The idea of combining jazz artists with a symphony orchestra is hardly new; after all, pop composer George Gershwin (1898-1937) wrote Rhapsody in Blue in 1924 originally for solo piano and jazz band, and it wasn't rescored for orchestra (theatrical and symphony) by Ferde Grofe until several years thereafter. As a result, we have in the record catalogue any number of fine discs by various ensembles, large and small, from duets to full orchestra.
On the present album, we find American pianist, arranger, and orchestrator Shelly Berg (b. 1955), his trio, and various other artists doing Berg's own jazz interpolations with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Jose Serebrier. The results are every bit as satisfying as I would imagine Gershwin intended--jazzy, swinging, rhythmic, rhapsodic, and lush. Considering the talents involved, it's the kind of album that's almost self-recommending.
The first two items on the program are the longest: Rhapsody in Blue (23:31 min.), featuring the Shelly Berg Trio in original jazz variations and the RPO and An American in Paris/Home Blues (21:24 min.), featuring American R&B and jazz artist Ledisi Anibade Young and the orchestra.
After those tracks are four shorter items: "I Loves You Porgy/My Man's Gone Now" from Porgy and Bess, featuring American singer (and daughter of composer Henry Mancini) Monica Mancini and Cuban-American jazz trumpeter, pianist, and composer Arturo Sandoval and orchestra. Next is "Fascinating Rhythm," featuring American violinist Mark O'Connor and orchestra. After that we find "Three Preludes," with Serebrier and the orchestra. Then the album concludes with "I Got Rhythm," featuring the Shelly Berg Trio and orchestra.
For what it's worth, I enjoyed An American in Paris best of all, with Ledisi singing Gershwin's lyrics to the familiar "Home Blues" section. The whole thing is delightfully done and a real charmer. The other soloists are equally spirited and heartfelt by turns for a rewarding whole.
So, all the tracks work well. Overall, they're fairly conventional, except for their new additions, yet they're polished, innovative, and extremely well performed. Obviously, these arrangements would not be first-choice recommendations for people looking for a one and only recording of Gershwin standards. They are for people who already have favorites and want to supplement them.
The booklet notes, incidentally, contain a good deal of information on the artists involved in the production but almost no info on the music. I suppose the folks at Decca think we already know enough about Gershwin and his tunes that they didn't need to add anything more. Fair enough.
Producer Gregg Field and engineer Mike Hatch recorded the music at Air Lyndhurst Studios and Henry Wood Hall, London, releasing the album in 2018. The sound is pretty much in the long-established tradition of Decca stereo recordings. It's very clear and clean, and it has a healthy dynamic range. But it also appears multimiked, with the soloists clearly out in front, and the orchestra taking a literal backseat. It's not at all unpleasant or distracting, just a little different from what you might hear in a concert hall. Indeed, once you get used to it, it is quite entertaining, especially the clarity.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: