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CD Review

George Gershwin

It's Wonderful

A Tribute to George Gershwin

Barbara Hendricks, soprano
Guildhall Strings/Paul Bateman
Geoffrey Keezer, piano
Ira Coleman, double-bass
Ed Thigpen, drums
EMI Classics 570492 DDD 72:48
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This generous program of Gershwin's tunes goes by quickly, thanks to its creators' clever balancing of stylistic variety with artistic consistency. String arrangements and small jazz combos take their turns, and Hendricks alternates between Cleo Laine-like torchiness and more classical styles of vocal production, all with naturalness. It is unlikely, given this variety, that such a program could find its "feet" live, as a jazz club is not a concert hall, and vice-versa. On disc, however, it works beautifully, and one's ears do not question what would seem unlikely elsewhere. This program was recorded over the course of a mere four days in London's Abbey Road Studios. The concentrated sessions obviously contributed to the density of the delights preserved therein.

Of the 19 tracks on this disc, the first ten are associated with songs from the Broadway stage or the movie screen. "Somebody Loves Me" and "S' Wonderful," for example, find Hendricks comfortably playing catch with the trio of Keezer (who also did the string arrangements), Coleman, and Thigpen. "The Man I Love" wakes up on a bed strings, but soon gets the Brazilian treatment with the assistance of the jazz musicians. "Fascinating Rhythm" shows off the excellence of the latter trio, and some previously unheard (at least by me!) lyrics in the same song sweeten the deal. Speaking of which, Hendricks's treatment of an Ira Gershwin lyric puts that of most crossover divas to shame. I like her humor ("sad to tell, it was HELL" to be kissed by her aunties in "How Long Has This Been Going On?") and even her lack of self-consciousness in singing "Oh, Lady Be Good!" without changing the gender of the lyrics.

The remaining nine tracks are devoted exclusively to Porgy and Bess. Hendricks sings the expected Bess, Clara, and Serena songs; pulls off "Porgy, I's Your Woman Now" as a solo (aided by an unidentified sax player); and even appropriates Sportin' Life's "It Ain't Necessarily So" and Porgy's "Oh Lawd, I'm On My Way." (Shades of Boris Christoff in his "What do you mean I can't sing all the bass roles?" recordings of Boris Godunov.) In "Summertime," sung with an exquisite teetering between the operatics of the written score and jazz inspiration, Hendricks shows that her operatic voice is as gorgeous as ever. Other highlights of this set are Geoffrey Keezer's brilliant pianism in "There's a Boat That's Leaving" and "I've Got Plenty o' Nothing," and a soulful bass solo from Ira Coleman at the end of "My Man's Gone Now."

On paper, It's Wonderful – Gershwin with an operatic soprano and strings, and a jazz trio thrown in to add credibility – shouldn't have worked. However, it does work… well, wonderfully. It's a stylistic dice-toss that came up boxcars.

Copyright © 2002, Ray Tuttle