By David M. Beard
There was 2004’s majestic Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, then 2008’s colorful That Lucky Old Sun – both evocative collections in Wilson’s catalogue. Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin is an album that is something else altogether; in touching Gershwin’s venerable catalogue, Wilson has taken his own unique approach to composing and has actually made Gershwin his own. The result? Wilson’s career-defining best.
In addition to his role in the band as a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, Paul Von Mertens assisted Wilson with song selection as well as arrangements and orchestrations. When I asked Mertens about the album, he submitted, “Many of these songs are so familiar that they’ve been played beyond the point of boredom. They’ve been played into the ground and sort of lost their spark. I’ll give you one example: ‘Summertime’; almost nobody sings the melody correctly the way it was originally written. They take away some of the interesting chromaticism that’s in the melody that Gershwin wrote and turn it into a Blues song. What Brian did was – with almost all these songs – return faithfully to the original melody, which is kind of a big deal because a lot of people have been singing and playing these songs incorrectly and the casual (loungy) versions of these songs have become the norm. Hearing the songs done correctly is kind of a revelation. I know that it sounds like good music done well. It’s Brian and Gershwin done with a lot of care.”
The attention to detail in the arrangements of “Summertime,” “Our Love Is Here To Stay” and “I Loves You Porgy” (sung from the original female perspective), and the wonderfully unexpected adaptations of “’S Wonderful,” “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’,” “I Got Rhythm” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” make Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin a brilliant assemblage of fully realized songs that are as good as anything available in music today. When asked about his reimagining of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” Brian said, “Well, ‘Little Deuce Coupe’ was like (begins scat singing) – I took it from ‘Little Deuce Coupe.’ I wanted it to have that ‘Little Deuce Coupe’ kind of Beach Boy feeling.”
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the song selection is the full realization of two previously incomplete Gershwin recordings, “The Like in I Love You” and “Nothing But Love.” The Gershwin Estate had someone take all this music that was in written form and record very basic piano performances of the songs, so Brian listened to solo piano recordings that were just realizations of the chords and melody of the fragments. Band member Scott Bennett returned to the role of lyricist (That Lucky Old Sun) on the two songs, but the two tracks came together very differently. Mertens explains, “For ‘The Like in I Love You’ I used a piano improvisation that I recorded while Brian was noodling around after soundcheck on the piano. I was kind of following him around while we were on tour with his knowledge and permission, because he liked to play piano after dinner (and before the gig) up on the stage. I said, ‘Would it be okay if I just record some of the stuff that you do, and if you have any Gershwinny [sic] ideas we’ll take ’em down?’ Brian said, ‘Okay.’ That vocal intro is something that he was playing on the piano and I transcribed it and suggested that it might make a good intro for this Gershwin song that he chose; it was in the key of E-flat. I wrote a chart for the Gershwin song with just the chord changes, the band recorded a basic rhythm track and then Brian sang a new melody for it. We tracked the parts that Brian liked and then he created a new melody for it.”
“Nothing But Love” was also from a piano rendition, but went through a different process. Mertens expains, “That was one of the songs that Brian had selected based on the solo piano version of it. Darian (Sahanaja) recorded a waltz-time version instrumental demo of that song and had Brian listen to it and we recorded it. Brian created a new melody in Darian’s waltz-time version of it and somehow it was just not making it and Brian started to feel strongly that the fact that it was a waltz was getting in the way for him. He said, ‘I don’t do waltzes… It’s not workin’.’ We had a lovely song so we decided to: 1) lower the key, and take it down a step; 2) If it’s hard to sing in three let’s just rock it. ‘Nothing But Love’ was really the only song that didn’t come to life almost instantly. It wasn’t until we did it as a rock song that suddenly everyone’s eyes lit up and we were like… ‘Okay, this is gonna work!’”
Of the 14-track album Wilson says, “If you take it one by one, each song has a different personality and a different texture and different rhythm, and different sound. And each lead, how you have to handle the lead, the way you really feel it – and the way you think George would have liked to have heard it… I squared it away until it sounded like Brian Wilson and Gershwin together.”
Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin brings together the sounds of The Beach Boys, George and Ira Gershwin, Jazz, R&B – all the great music that came out of Tin Pan Alley. This collection is for the fan, but it’s also for the uninitiated. There is something for everyone to appreciate… including Brian Wilson. For under the “Special Thanks” in the album’s liner notes Wilson wrote: To George and Ira Gershwin for creating music that inspired a young boy from Hawthorne, California to follow a dream. It's one thing to touch something. Brian has a firm grasp of his dream.