On his third album of Gershwin material, pianist and singer Michael Feinstein continues his scholarly and musical work of reviving forgotten gems and updating the omnipresent classics.
Michael and George: Feinstein Sings Gershwin celebrates George Gershwin’s 100th birthday—and Ira’s almost 100th—with a program culled to honor the span of his career. Feinstein starts the LP with the instantly recognizable “Embraceable You,” ends with a piano roll recording of Gershwin’s first proper composition “Swanee,” and fills the interim with plenty of other familiar and dusted off tunes. On Michael and George: Feinstein Sings Gershwin Feinstein presents listeners with a pleasingly varied survey of the brothers’ monumental catalog. What is, unfortunately, also varied on this disc is the quality of Feinstein’s interpretations.
The primary ailment that some of the tracks suffer from is a case of “periodization” in the production. There are some production styles in the history of popular music that are rooted in the trends, sounds, and vernacular of a specific time period. While this concept is not inherently a bad thing—certainly there are time-period specific production styles that would receive a warm welcome no matter the era—in Feinstein’s case, the late-90s smooth jazz, last-gasp new jack swing arrangements and soundscape is neither particularly pleasing to the ear nor does much homage to George Gershwin.
The issue here is something that Feinstein explores in the liners notes, writing that “George is one hundred and his music is ageless…In times of passing fancies, Gershwin grows stronger and sturdier…The songs are sung, re-sung and reinterpreted in every conceivable genre, and they thrive.” Feinstein’s statements reveal the problems in this method of production; it grounds the Gershwins’ “ageless” (timeless) songs on a specific time period. In doing so, Feinstein prevents his own work from entering into the canon of interpretations that become just as timeless as the core tunes themselves. Sarah Vaughan’s 1958 recording of “Do It Again” (with just vocals, piano, and the occasional string section compliment) still sounds as fresh and potent as if it were recorded yesterday, while the version Feinstein plays here, with its heavily synthesized beats and instrumentation, is constrained by both the conventions of its time and Feinstein’s lackluster vocals. Similar comparisons could be made between other tracks on the album that share a similar malady: “Nobody But You,” “Shall We Dance?,” “Delishious,” and “Love Walked In,” the worst of the batch on this record. At other times, the production muddles Feinstein’s performance simply by being off balance, as when the flute nearly drowns out both his vocals and piano on “Embraceable You.”
All is not lost. Michael Feinstein, scholar and musical expert of George and Ira Gershwin that he is, still manages to deliver a little over half an album’s worth of good, sometimes even outstanding, takes on these entries in the Great American Songbook. Taking cues from the Miles Davis/Bill Evans approach to jazz performance (that less is more), Feinstein is at his most evocative, and most sublime, on the LP’s sparser tracks. Incidentally, two such numbers are also the gems that Feinstein unearthed for this LP: “Comes the Revolution,” which Feinstein notes as “Ira’s favorite musical theme” and “Lonely Boy,” cut from Porgy and Bess. While “Comes the Revolution” is indeed only a musical theme—much like Bill Evan’s original recording of “Waltz for Debby,” both compositions hover around the one minute mark—there is no finer example of George Gershwin’s staggering talent as a composer. This musical theme is easily among the finest set of notes Gershwin ever committed to paper or record. Feinstein’s recording of “Lonely Boy” is the number’s recording debut, and Feinstein makes us ache that it took this long to hear it. After a piano chorus that mixes in elements of Gershwin’s, Richard Roger’s and Evan’s playing, Feinstein channels Nina in this spellbinding, ethereal lullaby of a song. Feinstein and Gershwin manage to pack the haunting spectrum of emotions that color Porgy and Bess into a single number that works on every level.
If any classic reinterpretation presented on this disc deserves entry into the pantheon of the Gershwin canon, it is his breathtaking version of “Love Is Here To Stay” from The Goldwyn Follies (1938) and An American in Paris (1951). After the disappointing, overproduced initial tracks of the record, “Love Is Here To Stay” comes as a refreshing reminder of Feinstein’s artistry. Some of Chopin’s most beautiful compositions—such as Prelude in E Minor—require an impeccably delicate touch of phrasing to achieve the maximum beauty; the same is true for Feinstein’s vocals on “Love Is Here To Stay.” He creates a potent mixture of nostalgia and optimism through his precise phrasing, vocal play, timbre, and warm, hummed vocal solo.
Feinstein’s work also allows one to reexamine some of the lyrical duds that exist even within such a near-spotless catalog as the Gershwins’. While the album’s most upbeat and silly number, the P.G. Woodhouse co-penned “Oh, Gee! Oh, Joy!” is too much fun to nitpick, other more lighthearted numbers do not get the same pass. The primary rhymes in the chorus of “Delishious” are painful and campy: not even Ira Gershwin gets a pass for rhyming “Delishious” and “Capricious.” Meanwhile on “Nobody But You,” cut from La La Lucille, Arthur J. Jackson and Buddy DeSylva get the gavel for using the head-turning line “Whose my little yum-yum” in what could be an otherwise fine love song. Perhaps Feinstein’s underlying point was to highlight how, even with the occasional dud, Ira Gershwin was a head and shoulders above many of his contemporary wordsmiths.
While the Gershwins’ music does occasionally suffer at the hands of modern treatment on this record, Michael Feinstein does a wonderful job reminding us of the simple wonder of the Gershwins. The rare gift of previously unheard masterpieces on Michael and George: Feinstein Sings Gershwin makes it worth a space in your library.
- Originally published as part of my Sunday Jazz column for WGTB - Georgetown Radio