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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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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 John 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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa