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Tributes show Gershwin's music eternally fresh

Someone to Watch Over Me: The Songs of George Gershwin
Someone to Watch Over Me: The Songs of George Gershwin
By Susannah McCorkle

Concord Records: 1998

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My One and Only: A Gershwin Celebration
My One and Only: A Gershwin Celebration
By Trudy Desmond

Justin Time Records: 1998

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This review first appeared in the August 15, 1998 edition of the American Reporter.

Last week we wrote about a new series of CDS from Prestige/Fantasy Records devoted to American composers. The only complaint about "The Jazz Giants Play" was the lack of a volume dedicated to the Gershwins or Irving Berlin.

Not part of that series but still noteworthy are two separate tributes to George Gershwin – one from Trudy Desmond, and the other from Susannah McCorkle. While the two vocalists have distinct approaches to their music, together they remind again how timeless the music of George and Ira Gershwin was.

Not really part of the jazz community during his life, George Gershwin (brother Ira was his longtime, but not sole, lyricist) nonetheless created a large and influential part of the jazz idiom.

As with his fellow classic American pop composers of the middle part of this century – Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter – Gershwin wrote songs with clean, classic melodies that lend themselves to endless reinterpretation. For an improvisational form such as jazz, George Gershwin's music provides a nearly boundless supply of inspiration and challenging source material.

For example, one of Frank Sinatra's earliest hits, before he was a saloon singer, was the sentimental wartime ballad, "Someone to Watch Over Me." Anyone who's heard Sinatra's version will know that to him it belongs forever – and yet McCorkle handles it with such loving, gentle caress that her version also seems right. And while Ella Fitzgerald will always own "They Can't Take That Away From Me," Desmond's stylish, jazzy cover is distinctive and equally right.

As mentioned, Desmond and McCorkle have divergent styles. McCorkle is possessed of a purer voice and sings with a looser approach than the more structured Desmond. For her part, Desmond seems more willing to take stylistic chances than McCorkle – to push the envelope out just a bit more.

Being on two of the top jazz labels on the scene today (Concord and Justin Time) guarantees that both McCorkle and Desmond are surrounded by the best talent around.

Desmond has a combo led by the outstanding pianist Bill Mays; guitarist Ed Bickert (generally found on McCorkle's Concord label) is one of Canada's greatest national resources, even if most folks have never heard of him. He plays guitar the way Count Basie played piano – damned few notes and no wrong ones. Nobody sets a singer up better than Ed Bickert. And few singers can take that running start and make more of it than Desmond.

McCorkle is backed by a combo led by pianist Allen Farnham – it is equally smart, equally tight. And if guitarist Howard Alden isn't as good as Bickert on that hollow-body electric (and who outside of Jim Hall, Mundell Lowe or Barney Kessel ever was?), he's hardly a slouch.

As for the songs, there is some overlap on the two albums – "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "I Got Rhythm," "They All Laughed" – but seeing that both discs have over a dozen songs each, there is enough divergence to justify getting both. And actually, hearing how differently the shared songs are approached serves to impress yet again how rewarding and challenging Gershwin's music remains.