sets with Craig Taborn (piano) and Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet), and was most disappointing when delivering his Holding It Down war veterans concept piece, in partnership with wordsmith Mike Ladd. Iyer made up for this latter failing with an astonishing set by his own sextet, delivering numbers from the new Far From Over album. Drummer Tyshawn Sorey worked at an unceasingly powerful level, matching force with polyrhythmic complexity, seemingly soloing without let-up, soloing as a naturally ongoing state. Meanwhile, the front line of Graham Haynes, Steve Lehman and Mark Shim produced a staggering crossfire of solos, with the latter saxophonic pair enjoying a particularly tussling ascendance.

Meanwhile, Pat Metheny jumped right in, collaborating with Norwegians, forcing himself to negotiate uncharted waters, and producing results that held a consistency of excitement. His trio set with bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Gard Nilssen had an easy, supple sense of enquiry, as they each staked out a generous patch of soloing space. Metheny met the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, passing through a country ramble, then being goaded towards a raunchier precipice by an orchestra that delights in jacking between serrated improvisation and organised, harmonious washes, mostly equipped with a conventional big band swing. Until Mette Rasmussen emerges with a bittersweet solo, singing in alternation between drum thunder and horn section stabs, epic in development and repeated climaxing. Even more remarkable was Metheny’s midnight meeting with Jaga Jazzist, a less likely combination. This densely formed collective made ample space for the guitarist’s searing, multi-faceted solos, and Metheny appeared to be ecstatic in this angular, math-jazz setting, as Jaga Jazzist matched his enthusiasm, acknowledging his long-held influence in their lives.

– Martin Longley

from News
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This day in music On this Day August 09, 2007

Baltimore’s mayor Sheila Dixon proclaimed today as the city’s official Frank Zappa Day, citing Zappa’s musical accomplishments as well as his defense of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

from This day in music
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Goldmine Magazine Musicians share their thoughts on the loss of Glen Campbell

Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobby Bare, Steve Wariner, Chuck Negron, Ambrosia and more mourn the loss of Glen Campbell.

The post Musicians share their thoughts on the loss of Glen Campbell appeared first on Goldmine Magazine.

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