George Gershwin via Ted Rosenthal and his trio. That’s what you get on Rhapsody in Gershwin, the latest from the award-winning pianist, due for release May 13. And if you’re going to devote a whole album to the work of a single composer, you could do a lot worse than George Gershwin, he who practically wrote the unabridged edition of The Great American Songbook, a man who in many respects put American classical music on the world globe. The music, as you would expect, is wonderful. Rosenthal and his sidekicks do it the justice it deserves.
These are tunes you’ve heard many times before, but they are played with a new and creative intelligence that reinvigorates them. All the arrangements are by Rosenthal. In the liner notes he calls a couple of them (“Strike Up the Band” and “Love Walked In”) “derangements.” These he defines as “arrangements that use various rhythmic and harmonic approaches to personalize the song.” However you define what the ensemble is doing, it makes for some remarkable music.
Indeed the trio’s performance is dynamite; each track—there are eight of them—is better than the other. There are no highlights; all eight are highlights. They open with the album cornerstone, “Rhapsody in Blue.” And though you might find the absence of the signature clarinet opening, symbolic of the original’s orchestral vision, disconcerting, Rosenthal has created a version not only viable for a trio, but with a vibrancy all its own. The Gershwin themes are there, ripe for him to explore. Moreover, he has given each of the ensemble members, bassist Martin Wind and drummer Tim Horner, something to work with and expand upon. It’s not Paul Whiteman, but do we really want Paul Whiteman here in 2014?
A quirky take on “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and a version of “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” which truly lives up to its title with rhythms truly fascinating, follow. They slow down with a Bill Evans-tinged “I Loves You Porgy,” an influence reappearing later in the set in “Someone to Watch Over Me.” The set ends with a take on “Love Walked In” where everyone gets their shot to shine, and shine they do.
Rhapsody in Gershwin is small ensemble jazz at its transformative best.