Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (CD review)

Uri Caine Ensemble. Winter & Winter 910 205-2.

With his Rhapsody in Blue composer and pianist George Gershwin (1898-1937) began a trend in classical music to infuse serious orchestral works with serious jazz. So it’s not a stretch to take several of the man’s compositions back to their roots with performances by a small jazz group, in this case the Uri Caine Ensemble: Uri Caine, piano; Ralph Alessi, trumpet; Jim Black, drums; Joyce Hammann, violin; Mark Helias, bass; Chris Speed, clarinet and tenor sax; and Theo Bleckmann and Barbara Walker, vocals. The results we hear on this all-Gershwin album of instrumental and vocal numbers are different but highly appealing.

More important, Uri Caine is a jazz and classical pianist and composer. Among his sixteen record albums include a 1997 jazz tribute to Gustav Mahler that received an award from the German Mahler Society; a 2009 album called The Othello Syndrome that earned a Grammy nomination for Best Classical Crossover Album; and reworkings of Bach's Goldberg Variations, Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, and various Wagner, Schumann and Mozart selections. In 2005, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra named him their Composer-in-Residence through the 2008–2009 season. Yes, he knows what he’s up to.

If, like me, you grew up knowing and loving the full orchestral version of the Rhapsody, or even if you’ve gotten used to a smaller-scale rendition (Gershwin wrote the piece for the smallish Paul Whiteman band), you may find the Caine Ensemble’s jazz arrangement a bit unsettling. Like anything, it takes a little getting used to. Whether that happens or not, however, is problematic. My mother always told me I’d come to love Brussel sprouts if I just ate enough of them; to this day they make me gag. Although Caine’s jazz adaptation clearly didn’t make me gag, I don’t think I’d want to hear it too often without a dose of Bernstein and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra thrown in more often than not.

The ensemble perform the Rhapsody first on the program, and, as I say, it may come as a shock to classical listeners not used to jazz. I mean, the Uri Caine Ensemble play the piece very jazzy, with some obvious riffs and improvisations but nothing that really disturbs Gershwin's original intentions. Each instrument, particularly the clarinet and piano, gets its fair share of the spotlight (it is Caine's group, after all, and he's the pianist). This is an enterprising new way to listen to an old favorite that never sacrifices the composer's intentions or the spirit of the music. Rather than hearing a jazz-infused classical Rhapsody, we hear a classical-infused jazz Rhapsody. While it might not appeal to everyone, especially old-time, die-hard classical fans, if you can keep an open mind, it is quite fetching. I loved it.

In order for the Rhapsody to work effectively, though, the musicians must be virtuosos in their own right and show the utmost respect for the music. Here, the Caine Ensemble excel, performing the work with consummate skill, innovation, creativity, and musicianship.

After the Rhapsody in Blue we get a series of eight Gershwin vocal and instrumental numbers done by vocalists Theo Bleckman and Barbara Walker, with the Caine Ensemble. The performers infuse these tunes, too, with some new twists, although it's all mostly recognizable as traditional Gershwin. The selections include "But Not for Me," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "I Got Rhythm," "I've Got a Crush on You," a slightly bizarre "They Can't Take That Away from Me," "Slap That Bass," a sort of spacey "Love Is Here to Stay," and "How Long Has This Been Going On." Good singing, good playing, good backup, lively, sympathetic style--it works for a delightful good time.

It will please audiophiles to know that in December 2012 at Avatar Studios, New York, engineer Ron Saint Germain recorded the music directly to half-inch, two-track analogue tape with no manipulation or digital processing. Yes, I said analogue tape. The sound is fully up to audiophile standards, rich and lush, yet wonderfully well defined, with a healthy amount of air around the instruments. Most important, there's a sonic impact that reminds one of being at a live event and a frequency range that puts one in the audience. Play it loud, and it only gets better, with every subtlety of every instrument clearly, naturally delineated and voices as clean as real life.

A final word, this about the packaging: The disc comes in a clothbound Digipak-type case, with a picture and info glued to the front and back. It’s really quite attractive. All well and good; then, inside you’ll find a booklet of the foldout-map variety that stretches to nearly two feet. Very inconvenient for trying to read comfortably. Otherwise, a classy affair.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa