Gershwin in Hollywood
It was said that George Gershwin would strive to write four songs first thing in the morning – to get the bad ones out of his system. It worked. I don’t believe there is any such thing as a bad Gershwin song, but the very best of them feature in this luxury assortment, with one or two that we don’t hear so often like ‘For you, for me, for evermore’ (gorgeous) finding a new place in our consciousness and hearts. And this being a John Wilson album with his eponymous orchestra, they all wear their Sunday best orchestrations from the days when the silver screen shimmered like never before and Fred and Ginger glided across it.
The Overture from Rhapsody in Blue (the movie, not the jazz hybrid concert piece) sets out the stall with a galaxy of Gershwin tunes gleefully rubbing shoulders in a tantalising and virtuoso Ray Heindorf confection. And when the ‘blue’ tune from Rhapsody does inevitably make its appearance towards the close, the smokiness of the sound is beyond beguiling. It’s the sound of an era. That’s the thing about Wilson and his orchestra – the rightness of colour, tempo and phrasing are a given and sometimes you actually feel that if you degraded the sound and factored in a little snap, crackle and pop, then a track like ‘Oh Lady, be good’ – as arranged by Jerry Gray for Artie Shaw’s Symphony of Swing and showcasing all the orchestra’s core soloists – you’d swear it actually was the original from 1939.
That core of stylistic brilliance rips through the dance break of a number like ‘Treat me rough’, with trumpet genius Mike Lovatt energising the fancy footwork with attitude. And I can see why Wilson had to include ‘Let’s kiss and make up’ from Funny Face. The dance break there gets all spick and Spanish (to borrow from Lorenz Hart), with even a touch of Rósza’s El Cid opulence about it. You notice, too, the added frisson of an audience (the album is the first by the JWO to be recorded live) and the way they feed into the excitement of the occasion. The love for this repertoire and the quality of Wilson’s revitalisation is palpable from players and audience alike.
Wilson’s casting is, of course, now known to be as sound as his restoration and performance skills, and here he showcases two very particular ‘finds’. Louise Dearman leaves Wicked behind and displays a nose for style that is partly the by-product of her ‘legit’ vocal training and partly of her innate sense of period. It’s such a complete voice and she instinctively knows how a song like ‘But not for me’ – in its ravishing Conrad Salinger orchestration – goes.
Matthew Ford is truly a throwback performer, too, and with his Brylcreem-smooth and sexily husky tone (with its engaging flutter) he’s perfectly in tune with his material and more than invokes the spirit of Gene Kelly in ‘’S Wonderful’.
Some of these songs originated on Broadway where their orchestral garb was by necessity more modest – but their journey to the silver screen and beyond was confirmation of their quality and durability. Arguably the greatest song here, ‘Someone to watch over me’, is given in its Lennie Hayton Star guise, with Dearman giving us the whole song simple and real and a cappella before the orchestra finally steals in – and when it does it’s like all our Hollywood fantasies have come full circle. Now that is nostalgia.