No living pianist is better equipped to address the music of the iconic composer George Gershwin than Ted Rosenthal, as is amply displayed on Rhapsody in Gershwin, his 15th release as a leader. Fulfilling The New Yorker's description as "a musician's musician who balances technique and taste," Rosenthal launches the proceedings with a kaleidoscopic trio arrangement of Gershwin's enduring concerto Rhapsody In Blue, and continues with personalized interpretations of seven enduring hits from Gershwin's canon.
The treatments by Rosenthal and his impeccable trio (bassist Martin Wind, drummer Tim Horner) further burnish his long-standing reputation as one of the leading jazz pianists and improvisational conceptualists of his generation, as a jury panel comprising Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Sir Roland Hanna and Roger Kellaway affirmed in November 1988, when they named him winner of the second annual Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition.
"The 'Rhapsody' trio arrangement was born of practical considerations," Rosenthal writes in the liner notes, explaining that he received an offer to perform Rhapsody In Blue that did not include a sufficient budget for a full orchestra. Intimate with the piece through frequent performances as a solo pianist, with various symphony orchestras, and, most recently, with a Paul Whiteman style jazz orchestra in a February 2014 concert at New York's Town Hall celebrating Rhapsody's 90th anniversary, Rosenthal decided to take on the challenge. Throughout the epic journey that is Rhapsody in Blue, he hews to the original score, never losing sight of the melodies and motifs, "while adding my own jazz improvisations in the cadenza sections" and postulating an array of colors, moods and textures for the trio to navigate.
"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," Rosenthal says. "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."
On Rhapsody In Gershwin, much as he did on the acclaimed 2010 Playscape album Impromptu, on which he addressed a cohort of 19th century classical themes, and last year's Wonderland, a far-flung recital of songs associated with the winter holidays, Rosenthal references a broad range of jazz history and expression in presenting the Gershwin tunes.
"One thing I enjoy is taking a standard and finding my own way to present and play it in the jazz trio context," Rosenthal says. An example is "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off," on which he sets up a sly, witty, smoky ambiance that mirrors the lyric and melody, creating simple cohesive phrases, deploying a force-of-nature left hand, swinging deeply at a slow-medium, adults-only tempo.
Tinges of Monk infuse the introduction to "Fascinatin' Rhythm," before the trio launches a brisk, multi-sectional treatment with various rhythmic twists and turns. Rosenthal cites "a Bill Evans influence" on reharmonized versions of "I Loves You Porgy" and "Someone To Watch Over Me," and observes that "Strike Up The Band" and "Love Walked In" are examples of his "derangements," on which he uses "various rhythmic and harmonic approaches to personalize the song."
"Some of my most important influences were pianists who had an historical and wide-ranging approach," says Rosenthal, particularly emphasizing that lessons during high school years with stride-to-avant maestro Jaki Byard influenced his inclusive penchant for embracing the language and aesthetic principles of jazz piano tradition while restating it in his own manner. "With Jaki it was almost an absence of dogma. I was drawn to the idea of being able to play many pianistic techniques. Whether playing stride or free, I don't feel constrained in any way."
"Gershwin is almost taken for granted, because he's such a staple of American culture," says Rosenthal, 54, who himself stands only a degree or two of separation from Roberts by dint of close proximity to hardcore stride practitioners like Byard and Dick Hyman. "But he wrote both songs and extended pieces, and he was a wizard-like pianist who could play his pieces all night at a party to dazzle the party-goers, especially the ladies. When I think about my musical identity, I'm also a pianist, composer and arranger."
After graduating from Manhattan School of Music and receiving Bachelors and Masters degrees in piano performance, Rosenthal spent the next decade gigging around New York on freelance jobs with the likes of Phil Woods, Ron Carter, Mel Lewis, Clark Terry, Grady Tate, and Lionel Hampton, among others. In 1992, the pianist also joined Gerry Mulligan's Tentette and recorded three albums and performed in major jazz festivals throughout the world with the band until Mulligan's death in 1996. Rosenthal went on to perform as a sideman with artists including Art Farmer, Jon Faddis, Randy Sandke, Ken Peplowski, Ann Hampton Callaway, and more.
Despite his extensive experience as a sideman, Rosenthal has released more than a dozen albums as a leader. Most recently, the pianist released Wonderland (2013), and Impromptu (2010), on which Rosenthal reimagined classical themes for a jazz trio. Both albums, similar to Rhapsody in Gershwin, have strong influences and homages but still exhibit Rosenthal's own attitude and approach: expressive, creative, and sparkling.
Ted Rosenthal's Rhapsody in Gershwin Album Release Performance:
May 14 / Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola / New York, NY
Ted Rosenthal · Rhapsody in Gershwin / Playscape Recordings · Release Date: May 13, 2014