THE BOOK SHELF: John Pizzarelli's "World On a String" and Michael Feinstein's "The Gershwins and Me"

By Steven Suskin
02 Dec 2012

Michael Feinstein
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
Feinstein (working with Ian Jackman) has told his tale in 12 sections: a chapter about the brothers, another about his years with Ira, others about George, Porgy, the Hollywood Years, the fatal brain tumor, and more. The gimmick of the project — which makes this a book that only Feinstein could write — is that he has chosen a song to "illustrate" each chapter. Some songs are more illustrative of the text than others, which in those cases are fair but not obvious choices; in any event, he manages to tie together the text, the songs, and the lyrics in such a manner that the elements continually enhance each other. The songlist, I suppose I should mention, consists of "Strike up the Band," "The Man I Love," "'S Wonderful," "I've Got a Crush on You," "They All Laughed," "Someone to Watch over Me," "Embraceable You," "Who Cares?" "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin," "They Can't Take That Away from Me," "I Got Rhythm," and "Love Is Here to Stay."

But there's more, as they say on infomercials. "The Gershwins and Me" includes a newly recorded CD of Feinstein singing the 12 songs. (There are 24 tracks, actually; following the 12 songs are 12 brief spoken introductions. These are in the back, so you don't have to forward through them when you listening to the songs.)

I did not start listening to the CD until somewhere in the middle of the book, and I must admit that I found myself puzzled. The first track starts with four bars of "Strike up the Band" followed by a bit of one of the Preludes, then about 20 seconds of something I don't recognize at all. Next we get about a minute of what sounds vaguely familiar ("St. James Infirmary"?) followed by a snappy 15-second passage of the sort Bobby Short might suitably play as the intro to "Strike up the Band." And then, at 1:45, comes the actual song.

The text, at this point in the book, was talking about remaining true to the written music. (Especially interesting is Feinstein's tale of his struggles as the Gershwin's surrogate during the Boston tryout of My One and Only, during which he fought unsuccessfully to protect the integrity of the songs from Tommy Tune and Co.) On the CD, the music didn't sound like Gershwin. Nor does it sound like Feinstein playing Gershwin; when Michael plays Gershwin, his inner improvisations sound uncannily like things Gershwin might have improvised. This "Strike up the Band" left me puzzled, and the seven-minute "The Man I Love" didn't alleviate matters.



When I took the CD out of the player, I understood; this is not Feinstein playing, it tells us in small print, but rather someone named Cyrus Chestnut. (The information is included in the credit section of the book, but I couldn't find it until I'd finished reading the whole thing.) Let us assume that Mr. Chestnut is a fine player; otherwise I can't imagine Feinstein selecting him for the assignment. But he is a jazz pianist who doesn't — to me, anyway — seem to have that natural Gershwin style in his improvisations. With this particular book, concentrating on the essence of George and the essence of these 12 songs, I would really rather hear Michael doing what he does so well.

But that is a criticism of the bonus material; what's important here is the book itself. Feinstein has done a wonderful job, giving us a more helpful — and more accurate, at least through Ira's eyes — picture of the brothers than we have had heretofore.

What's more, the book is handsomely designed and produced, a veritable rhapsody in — well, the predominant colors are warmly friendly shades of blue, blue, blue. Loaded with illustrations, too, including some that are new to this longtime Gershwin-watcher. Most touching, perhaps, are some reproduced letters. Like one from George to Iz (short, I suppose, for Isidore, Ira's real name). The composer had arrived in London in 1923, to work on the West End musical Primrose. Disembarking at Southampton, he handed his passport to one of the men at the table, who looked up and said, "George Gershwin, the composer of 'Swanee'?"

"It took me off my feet for a second," scrawls the 24-four-year old composer — who had not yet written the "Rhapsody" or Lady Be Good — to his brother. "I felt like I was Kern or somebody." Another side of George — the real George — that we have never before seen.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," now available in paperback, "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's On the Record and The DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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