The idea of a collaboration between two of America’s greatest composers is one that is intriguing, but also fraught with peril. The biggest problem is that the music of George Gershwin is completely familiar to even the most casual music fan in this country. We’ve heard it in concert halls and cocktail bars for our entire lives. We’ve heard wonderful cover versions of Gershwin songs, and some pretty bad ones. So for Brian Wilson the question becomes, if you’re going to do an album of Gershwin music, what are you going to bring to the project that’s new?
Once you’ve heard Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin (Disney Pearl), that question begins to seem kind of silly. What Brian Wilson has brought to the project is, well, Brian Wilson. Among the many gifts that Wilson has contributed to the project are the wonderful orchestrations that he did with band member Paul Von Mertens, the lush vocal arrangements that he has long been known for, and a lead vocal performance that is Wilson’s strongest in years.
When it was announced that Brian Wilson would collaborate with George Gershwin by finishing two of Gershwin’s incomplete songs, some dubious voices were raised. Now those doubts have turned to cheers as Wilson has delivered wonderfully appealing recordings of those two songs, “Nothing But Love,” and especially the delightful “The Like In I Love You,” both of which features new lyrics from another Wilson band member, Scott Bennett. “The Like In I Love You” is taken from a song called “Will You Remember Me” that Gershwin composed for the 1924 musical “Lady Be Good!” but never made it into the show. “Nothing But Love” is derived from a 1929 song fragment called “Say My Say” that George and Ira Gershwin never finished.
Wilson points to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” as one of his earliest, and most profound musical influences. To honor this seminal influence, Wilson begins and ends Reimagines Gershwin with a beautifully arranged a capella rendering of “Rhapsody.” It’s immediately apparent that Wilson’s skills remain undiminished as a vocal arranger. Elsewhere, Wilson makes the unusual, but ultimately sound choice of performing “I Loves You Porgy” using the original lyrics, a song usually presented by an African-American female. The instrumental “I Got Plenty of Nuttin'” could have jumped right off Pet Sounds or SMiLE, with it’s banjo, xylophone, and bass harmonica, and the familiar “I Got Rhythm” has been given a facelift with the full Beach Boys treatment ala “Help Me Rhonda.”
This is where I throw objectivity out the window to tell you about the Brian Wilson that I love. Brian was 68 years-old in June. Given his age, and his all-too-well-known history of triumph and tragedy, a lot of people have been ready to count him out. The fact of the matter is that he’s been making some of the most accomplished music of his career in recent years. He’s not just a survivor, he’s a champion, and an American treasure.
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