Fascinating Rhythms

Three new centennial tribute albums shed new light on Gershwin's complex legacy

In fact, Merchant's version of "But Not for Me" blows away the older versions of the same song on MCA's 'S Wonderful: The Great Gershwin Decca Songbook and Hip-O's Gershwin Standard Time: The George Gershwin Centennial Tribute. These two collections, both of which are distributed by Universal, feel like opposite sides of the same coin.

'S Wonderful focuses exclusively on recordings made for Decca, and features solid if predictable covers of Gershwin's best-known songs. Gershwin Standard Time features some of the same singers, but also includes a few recent recordings by such Gershwin acolytes as Diana Krall and Michael Feinstein, who wrote the sleeve notes. Though neither collection is entirely satisfying (Sammy Davis Jr.'s hyperbolic version of "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'" could hardly be considered definitive), part of the fun is the chance to compare different approaches to the same song. For instance, where Merchant finds the true heart of "But Not for Me" as a ballad, Chet Baker's version is breezy, up-tempo and lighthearted, and Bing Crosby approaches the song with a stiff formality that ages poorly.

Louis Armstrong's raucous Dixieland rip through "Love Walked In" is all unbridled exuberance, heralded by a joyous trumpet solo from Satchmo himself. By contrast, Kenny Baker's 1938 recording of the same song is a sappy relic from the prewar crooner era.

What emerges from all this Gershwin material, however, is how sturdy his compositions remain, and how well they hold up under the most reckless or shallow treatment. Neither the Andrews Sisters nor Kenny Baker nor Duncan Sheik can do serious damage to his tunes.

None of these three compilations delves too deeply into his two most famous works, Rhapsody in Blue or Porgy and Bess, partly because they're too demanding and partly because we're still not sure what to make of them after all these years. Without question, both were bold, imaginative leaps into a new American musical form, but even Gershwin wasn't quite sure where these efforts were leading. The scruffy kid from the Lower East Side was always torn between his active desire to find a formula for writing hit songs and his restless need to strive for the heights of Wagner and Bizet.

The only other American composer who could match the scope of Gershwin's talent and ambition was Duke Ellington. But Ellington had a long career that allowed him to stretch his abilities as far as they could go. It's one of the nagging pities of American musical history that we never got to find out how far Gershwin's talent could take him.

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