Fascinating Rhythms

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

Legend has it that the day George Gershwin's parents brought a piano into the house, the untutored 12-year-old plopped himself down in front of the keys and a flood of music came pouring out.

If the story has long carried with it the ring of Hollywood exaggeration, it still helps to explain the scope of a canon that had no precedent in American music. Throughout his tragically short life, Gershwin carried the Mozartlike aura that his talent, unlike that of an industrious craftsman like Irving Berlin, was an uncanny gift from the gods.

Gershwin was not just a songwriter, he was a virtuoso musician who could not sit at the piano without conjuring up a batch of new tunes. By comparison, Berlin had to labor at his keyboard over each chord change, and relied on a piano transposer because he could only play in one key.

But while Gershwin's elegantly melodic show tunes were popular in his lifetime, his more ambitious--and heartfelt--efforts like Porgy and Bess were often mercilessly slammed by critics of the time. The reason was simple: Gershwin's work could not be fit into any predetermined category.

His extended works were too grandiose to be considered pop, and too rooted in pop structure to be taken seriously as classical music. While they featured the unmistakable instrumental colors of jazz, they didn't really fit into that category, either. So it's only natural that as Gershwin celebrates his centennial this month, this restless man without a genre would be considered for a tribute album in the Red Hot series of AIDS benefit collections. The forthcoming Red Hot and Rhapsody is only one of three major centennial tribute CDs devoted to Gershwin this fall, but it's the one that poses the most interesting questions about how elastic a great piece of music is, and whether the sincerest form of tribute is to faithfully follow the composer's original intent or to redefine it for a new generation.

The first and best-known album in the Red Hot series, 1990's Red Hot and Blue, saluted Cole Porter by allowing contemporary artists to remold his songs into modern forms. While the project was often effective, some artists apparently thought that the only way to make Porter's witty pop songs sound hip was to wipe away as many traces of the songwriter's fingerprints as possible. In particular, Neneh Cherry's "I've Got You Under My Skin" and U2's "Night and Day" dismantled Porter's melodies in favor of a minor-key moodiness that did not suit the songs, even if it did convey the seriousness behind the album's cause.

By comparison, Gershwin's songbook presents more stylistic opportunities, but also more limitations. Gershwin's tunes were always adaptable to different tempos, and he himself tinkered with many of his more famous songs. "The Man I Love," one of his most beloved and haunting ballads, actually began as a brisk, up-tempo tune until Gershwin's brother--and lyricist--Ira suggested that they slow it down. But more than his contemporaries, Gershwin's songs had strongly identifiable harmonic structures that framed his melodies in consistently surprising and exciting ways. Simplifying these structures can make Gershwin's melodies sound more mundane than they really are.

Be that as it may, many of the best moments on Red Hot and Rhapsody dismantle Gershwin's frameworks and reduce his songs to their simplest form, while somehow keeping the spirit of his intentions. For instance, Majestic 12 takes the effervescent swing tune "Nice Work If You Can Get It" and slows it down to a spooky, Portisheadlike trip-hop beat, with the familiar melody sung over a droning bass note. It's a technique that's often been used in reggae, where pop songs have long been stripped down to the simplest possible chord changes. Here, you feel that the song has truly been interpreted, the results being neither slavishly faithful nor mindlessly contrary.

Similarly, Morcheeba and flutist Hubert Laws do wonders with "Summertime," a song that has been covered so many times, in so many ways, over the years that its possibilities would seem to have been exhausted. But this interpretation, with its deliberate, dreamlike feel, sacrifices practically none of the song's structural beauty, and imbues it with a modern sense of groove. This track is as good an example as any that Gershwin's best ideas haven't dated much in the six decades since his death. Conversely, Clark Terry's odd fusion of hip-hop and jazz on "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" has little of Gershwin in it, but it works on its own terms.

Oddly enough, many of the weakest moments on Red Hot and Rhapsody come from the most faithful interpretations. While it might be fun in theory to hear Luscious Jackson all dressed up as torch-song divas for "I've Got a Crush on You," such a vintage arrangement simply demands a better singer. Similarly, both Sinead O'Connor and Duncan Sheik (who decided that he was a worthy interpreter of "Embraceable You"?) simply remind you how much nicer these songs have sounded in the hands of more adept singers. Only Natalie Merchant manages to sound at ease in a traditional arrangement. Her take on the gorgeous "But Not for Me" carries with it the tantalizing longing masked by the song's transparently self-pitying lyrics.

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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