In some ways, it is funny to think of the Gershwins’ songs as “pop music.” Even in their time, the music and lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin held a loftier place above their notable and laudable contemporaries like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Lorenz Heart & Richard Rogers; now they are considered amongst the highest achievements in American popular song. However, with its place in canon of the Great American Songbook, and the years of re-interpretation and recording by jazz performers, the body of the Gershwin’s work has scarcely received attention in the sphere of pop music since the Gershwins’ prime. It seems only appropriate, then, that the artist to reclaim George and Ira for the pop world is also from a prominent American musical family. Using a mix from his usual sonic palette, and borrowing some colours from the jazz world, Brian Wilson gives the Gershwins’ East Coast ditties a West Coast make-over.
While it is indeed true that the Gershwins’ works are no stranger to “contemporary” interpretations—Gershwin scholar Michael Feinstein has often attempted to modernize Gershwin tunes, with mixed results—but have not received attention from a performer with such a defined style as Mr. Wilson. Wilson’s take on the Gershwins should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with him; the sun-drenched, layered vocals of Pet Sounds and the raw, propulsion of hot rod, surf rock function as the backbone for much of his work here. But Mr. Wilson has built his career on continuously reconfiguring and reimagining such elements so they sound fresh with each record, as they do on Reimagines Gershwin. What also makes Mr. Wilson’s recreation of the Gershwin songbook so effective is that, even at the age of 67 (at the time he recorded the album), he is able to pry out an emotional core missing from most interpretations; the youthful delight and energy that are tied to the songs’ origins and soul. Except in the case of “I Loves You Porgy,” which is Mr. Wilson’s weakest vocal and Paul Merten’s blandest arrangement, Brian Wilson’s eternal Beach Boy radiates the youthful, romantic yearnings that are the heart of both Ira’s lyrics and the heart of the Great American Songbook.
While the baroque pop/symphonic pop formula that Mr. Wilson pioneered on Pet Sounds and Smile does indeed provide the basis for much of Mr. Merten’s treatments of George’s compositions, both Mr. Wilson and Mr. Merten are expert painters in the medium of pop music, with a near limitless supply of colors to draw from. Mr. Wilson’s basic, Beach Boys-inspired formula works best on the LP’s, appropriately, inherently more rhythmic numbers. “I’ve Got A Crush On You” rolls off the grooves like it belongs in a 50s, high school dance while “I Got Rhythm” is transformed into a propulsive, early Beach Boys, surf rock anthem, complete with the requisite layered “Woo-ooohs” of “Surfing USA” and a hammering, Little Richard style baritone saxophone line. At their most creative, and most expansive, Wilson and Merten abandon traditional rock n roll rhythms all together and pick up a sultry samba for the iconic “‘S Wonderful.” Wilson and Merten prove their sublime talent as arrangers and interpreters here perhaps more than any other place on the record. From supplementing the beat with a clave pattern, to the balanced orchestral, string flourishes, the restrained, layered vocals and Merten’s own ethereal samba on the flute, G. Gershwin’s original tune is transcended while I. Gershwin’s lyrics have never danced so finely into one’s ear drums. Wilson even puts his own spin on the Billie Holiday/Ella Fitzgerald model of Gershwin interpretation with his vibraphone-driven, lounge-style take on the classic love ballad “Love Is Here To Stay.”
In addition, much like Mr. Feinstein, Mr. Wilson takes the opportunity to further reimagine Gershwin by introducing new material on this record. The bookend tracks—not counting Mr. Wilson’s intriguing yet beguiling vocal revisions of “Rhapsody in Blue”—“The Like In I Love You” and “Nothing But Love” are two uncompleted Gershwin songs with new arrangement by Wilson and lyrics set/completed by Scott Bennett. Before you Songbook traditionalists cry “Hersey,” actually take time to listen to these tracks, as they are two of the best on Reimagines Gershwin. “The Like In I Love You” is pure Ira, with such subliminally rich yet simple lines as “The pain in painting / The muse in music / The like in I love you,” while the baroque pop arrangement reinforces this beautiful, youthful dream of a love song. “Nothing But Love” unfortunately doesn’t contain the overwhelming charm and beauty of “The Like In I Love You,” but may be the closest approximation we have to a Lennon/McCartney inspired Gershwin/Wilson number. While “The Like” is pure Gershwin, and should be cherished for such, “Nothing But Love” is equal parts Wilson and Gershwin from the lyrical structure to the tune itself. The core melodies and harmonies here are more clearly grounded in Beach Boys and Little Richard while the lyrics feature a more rock sensibility of flow and straightforwardness. This is Wilson at the most in the “re-imaginative” spirit.
For over fifty years, Brian Wilson has helped to steer American pop music away from totally becoming a four letter word. On Reimagines Gershwin, Brian Wilson recasts the Gershwin catalog from the halls of Tin Pan Alley to the shores of sunny Los Angeles. With his singular, imaginative vision of pop music, and the help of equally talented arrangers and collaborators, Mr. Wilson gives the Gershwins’ songs a pop sheen that shines brighter than most other pop music, and Gershwin interpreters, today.
- This review originally appeared as part of my Sunday Jazz column for WGTB