Brian Wilson Reimagines Rhapsody in Blue
I’ve received numerous emails from friends and colleagues asking my thoughts about the recently released Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin CD. For those of you that haven’t heard anything about this, I direct you to Brian Wilson’s website and the numerous reviews and interviews with Wilson that have appeared.
Taken at face value the disk delivers exactly what we might expect. It is as if Wilson and his production team took Gershwin’s songs and fed them through the magic Smile machine. Like that legendary (and only recently completed) album, Wilson’s Gershwin recording opens with an a cappella vocal track–here Rhapsody in Blue. Additionally, various songs, such as those that comprise the Porgy and Bess medley are connected through instrumental segues, many employing lush strings. Theremin and harmonica abound, as does the back-beat shuffle of the rhythm section that has become associated with the Beach Boys sound in songs such as “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”and “I Got Rhythm.” The pop-music sommelier in me would pair “I’ve Got A Crush On You” with “Surfer Girl,” “I Got Plenty O’ Nothing” with “God Only Knows,” and “‘S Wonderful” with “Kokomo.” A complete stream of the album is available (for now).
What interests me most, of course, is the use of Rhapsody in Blue. The piece appears as the opening and closing tracks of the album (Rhapsody in Blue/Intro and Reprise). Between these official bookends, however, the Rhapsody emerges creatively, revealing the overarching influence of the piece not only on this particular album, but on Wilson’s own musical makeup as a whole.
Wilson has spoken affectionately of Rhapsody in Blue: “I was 2 years old when I experienced the first taste of Gershwin magic. My mother was playing ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ — the Leonard Bernstein version — and all I could think was how it was the most beautiful thing in the world.” It probably was not Bernstein’s version that he heard at age 2 (or 4 depending on the interview) since it was not recorded until 1959, when Wilson was seventeen. Regardless, for Wilson the Rhapsody, “was everything. The chords, the melodic movement, the arranging, the impetus, the excitement, the beauty. It was just an absolute work of art.” It seems particularly apt that Wilson should admire the various musical aspects of the Rhapsody that he does, especially that of arrangement. Albums such as Pet Sounds and Smile unite a series of individual songs into carefully designed extended compositions in their own right. The same might be said of Rhapsody in Blue.
The opening and closing tracks don’t feature the entire Rhapsody, but rather a rendition of the soaring andantino “love” theme. Wilson “reimagines” this famous melody as a series of stacked, block-chord harmonies. Overdubbed to create five-part harmony, this style is easily recognizable as the Beach Boys. The “love” theme’s counter-melody, played here by woodwinds, recalls the lead vocal line of songs such as “I Get Around,” lending both coherence and momentum to the sustained harmonies of the backup vocals.**
In Gershwin’s original Rhapsody in Blue the “love” theme finds no resolution: it develops into an extended piano cadenza never to be heard in full again. Although Wilson’s version concludes with a neat and tidy cadence, over the course of the next twelve tracks on the album, the Rhapsody is treated to its own sort of development. In several instances–some obvious, some more subtle–Wilson incorporates themes from the Rhapsody into his “reimaginations” of other songs.
“I Got Rhythm” begins with four measures of the “stride” theme played by a saxophone and electric guitar. There is an ascending half-step motive that is heard three times in this theme, which is picked up by the guitar and turned into a surf-style vamp.
“Someone to Watch Over Me” begins with an “Eleanor Rigby”-esque string quartet playing a modulating “shuffle” theme. The electric bass segue between this and the entrance of the refrain riffs on the theme, expanding the intervals but following its general rhythm and arc.
“I Got Plenty of Nuttin’” concludes with a cello solo based on the “tag” theme.”
The bridge of “Nothing But Love,” the second of the “new” songs on the album**, introduces another multi-voiced reworking of the “love” theme. Instead of block-chords, however, Wilson retrofits it with another familiar Beach Boys vocal technique: polyphonic layering.
“Nothing But Love” ends with another instance of the “stride” theme, this time played on cello, which leads directly into the Rhapsody in Blue/Reprise. The reprise, like its introductory counterpart, offers a very satisfying final cadence.
Although there are some moments I find a bit trying (Was “I Loves You Porgy” really necessary?), on the whole I find album catchy, engaging, and delightfully well arranged. It captures Wilson’s long-standing admiration for Gershwin. In an NPR interview with On Point host Tom Ashbrook, Wilson declared: “It was universally accepted that [Gershwin] was the greatest musical originator in the history of music.” Although I don’t disagree, there are some that would say Wilson oversteps here. There are others who would say the same about Wilson. I don’t think I’d disagree with that either. In either case, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin presents the music of both innovators in a new light and to a new generation.
* Yes, I know that it wasn’t actually a Theremin used in the song “Good Vibrations.”
** This setting also reminds me of Leonard Bernstein’s nineteen-year-old reimagination of the Rhapsody for a group of summer camp performers, which also vocalizes this theme–though I doubt highly that Brian Wilson would have been aware of this!
*** There are two “new” songs on this album. the Gershwin estate given Wilson his pick of 100+ unfinished songs with the hope that he might finish a few of them. Another post for another day…