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Concert Preview-Brian Wilson's Genius Take On Gershwin



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Concert Preview—

Brian Wilson’s Genius Take On Gershwin

By John Voket

RIDGEFIELD — Since its beginnings, popular musical artists have offered their own takes on the classic American songbook. Paying tribute to either a cross section or single contributors who have inspired them, those pop performers occasionally offer up a gem of a song or even an entire album that in rare cases takes a classic American composer’s works to new heights.

But it is a rare case when descendants of American songbook contributors as prolific and endearing as George Gershwin seek out a pop music performer, not only asking them to consider offering their take on their unique musical heritage, but giving them a key to the Gershwin vault and inviting them to pick out and complete a sampling of unfinished work by the composer.

Such was the case with Brian Wilson — Beach Boy, Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, and now, at age 69, re-imagineer of the George Gershwin songbook.

 “He had a gift for melody that nobody has ever equaled, yet his music is timeless and always accessible,” Wilson said when his latest project Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin was released late last year.

Wilson could be describing his own timeless creations that many say have stamped an indelible mark on American music, but he was describing the work of his idol George Gershwin. In a recent interview with The Newtown Bee, Wilson said he plans to perform his new project in its entirety during a stop at The Ridgefield Playhouse on June 8.

“Then we’ll do a whole set of Beach Boys music,” he said.

The born and bred California boy has said in various interviews that he first heard the classic “Rhapsody In Blue” when his mother played it at the Wilson home when Brian was just a young child.

“Play it again, please play it again,” Wilson said, recalling the moment. “I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was.”

With Gershwin’s extreme dedication to melody as a cornerstone, Wilson went on from a very young age to craft as many unforgettable pop ditties as he has musical masterpieces. His 1966 album Pet Sounds, for example, is cited in numerous American music history texts and by virtually thousands of artists as one of the greatest if not the greatest Rock & Roll album of all time.

Much like the legendary Pet Sounds sessions, and many of the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson projects since, the master himself handled arranging, performing and producing duties, sometimes simultaneously.

Tapping multi-Grammy winner Al Schmitt and joined by his longtime acclaimed band, the new album features Wilson’s trademark stacked vocal harmonies and orchestrations that made him such a revered figure in popular music.

Songs include his Gershwin favorites, “Summertime,” “I Loves You, Porgy” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” all from the opera Porgy and Bess, as well as “‘S Wonderful,” “I’ve Got a Crush on You” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”

An a capella version of the aforementioned 1924 orchestral piece “Rhapsody in Blue,” showcasing Wilson’s stunning vocal harmonies, opens and closes the album.

Also included in the package are songs titled “The Like in I Love You” and “Nothing But Love,” the former drawn from Will You Remember Me?, a song Gershwin composed in 1924 for the musical Lady, Be Good! which never made it into the show. The latter is based on “Say My Say,” a 1929 song fragment Gershwin brothers George and Ira never fully completed.

In 2009, Warner/Chappell Music and the Gershwin estates made available to Wilson more than 100 piano demos of unfinished or obscure songs and melodies left by George Gershwin at his death in 1937. Wilson narrowed these fragments down to those two favorites, then created new music blending both his and Gershwin’s styles.

“We found these chord patterns that we could write a melody to easily. We listened through those [unfinished Gershwin] recordings for two weeks,” he said.

Wilson said these two new creations were not the only musical firsts on his new album, however. He said he has created what may be the first a capella version of “Rhapsody in Blue.”

“I think I was the first person to do that,” Wilson said, adding that while he is one contributor to the wall of vocal sound that comprises the “Rhapsody” tracks, his entire touring band provided the symphonic equivalent – all singing together in studio to create the finished piece versus building each harmony one voice and one track at a time. 

Wilson said that in the composing and recording process, he tends to create “one line at a time. We all make a take and then we do another line until we have seven or eight of them.”

The sound of Wilson’s voice on this new album is as unmistakable as when he sang classics like “California Girls” and “Fun, Fun, Fun” nearly five decades ago, but his trademark composing style is just as evident and unmistakable on the instrumental “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’”

“Making that one was a kick,” Wilson said. “We tried to get a little Beach Boy beat going on it.”

The lush vocal lead in to Gerswin’s “The Like I Love In You” is a classic example of when Wilson said “I put my mind down on the piano and came up with an introduction that was very good.”

While he remains somewhat humble about his creative aptitude, Wilson invites all music lovers of any age to check out his new album in concert and judge for themselves.

“These are the songs of his that I love,” Wilson said. “Each one has a different personality, a different texture and a different rhythm. So I squared it away until it sounded like Brian Wilson and Gershwin together.”

Select tickets for the June 8 show are still available at www.RidgefieldPlayhouse.org.

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