Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Symphonic Gershwin with Hancock, Dudamel, and the L.A. Phil

In the 1920’s Paul Whiteman was the biggest so-called “jazz” bandleader in the country. Today, he is largely ignored. He had many hot soloists, but his sound was more sweet than swinging. His name pretty much said it all. However, the sort-of concerto he commissioned from George Gershwin would become arguably the most recognizable American classical composition of all time. Appropriately, the jazz inspired Rhapsody in Blue is the centerpiece of a L.A. Philharmonic concert of Gershwin’s music featuring NEA Jazz Master Herbie Hancock, which airs on PBS’s Great Performances this Friday (preview here).

The evening starts with An American in Paris as a feature for the Philharmonic under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel. It is fitting companion piece to the Blue, including some nice solos for muted and hatted trumpet as well as some vaguely jazzish passages. With its diverse movements and crowd-pleasing car horn effects, it is definitely a money’s-worth selection.

The second selection of the televised concert is Hancock’s solo piano rendition of “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Perhaps inspired by the setting, he gives it a rather rhapsodic introduction, before settling into a more contemplative mood. Indeed, he approaches the melody quite obliquely, which is something of a surprise given the venue. After all, “Watch” is one of those songs nearly everyone with any musical literacy sings along with in their head.

The main event though, is undeniably Rhapsody in Blue performed with a traditional arrangement, but allowing Hancock considerably greater interpretive space. Yet, all the magic moments are still there, including the ever beautiful clarinet introduction, perhaps the instrument’s finest classical moment (though not necessarily in jazz, thanks to Woody Herman, Sidney Bechet, and Benny Goodman, among others).

According to Hancock, this is his premiere appearance with a symphony performing any sort of classical-jazz symphonic hybrid. Once known as the “kid” Blue Note Records signed, the seventy-one year old pianist looks at least twenty years younger. He clearly has not lost a step either, attacking Blue with a much wider dynamic range than typical, while even throwing in a legit improvisation here and there.

It is always worth hearing a new version of Rhapsody in Blue, particularly from musicians of the L.A. Philharmonic’s caliber. As an acknowledged master and the L.A. Phil’s current Creative Chair for Jazz, Hancock also provides some tasty moments, even if jazz piano with orchestra is not as natural a fit for him as for a Dave Brubeck or John Lewis. Classy entertainment (if not absolutely epochal), the L.A. Philharmonic’s Gershwin program is a nice way for Great Performances to start the year. It premieres this Friday (1/6) on most PBS outlets.