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Pianist Ted Rosenthal extends ‘Rhapsody in Gershwin’ to trio form

Ted Rosenthal Trio “Rhapsody In Gershwin” album [May 13, 2014 Playscape Recordings]

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This trio arrangement of ‘Rhapsody’ was born of practical considerations, when an offer came in to perform the piece but the budget wasn’t there to hire a full orchestra. My arrangement features the piece (mostly) as written, yet orchestrated for trio, and also gives each member a chance to solo in various sections.

New York-based jazz pianist Ted Rosenthal tries to punch up Gershwin in a variety of solo jazz numbers in his May 13, 2014 release.
Joshua Haviv

New York-based jazz pianist Ted Rosenthal has plenty of experience playing Gershwin tunes. He’s done so in a number of settings, with the Detroit Symphony, the original Paul Whiteman style jazz orchestra, and even as a solo pianist. For his new album devoted entirely to George Gershwin’s swinging 1920s-‘30s Tin Pan Alley, Rosenthal — a 1988 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano champion — has had to scale back considerably for the full-on jazz effect.

“This trio arrangement of ‘Rhapsody’ was born of practical considerations, when an offer came in to perform the piece but the budget wasn’t there to hire a full orchestra,” Rosenthal described in his liner notes. “My arrangement features the piece (mostly) as written, yet orchestrated for trio, and also gives each member a chance to solo in various sections. Foremost in my mind as I shaped the arrangement was keeping the integrity of the piece while adding extra improvisations, as well as making the solo sections seem inevitable through smooth transitions.”

Rosenthal’s 15th release as a leader, “Rhapsody In Gershwin [Playscape Recordings]” utilizes the basic trio format to pull off the orchestral splendor of the original intent with tons of jazz shadings in eight standards. The trio is anything but basic, which boosts the chops level considerably. Bassist Martin Wind and drummer Tim Horner contribute just as much to the enlivening of Rosenthal’s arrangements. All three possess a considerable taste level in the considered knowledge of Gershwin’s memorably melancholy melodies.

Knowledge of Gershwin came in handy when the trio tackled his most memorable melody, “Rhapsody In Blue.” Rosenthal’s trio dismantles Gershwin’s first delicate classical number, accepted by 1920s America as an easy-listening pop soundtrack, and injects insane doses of jazz solos of varying styles.

Rosenthal starts off the “Rhapsody” straight, adhering loosely to Gershwin’s chart, then opens up pathways for a variety of solo breaks in a song that becomes a 17-minute, 10-second concerto. Quite often, he stretches out the prelude for those breaks, inviting an uneasy lull. The lull isn’t improved by the fancy but old-fashioned piano rolls punctuating the end of each drifting chord progression. Although those rolls, by the 5:48 mark, do threaten a welcoming blast of avant-garde jazz in complicated chord jumps.

In fact, “Rhapsody In Blue” comes alive only when the tempo quickens and the beats fall under an unlikely, random Latin spell (13:16). Gershwin is a composer whose songs beg for variation, and fast. When the jazz solos cut in, the excitement is outweighed by the danger of overkill. Rosenthal’s trio seems to throw in every stylistic change but the kitchen sink at the poor downtrodden simplistic melody, however ingrained in the American people’s subconscious.

Rosenthal is a pianist of rarest skill, weaving rapid single note lines that span out into rich chordal patterns, parallel octaves and hints of the blues. –The Los Angeles Times

Rosenthal said he was aware of the tension between doing too much and not doing enough to Gershwin. “What was tricky, challenging and fun was to strike a balance between the notes that Gershwin wrote and the new directions that we take it. If you take the jazz and the solos too far, you might start to lose the focus; if you just play the piece, someone may say, ‘Where’s the jazz?’ I’ve played ‘Rhapsody’ in a more historical context, with all the notes and nothing extra. But I’m a jazz musician, and I prefer to do it with improvisation, which I think is natural. In a way, I’m bringing a few worlds together with this recording.”

If the listener can wait long enough for those jazz breaks, Rosenthal’s “Rhapsody In Blue” rewards with an endless series of stylistically vast solos that somehow never quite get untethered and do make it back home to Gershwin’s familiar refrain.

In general, Gershwin’s music tends to sound square and maudlin. It’s hard to modernize, especially with cornball clichés like “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and “Strike Up The Band.” Yet the Rosenthal Trio does a serviceable job on these songs, producing enough percussive and piano space — with a surprise string purpose — to cover over the hokey tap-dance of “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.” And Rosenthal’s own piano covers — Monk-like in their attack — impressively dress up the clunky original (he’s flying on the keyboard by 2:49). For “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” Rosenthal again disrupts the song-and-dance routine of a quaint but cheesy ancient rhythm by stretching the song with frequent rest stops significant enough for a jazz solo. Martin Wind walks his upright bass up and down the stairway to heaven in “Strike Up The Band,” giving the stodgy number a kick in the rear.

One of Gershwin’s most enduring songs is “Someone To Watch Over Me.” It’s nearly impossible for anyone to screw up. The timeless, haunting melody is there in the piano section, waiting for the right musician to pick up on and simply elaborate without preamble or excess. Rosenthal smartly plays it down and plays it straight, keeping the romantic stillness in the heart of the painful tension of a taut to tender release, while keeping Bill Evans in mind. His bassist and drummer follow suit, barely rippling the melody off its tender track.

The Ted Rosenthal Trio tried to update Gershwin through jazz channels. Their efforts covered up some of Gershwin’s more hokey tendencies, while bringing out the timelessness of the melody’s vulnerable heart. They’ll be at New York’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola May 14, 7:30 p.m., for an album release performance. Cover, $30.