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Béla Fleck Salutes Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, Three Ways

One hundred years and two months ago, New York composer George Gershwin, 26 years old, was playing billiards when his brother Ira called to his attention a story in the New-York Tribune. It said that George was working on a “jazz concerto” for a program called “An Experiment In American Music,” set for Feb. 12, 1924 by conductor Paul Whiteman. This was news to George, who swore he’d turned down the commission. But on the phone the next day, Whiteman talked him into composing the work - in just five weeks.

That’s how Rhapsody In Blue, named by Ira (the wordsmith in the relationship), was born. Working in a frenzy that was inspired, he said, by the rhythmic sounds and urban sights of a train ride to Boston, Gershwin found a fusion of western classical music, jazz and blues that wasn’t entirely novel in its time but that certainly broke through with its own personality and appeal. His original score for two pianos was arranged for jazz orchestra by Whiteman’s guy Ferde Grofé, and the piece was a big hit on its premiere at New York’s Aeolian Hall. Other ensembles began picking it up, and in 1942, Grofé completed a symphonic version, which is the score you and I grew up hearing on ubiquitous recordings, at classical concerts, and on television commercials. It was performed with 84 pianos at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics opening ceremony. The Rhapsody is perhaps the nation’s most enduring piece of concert music, a classical classic that most of us know, which is a rarity in 21st century America.

This history was on Béla Fleck’s mind as he released his own Rhapsody In Blue on Feb. 16, a multi-faceted, album-length celebration of the work and its adaptability. The centerpiece is a 19-minute classical version by the Virginia Symphony Orchestra with Fleck playing Gershwin’s tricky piano part on banjo. Because even at age 65, when he could be coasting on all he’s done, Fleck still looks for apparently the hardest thing he could possibly try at any given time.

“A piano player can play Rhapsody a lot faster than I can,” Fleck said in the pre-release press release. “But the truth is, they’ve played it so much that it sometimes gets rushed through. I’d listen and think, ‘There is so much in there but it’s going by so fast that I’m not getting it all.’ That gave me a window into a way to reinterpret those parts on banjo. It could be a new experience for listeners rather than hearing it banged out on piano for the twenty-fifth time. It might even be revelatory.”

The album has much more besides - two little-known Gershwin pieces for solo banjo and two reimaginings of the Rhapsody in the idioms Béla Fleck is famous for. “Rhapsody In Blue(s)” pulls in Jerry Douglas on resonator guitar and Sam Bush on mandolin for an earthy, slide-heavy mini-Rhapsody. And the album opens with an original, 12-minute arrangement of the piece called “Rhapsody In Blue(grass)” that features his well-traveled My Bluegrass Heart band (Sierra Hull on mandolin, Michael Cleveland on fiddle, Bryan Sutton on guitar, and Justin Moses on resonator guitar).

This all feels true to the spirit of an instrumentalist who tends to latch onto big ideas and go deep if not obsessively toward their essence and most difficult implications. And he does this as a musician who does not read or write notation and thus must work up such sweeping works with his ears, hands and memory. I realized that Fleck was taking on the Gershwin one year ago this month when I saw his Bluegrass Heart band play at Big Ears in Knoxville. At one point the band left the stage and Fleck sat solo playing various ideas on the banjo until a theme from Rhapsody emerged. And I thought he was just quoting it for fun until he began to really play through it, in all its harmonic complexity. I asked Béla last week by email if he had been workshopping the piece for his own benefit at that appearance, and he wrote back in the affirmative.

“I figured any part of the Rhapsody that I could play a lot in front of people would make me stronger when I hit the orchestra shows,” he wrote. “I needed to be playing it all the time and in all conditions. And I have to say the strategy worked, and overall the Rhapsody orchestra shows went better than I expected.”

He’s played the full piece with three symphonies so far with a big date ahead on May 4 when he performs the full work with the Aeolian Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. Plans are in the works for still more performances through 2024. But I find myself even more fascinated by “Rhapsody In Blue(grass)” just because it’s given the world’s greatest current string band yet another challenge, after learning and refining the massive body of Béla originals on the Grammy-winning My Bluegrass Heart album. Fleck says that while getting into the Gershwin piece, he uttered the phrase Rhapsody in Bluegrass as a kind of joke, one he feared might be sacrilegious. But with some thought and consultation, he and the band decided to go for it, working it out bit by bit on tour and culminating in sessions last summer.

“We started working on an arrangement before soundchecks, on off days in hotel rooms, and so forth,” he said by email. “In a way it was similar to teaching and arranging my own music because everyone trusted my instincts and I was able to say - this melody would be great on dobro, this one on fiddle, etc. It could have worked with other decisions being made, but with the time ticking down, it was good to have a leader, even if it was me. And lastly - all these musicians are ace session players, and on sessions the job is to make the music sound great, no matter what you think about it. This is clearly great music by a great musical force but, as I said - the band really didn’t know it very well, so they used their amazing session skills to make everything work. At this point they are totally on top of it, and I suspect that they really dig it.”

Unlike the symphonic version, the bluegrass rendition allows Fleck to play the famous opening clarinet line that rises from a low trill to a high soaring blue note. And indeed through most of the 12-minute run, the banjo is the lead instrument carrying the themes and tricky bits, but the fiddle, dobro, bass, and guitar weave together intricately and cleverly. They imbue some of the piece’s five sections with bluegrass rhythms, from traditional to rhumba style to newgrass funky. But they’re true enough to Gershwin’s famous themes to pay it homage as a great piece of music and of American culture.

The banjo after all came to our shores from Africa and was integral to the development of the blues and string band music. It seems likely that Gershwin himself would be applauding this wildly ambitious expansion of his vision.

Also see Béla Fleck’s essay about the Rhapsody in Blue and its legacy.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org