Gershwin Reimagined (CD review)

An American in London. Shelly Berg, piano; various featured artists; Jose Serebrier, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Decca Gold B0028889-02.

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.

Shelly Berg
Since Rhapsody in Blue is the most prominent piece in the collection and since it represents the best of the selections, let's take a look at it in particular. Serebreir's accompaniment of the piano is nicely jazzy and bluesy, with solid rhythms. He is able to generate a good deal of excitement with his interpretation. Likewise, Shelly Berg's piano solos are lively and invigorating on the one hand, lyrical and introspective on the other. The difference, of course, is that a few minutes into the piece, Berg and his trio go into their own variations and kind of leave Gershwin behind for intervals. It's not at all inappropriate, and I'm sure if Gershwin were alive he would approve. In fact, it gives the old warhorse a new look. So, for most folks who already own multiple versions of the music, this one should provide some much-needed variety in their collection.

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:

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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