Gershwin Comes Home

All jazz pianists love George Gershwin’s songs as vehicles for personal exploration. However, Gershwin’s concert music is a rather different kettle of fish.

The topic of cultural appropriation seems more rife than ever. It’s not that Rhapsody in Blue is so bad, exactly, it’s simply that the huge popular success of this trite work has obscured the greater artistic successes of the great early jazz musicians, especially great black jazz musicians like Jelly Roll Morton and James P. Johnson. (Any recording of Morton or Johnson is more important than any recording of Rhapsody in Blue. Period.)

Still, the history of American art is the history of working with what we’ve got. Plenty of later jazz greats fooled around with Rhapsody in Blue when they were kids. A few years ago Marcus Roberts went in and reworked Rhapsody in Blue with his own hot licks and a genuinely swinging rhythm section.

Gershwin’s Concerto in F is a better piece than Rhapsody in Blue — it might even be the best “jazz” piano concerto overall — but it is hardly perfect. The fabulous tunes can’t hide the tinsel used to connect disparate elements. Like most versions of jazz for symphonic forces, it is a fancy musical theatre piece that thinks that it is cooler than it really is.

Last night at the opening concert of the 175th season of the New York Philharmonic, Aaron Diehl took this challenge head on. Aaron can play the blues for real, and made the bold choice of replacing Gershwin’s lightweight sketches in the slow movement with tremendous stomping and shouting from his own imagination. Since Aaron was a classical prodigy, he also had no problem navigating the rest of the work when it made sense to play the original virtuosic piano part. There was a pleasing balance of Gershwin and Diehl throughout all three movements: the final effect left me with the suspicion that this was the best performance of Concerto in F ever done.

Gershwin is finally getting the treatment he deserves from pianists who can draw from the whole spectrum. The next step is for the orchestra to slim down, lose the conductor, memorize, and take more personal freedom and responsibility. The future of American music awaits.