Brian Wilson “Reimagines Gershwin”

*Highline Ballroom* ~ Showtime: 7:30pm

Show sample imageHe is one of popular music’s most deeply revered figures, the main creative force behind some of the most cherished recordings in rock history. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to call Brian Wilson one of the most influential composers of the last century.



Brian Wilson changed the meaning of America. The Beach Boys’ parade of hits in the early 1960s not only transformed the sound of pop music, they also shaped the California dream of waves, girls and cars for listeners around the world.

It wasn’t just the subject matter he was presenting—the beach existed long before the Beach Boys did—it was the sound he created that transported people straight to the surf: the streamlined Chuck Berry locomotion, topped with exquisite vocal harmonies full of joyous camaraderie. Wilson’s magnificent ballads (“In My Room,” “Surfer Girl”) balanced the band’s exultant hang-ten anthems with an intimacy and longing unprecedented in rock ‘n’ roll, illustrating the solitude that waited, inevitably, when the boards and the chicks weren’t around.

George Gershwin also altered the ways in which music defined America, as crucial in creating the sophisticated, romantic ideal of New York City as Wilson was in depicting the West Coast. From “Fascinating Rhythm” to “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” his songs offered both complexity and accessibility, expanding the parameters of pop. His short-form work, mostly written for a dozen Broadway musicals, stands next to anything in what has come to be known as the  “Great American Songbook,” and the wit and elegance of these compositions evoke a time, place and attitude that signified urban and urbane America for years to come.

But the similarities between Wilson and Gershwin extend deeper. Most important is their shared sense of ambition: Both composers looked to broaden their work beyond the three-minute pop song, with results that altered music forever. Gershwin blurred the lines between pop, jazz and classical forms, with works like “Rhapsody in Blue” and the groundbreaking 1935 folk-opera “Porgy and Bess.” Wilson experimented with the potential of the recording studio on the Beach Boys’ masterpiece “Good Vibrations,” and with the structure of the rock album itself on “Pet Sounds” and the legendary “Smile,” abandoned in 1967 as its creator descended deeper into mental illness and eventually reconstructed for release in 2004.

The work of Wilson and Gershwin reverberated through the music of their peers—the chord progression in Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” became the harmonic foundation of bebop, while Paul McCartney said that “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was the Beatles’ response to the inspiration, and the challenge, of “Pet Sounds.” Significantly, the two writers also worked in close and complicated collaboration with family members (Gershwin’s brother Ira was his primary lyric writer, and the Beach Boys were a group of brothers and cousins, which helps explain the unique precision of their vocal harmonies).

So it comes as no surprise that Brian Wilson has long said that George Gershwin is one of his idols. He claims that he first heard “Rhapsody in Blue” when he was about 4 years old, and was transfixed by it. Finally, he has been given an opportunity to explore, and even collaborate with, his hero, on a new project titled “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin.” The album contains Wilson’s interpretations and arrangements of 11 Gershwin classics—plus two tracks that the Beach Boy built around “new” Gershwin melodies.

When the Gershwin estate got word that Wilson was planning to record a tribute album, they granted him access to more than 100 little-known or unfinished songs. (Adam Gershwin, George’s great-nephew, recently told USA Today that he considered the pairing “a match made in heaven.”) Wilson wound up creating two new songs based on material he found in these archives: “Nothing But Love,” built on the 1929 rarity “Say My Say,” and “The Like in I Love You,” based on the 1924 composition “Will You Remember Me,” which was written for (but not used in) the musical “Lady Be Good!”

These two songs, which bookend the “Reimagines” album, are among the highlights of the project: They’re loose and playful, and there’s a fascinating play between the styles of the two composers. The brief, wordless fragments from “Rhapsody in Blue” that open and close the album, with Wilson vocalizing the melody line in his signature, layered harmonies, also point to the full potential of this meeting of musical minds.

The songs in between, though, are less consistent. I tried to sing them the way I thought he’d want me to, if he were alive,” Wilson, age 68, recently said. “We tried to make it sound like Gershwin and Wilson combined.” Too often, that fusion means sticking Gershwin’s incomparable melodies on top of Beach Boys-style arrangements, from a lite bossa nova take on “‘S Wonderful” to a carousel two-step in “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” that’s reminiscent of “California Girls.”

The surf-powered “I Got Rhythm” is a keeper, and the eccentric arrangement of “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” featuring a honking bass harmonica, is an extension of Wilson’s recent Americana-rooted work, especially on the “Smile” album. All of this is fine enough, if less than the revelations hinted at in the peaks of “Wilson Reimagines Gershwin.” And while the singer’s voice has gotten remarkably stronger in recent years, he’s still not able to add much to a straight rendition of “Summertime.”

But if not everything on the album works, its ambitions are still enough to make it a welcome addition to the catalogues of both of these musical giants. It makes explicit a vital link in American pop history (“Every note I sang here, I sang in Gershwin’s shadow,” Wilson says.) Most impressive, it marks another step in the ongoing, unlikely renaissance of Brian Wilson’s career: It’s his fifth album in the last six years, after just a few scattered releases in the three previous decades. After teetering on the brink of disappearing, this genius has re-emerged as a vibrant and ambitious artist again. And really, who could ask for anything more?

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June 11, 2011
Highline Ballroom
431 West 16th Street, New York, NY, 10011