Crazy about those chord changes, swing musicians began riffing on George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” almost the first night Ethel Merman bellowed it on Broadway, in 1930. “Rhythm changes,” as they were soon called, provided scaffolding for any number of bebop originals, not least “Salt Peanuts.” But the first to harvest a new piece from them was Gershwin, who debuted his “I Got Rhythm” Variations, written while he was boning up on theory with Joseph Schillinger, on a 1935 concert tour—five years before “Lester Leaps In” and “Cotton Tail.” Gershwin recycled. A phrase he obsessed over in his second piano prelude in 1926 turned up as “My Man’s Gone Now” in Porgy and Bess 11 years later, and the tag to his 1924 magnum opus
Rhapsody in Blue was also the basis for “The Man I Love,” introduced on record by Marion Harris later that same year.
That could be why it seems oddly apropos for guitarist Will Bernard to usher in a rumba with a quote from “Fascinating Rhythm” on Anthony Brown’s Rhapsody in Blue/American Rhapsodies. Or else it’s because we’ve already heard gong and bamboo flutes preceding the famous opening clarinet glissando and steel drums or Chinese hammered dulcimers replacing the two pianos. Brown’s “recomposition,” the centerpiece of the Bay Area percussionist’s Rhapsodies, has taken so many liberties that at least electric guitar, a rumba, and an interpolated standard conform to a more reassuringly familiar notion of jazz. The cheekiest move—and the most chillingly beautiful moment—comes near the end, when Brown assigns the lead on the adagio to Hong Wang’s ehru, an ancient Chinese two-string violin whose uvulations are eerily similar to those of human song. It’s as if Brown, whose mother was Japanese, is playing off the fact that Rhapsody in Blue followed a bit of mock-Orientalism by Victor Herbert on the occasion of its premiere at Paul Whiteman’s 1924 Aeolian Hall concert. But that quote from “Fascinating Rhythm,” which I’m guessing is part of the arrangement, somehow confirms that Brown’s heart is in the right place when it comes to Gershwin—that he isn’t just trying to bring a ambitious Jewish composer’s dated hymn to the melting pot into line with today’s more nuanced views of ethnicity and race.
That adagio has been going through my head since first grade, when hearing it over the closing credits of a Sunday night television show sponsored by Goodyear was a gloomy reminder of school the next day. Inasmuch as strings and the entire idea of “classical” music were equated with self-improvement in my blue-collar Catholic neighborhood, Rhapsody in Blue kind of was
school. I didn’t realize how much I loved it until hearing a 1986 Maurice Peress recording that took Ferde Grofé’s original dance-band arrangement for Whiteman as its model, restoring the banjo and saxophones eliminated with the cakewalk rhythms and the presto when Grofé retooled that arrangement for symphony.
There’s an appealing tension to Rhapsody in Blue, not all of it stemming from Gershwin’s desire to bring jazz to the concert hall before he or anyone in his circle fully understood what jazz was. Despite its many European borrowings (primarily from Rimsky-Korsakov and Liszt), this was a heroic attempt to establish a truly American voice by also drawing on vernacular sources. The tension comes from Gershwin’s (or maybe Whiteman’s) mistaken belief that those sources would be ennobled in the process. Gershwin’s great contribution to jazz was his pop songs, their melodies as much as their changes. Rhapsody in Blue was an early example of pop stepping up in class, a harbinger of the semi-classical ooze that passed for the real thing in better homes everywhere in the 1950s.
And yet on hearing it unawares, I swear I experience what I can only guess are the same stirrings some do on seeing waving stars and stripes—it isn’t patriotism, so it must be the memory of discarded assimilationist ideals. Even a relatively conventional reading like Michel Camilo’s on his new
Rhapsody in Blue does the trick for me. The Spanish orchestra is languid in places, but not Camilo, whose piano interludes seem closest to Gershwin’s actual intentions when they’re a little bluesier, a little more syncopated, and a lot more percussive than the score calls for. Camilo’s pizzazz on Rhapsody and two subsequent works by Gershwin—Concerto in F (the genesis of a half century of film music, good and bad) and the aforementioned second piano prelude (essentially a blues in thirds, haunted by Earl Hines in this performance)—make me wonder if I should give those overly splashy trio CDs of his another listen.
There’s more than just Gershwin’s rhapsody on Brown’s CD as well. The ehru returns for “Come Sunday,” heaven-bound in emulation of Mahalia Jackson alongside guest star David Murray’s loamy bass clarinet. Brown first caught my ear with a 1999 CD on which he rearranged Ellington’s Far East Suite to feature instruments Duke presumably heard on the State Department tour of the Middle East that inspired his 1966 masterpiece. “Tang,” from Ellington’s Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, gets the same treatment here, and Brown captures its surge while guessing at its potential sources. The other riches include two Brown originals: a tribute to Lester Bowie that turns Murray and trombonist Wayne Wallace loose on a “Shortnin’ Bread” riff, and “Anthem/Balle de la Orisha,” a round that starts off euphoric and builds from there.
What brings it all into focus is Brown’s recomposed Rhapsody in Blue. The Peress remains my preferred version, but those hammered dulcimers are so spiky that for once I don’t miss the banjo. Brown treats Gershwin as raw material, much the way Gershwin is often accused of treating jazz. But so what? This is what composers do. A story Robert Creeley once told about Richard Brautigan applies. Brautigan was already a published author by his first visit to an art museum, and what moved him most was seeing his own shadow on a Rembrandt. “That’s not ego,” Creeley cautioned. “That’s saying ‘count me in.’ ” Brown is saying the same thing, on behalf of the rainbow.
Michael Camilo performs at the Blue Note April 25-30.