First Listen: 'Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin'
The announcement last fall that Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson would pay tribute to the music of George and Ira Gershwin, including completing songs left unfinished at George’s untimely death in 1937 at age 38, gave reason for both anticipation and consternation.
Anticipation at the prospect for a meeting of kindred but disparate spirits across time: one the quintessential musical voice of the Jazz Age in New York, the other the prime architect of the rock era’s California myth of hot rods, bikini-clad girls and fun in the sun.
Consternation because much of the beauty of Wilson’s once-wondrous voice had been ravaged for nearly 30 years by personal and professional traumas, from which he’s been charting a steady recovery in the last decade. But the question looms of what the creator of “Good Vibrations” and “California Girls” could bring to the revered canon of one of America’s cornerstone teams from the Great American Songbook.
At a listening session Wednesday night in West Hollywood, an audience of about 100 invited guests, including record company executives, journalists and others, got a listen to the result, “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin,” the album scheduled for release Aug. 17.
The key word here is “re-imagines,” not “interprets,” because more than simply presenting a collection of mostly familiar Gershwin classics in Wilson’s voice, the album processes them through his one-of-a-kind musical imagination. It makes his excursion through material that’s been so widely performed for the better part of a century a uniquely illuminating outing.
One of the key things Wilson and George Gershwin share is the ability to absorb the traditions that preceded them and forge them into something new and utterly individualistic. Both men also longed to expand the structural boundaries of the music of their times.
Wilson brings his signature skill at vocal harmony, musical arrangement and orchestration to bear, relying extensively on the endlessly resourceful backing of the members of the Brian Wilson Band that’s been with him in concert and on record since his musical renaissance began at the end of the '90s.
He’s delivered another thematically and musically contiguous opus that leads one song into the next by way of inventive instrumental segues, threading what’s just been sung and played to what comes next.
It opens with an a cappella rendering of the climactic melodic motif from “Rhapsody in Blue,” the song Wilson has often cited as his first musical memory, akin to “Our Prayer,” which kicked off “Smile.” That opens the door to “The Like in I Love You,” one of the two fragments he and songwriting partner Scott Bennett completed with the blessing of the Gershwins’ estate.
The chorus reflects Ira’s signature witty wordplay: “The pain in painting, the muse in music, the like in I love you,” but Wilson doesn’t try to replicate George’s melodic or harmonic style, instead doing what he’s known for: achingly pretty pop melodicism.
Next is a four-song medley from “Porgy & Bess,” through which Wilson colorfully weds instruments rarely combined by the classic pop singers who usually take on this stuff: twangy electric guitars next to atmospheric vibraphones, bass harmonica, banjo, trombone and baritone sax along with those tapestry-like vocal harmonies of his.
As a singer best known for white-boy pop-rock, Wilson shows he nevertheless has absorbed the blues inflections that so fascinated Gershwin. He exhibits no qualms about his distaff version of Bess’ showpiece “I Loves You Porgy,” bringing a fetching emotional openness to the lazy-swing jazz-blues arrangement.
The most radical re-invention may be “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” This ode to a classy and civil romantic farewell, once a sublime breakfast-table duet between Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, in Wilson’s hands becomes a musical joy ride down PCH with the top down, all sunny enthusiasm for the gifts given and received in this relationship.
His take on “I Got Rhythm” taps the rock pulse of the Happenings’ version that brought the Gershwins’ music to the upper reaches of the pop chart in 1967, and which itself was inspired by the Beach Boys-Four Seasons vocal sound raging at the time.
Wilson’s “Someone to Watch Over Me,” by contrast, is elegantly, disarmingly straightforward in communicating George’s exquisite melody and Ira’s yearning lyric.
“Nothing But Love” is the other newly completed song, a big beat rocker that’s more Wilson, where “The Like in I Love You” is more Gershwin.
It ends with a reprise of the “Rhapsody in Blue” choral theme. This won’t trump the latter-day high watermark Wilson hit in completing his own long-lost masterwork “Smile” in 2004.
There’s no doubt that Wilson’s album will elicit some squawking from those who prefer a Sinatra-Tony Bennett-Ella approach. But it does provide an undeniably fresh perspective on some of the most widely recorded music in history.
Who could ask for anything more?
-- Randy Lewis
Photo of the Brian Wilson Band (l-r): Nelson Bragg, Probyn Gregory, Darian Sahanaja, Wilson, Jeffrey Foskett and Nick Walusko, who prefaced the playback of Wilson's Gershwin tribute album Wednesday with a brief a cappella performance in West Hollywood. Credit: Brian Lowe
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