A jazz musician on playing Gershwin
All Music Guide
At a recent awards ceremony in his honor, Andre Previn concluded his acceptance speech with a profound statement about music: "A great piece is always better than any performance of it." For the performing musician, especially classical or jazz, this speaks volumes.
For classical musicians, it is a reminder that the piece itself contains the guidelines for successful interpretation. Performers only assist in expressing what's already on the page, and should never attempt to make their performance more important than the music being played. Within the structure of a composition can be found all its interpretive possibilities; the piece, therefore, has greater intrinsic value than any one rendition of it can ever have.
Jazz musicians, on the other hand, are afforded a much wider spectrum of possibility for interpretation. Successful jazz renditions can bring an entirely new dimension to written works. The musicians are given license to freely embellish (even alter) the notes on the page, and then improvise (simultaneously compose and perform) on the original or newly established ideas. Yet, however far these renditions may stray from the printed music, the integrity of the composition is always maintained. Here again the truth of Previn1s statement is evident: regardless of the number of modulations, metre changes or re-harmonizations one may incorporate into a performance, it is the piece itself that provides the foundation for those variations. And each piece contains within its structure the key to every possible interpretation.
The compositions of George Gershwin are particularly appealing to jazz musicians, as the jazz vocabulary can be comfortably applied to his songs. His pieces generally adhere to a standard song form such as AABA or ABAB, they often move through tonal centers in interesting ways, and are constructed of sensible musical phrases. These qualities provide ideal foundations upon which jazz interpretations can be built. The renditions presented in this recording reflect an interest that Andre and I share in all styles of music: classical, jazz, pop, blues and other idioms as well. We bring to these Gershwin classics our common musical vocabulary, and the resulting interpretations take some unusual twists and turns. I am especially fond of what I call the "boogie-woo-gie Bartok" on "They All Laughed," the continually surprising modulations on "Isn't It a Pity," the twelve-bar blues that frames "Oh, Lady Be Good!" and the five-bar phrasing (originally written as an eight-bar phrase) of "I Got Rhythm." All of the Gershwin songs included here had previously been performed and/or recorded by both Andre and myself. Yet during the recording sessions, we both felt tremendous enthusiasm for the project and readily agreed on the structure of the arrangements, tempos and harmonic choices. As the sessions progressed, I was often reminded of the value of great compositions, because it is the song itself that provides the musician with the chance to interpret and experiment with new ideas. For this opportunity, we owe thanks to George Gershwin.
Special thanks to luthier William Merchant and Shayna Michele Finch
The making of this record was an unadulterated pleasure, heightened by the fact that Ozawa Hall is a treasure both acoustically and aesthetically. If something goes musically awry, it is the only recording venue I know where you can step outside and be instantly soothed by the trees and the grass and the wind. My last concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra during the past Tanglewood season was on a Saturday night. It was an all-Mozart program. The following morning - too early, but that's another story - my friend David Finck and I showed up at Ozawa Hall in order to make this record. We arrived with several printed collections of Gershwin's tunes, a pot of coffee, good intentions and absolutely no pre-planned ideas. We leafed through the collections and when we found a tune we wanted to play, we decided on a key, and (on occasion) an idea for a beginning or end. The rest was improvisation and interplay and a great deal of fun. Careful editing of a record such as this, needless to say, is impossible since no two takes were ever the same. Although the official season at Tanglewood was over, the grounds were still busy, and during our days of recording we had a constant stream of visitors including many of the Boston Symphony players, tourists looking for the T-shirt shop, and some friendly, if critical, squirrels.