5:42pm

Thu June 9, 2011
Music Interviews

A Big, Phat 'Rhapsody In Blue'

Originally published on Fri June 10, 2011 9:13 pm

When one of this country's greatest composers died at age 39, novelist John O'Hara said, "George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937. But I don't have to believe it if I don't want to."

As is true for so many top musicians, Gershwin's works — his popular songs, his opera Porgy and Bess, his jazz-informed classical compositions — live on. Now, there's a new version of one of Gershwin's best-loved orchestral pieces, arranged for a brassy big band.

The beloved "Rhapsody in Blue" opens with a familiar clarinet glissando.

"There's nowhere to hide with this," pianist, saxophonist and composer Gordon Goodwin says. "It's one of the reasons, by the way, that my clarinet sits in the closet unused for 10 years now, because I will not deal with that beast."

But Gordon Goodwin did deal with Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," by rearranging it for his Big Phat Band.

Gershwin wrote his "Rhapsody" in three weeks. He'd read in the paper that bandleader Paul Whiteman was including a Gershwin "jazz concerto" in his landmark 1924 "An Experiment in Modern Music" concert at Aeolian Hall in New York. It was news to Gershwin, so he hustled.

Gordon Goodwin did his big-band arrangement in only two days — talk about hustle. But for a Gershwin tribute at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, he was given only a five-minute slot.

"That told me that I really couldn't get too esoteric or come up with something that would take too long to put together," Goodwin says. "I mean, I've heard this thing hundreds of times. I have such great respect for it. The construction of it compositionally is just so right, I didn't feel it was appropriate for me to go in and reinvent the wheel so that it strays too far from what Gershwin's intent was.

"I don't write a lot of slow songs for the big band, because I think horns are a poor substitute for a lush string section," he says. "But this was an exception, this particular melody, and it's one of the only ballads we play."

With his arrangement, Goodwin's band makes vibrato without strings. In another section, he pumps it with brass and sets it to swing.

"Right, well, we definitely took this theme and put it in a 1950s Count Basie, you know, groove," Goodwin says. "And also maybe a little bit of Quincy Jones and Sammy Nestico. That melody just slid into that groove with very little effort."

Remember that impossible three-week deadline Gershwin faced? In her book Fascinating Rhythm, biographer Deena Rosenberg says the composer, working against time, left a lot of pages in his manuscript blank. Gershwin decided that, since he was the piano soloist for the "Rhapsody" premiere, he'd just improvise those sections.

For the rest, he handed what he'd written over to Ferde Grofe — one of orchestra leader Paul Whiteman's favorite arrangers. Grofe parceled Gershwin's notes out to 18 musicians (who played a total of 23 instruments). Two years after the premiere, Grofe re-orchestrated the "Rhapsody." That version is the one we've come to know.

So what would Gershwin and Grofe say about this arrangement? Are they spinning or swinging in their graves?

"I could only hope, you know, that they wouldn't be disgusted by what we did," Goodwin says. "You know, it's just a great pleasure and honor to be involved with such a great piece of music. ... With all due respect to Aaron Copland and to Duke Ellington, this is America's greatest composer, and I don't think there are any other contenders."

Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band plays this arrangement of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" on its newest album, That's How We Roll.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

When one of this country's greatest composers died too young, he was only 39, novelist John O'Hara said: George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don't have to believe it if I don't want to. As is true for so many top artists, Gershwin's works; his popular songs, his opera "Porgy and Bess," and his classical jazz compositions live on.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says there is a new version of one of Gershwin's best-loved orchestral works, arranged for a big, brassy band.

SUSAN STAMBERG: When I was eight years old, I stood on a hassock in our living room, and conducted this beloved recording.

(Soundbite of song, "Rhapsody in Blue")

Mr. GORDON GOODWIN: There's nowhere to hide with this. It's one of the reasons, by the way, that my clarinet sits in the closet, unused, for 10 years now

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOODWIN: because I will not deal with that beast.

STAMBERG: Because it's so hard.

(Soundbite of song, "Rhapsody in Blue")

STAMBERG: But Gordon Goodwin did deal with Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" by re-arranging it for his Big Phat - that's P-H-A-T - Band.

(Soundbite of song, "Rhapsody in Blue")

STAMBERG: Gershwin wrote his rhapsody in three weeks. He'd read in the paper that bandleader Paul Whiteman was including a Gershwin jazz concerto in his landmark 1924 "Experiment in Modern Music" concert at Aeolian Hall in New York. Well, it was news to George, so he hustled. Gordon Goodwin did his big band arrangement in only two days. But, talk about hustle, for a Gershwin tribute at Disney Hall in Los Angeles, Goodwin was given just a five-minute slot.

Mr. GOODWIN: That told me that I really couldn't get too esoteric or come up with something that would take very long to put together. I mean I've heard this thing hundreds of times.

(Soundbite of song, "Rhapsody in Blue")

Mr. GOODWIN: The construction of it, compositionally, is just so right. I didn't feel it was appropriate for me to go in and re-invent the wheel, so that it strays too far from what Gershwin's intent was.

(Soundbite of song, "Rhapsody in Blue")

Mr. GOODWIN: I don't write a lot of slow songs for the big band, because I think horns are a poor substitute for a lush string section. But this was an exception - this particular melody - and it's one of the only ballads that we play. But the difference between what we do, is you heard the saxophones on that clip you just played.

(Soundbite of voice imitating saxophone)

Mr. GOODWIN: And they're playing with vibrato that was stylistically appropriate at the time.

(Soundbite of song, "Rhapsody in Blue")

STAMBERG: With this arrangement, Goodwin is making vibrato without strings. He and his band grab onto another section of the Gershwin and pump it with brass.

(Soundbite of song, "Rhapsody in Blue")

STAMBERG: Okay, so this is one of the major themes of the "Rhapsody," but you're swinging it.

Mr. GOODWIN: Right. Well, we definitely took this theme and put it in a 1950s Count Basie, you know, groove. And also, maybe a little bit, little here, a little bit of Quincy Jones and Sammy Nestico. And that melody just slid right into that groove with very little effort.

(Soundbite of song, "Rhapsody in Blue")

STAMBERG: Remember that impossible three-week deadline Gershwin faced? In her book "Fascinating Rhythm," biographer Deena Rosenberg says the composer, working against time, left lots of pages in his manuscript blank. Gershwin decided that since he was the piano soloist for the "Rhapsody" premiere, he would just improvise those sections.

(Soundbite of song, "Rhapsody in Blue")

STAMBERG: For the rest, Gershwin handed what he'd written over to Ferde Grofe, one of orchestra leader Paul Whitman's favorite arrangers. Grofe parceled Gershwin's notes out to 18 musicians who played a total of 23 instruments. Two years after the premiere, Grofe re-orchestrated the "Rhapsody." That version is the one we have come to know.

(Soundbite of song, "Rhapsody in Blue")

STAMBERG: What do you think, Gordon Goodwin, would George Gershwin and Ferde Grofe - how would they react? Are they spinning in their graves right now or are they swinging in their graves?

Mr. GOODWIN: Well, I could only hope, you know, that they wouldn't be disgusted by what we did. And

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: I think they'd be snapping their fingers along with the rest of us.

Mr. GOODWIN: You know what? It's just a great pleasure and honor to be involved with such a great piece of music. With all due respect to Aaron Copland and to Duke Ellington, this is America's greatest composer and I don't think there are any other contenders.

(Soundbite of song, "Rhapsody in Blue")

STAMBERG: Gordon Goodwin. His Big Phat Band arrangement of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" is on the album "That's How We Roll."

And looking for a hassock so I can conduct this version, Im Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: You can hear Gordon Godwin's Big Phat Band perform "Rhapsody in Blue" at NPR.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

From NPR News, it's MORNING EDITION.

WERTHEIMER: Im Linda Wertheimer.

INSKEEP: And Im Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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