Dominican Republic jazz pianist Michel Camilo has performed numerous programs of George Gershwin’s (1896-1937) music with a number of orchestras in the last 15 or so years - including the Cleveland, National, Atlanta, and BBC Symphonies, among others. Here, for the first time on a major label, Camilo allows his fingers and soul to delve into the execution of three of Gershwin’s works. Accompanied by the Barcelona Symphony under the direction of Ernest Martinez Izquierdo, Camilo sets down his interpretation of the famous "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Concerto in F," as well as a solo turn on the "Prelude No. 2."
The first thing that must be asked anytime a new recording of standard orchestral literature is released must be, especially with so many excellent recordings of this literature already available, "What does this new recording bring to the recorded canon?" In this recording the answer is that the music is, and much more so with the "Rhapsody" than the other works, that it is handled in a wildly non-traditional vein. Liberation of traditional classical music feeling, and accepted Gershwin practice, is immediately evident on the opening clarinet cadenza on the "Rhapsody." It is handled in, what can only be called, a wildly free and jazzy nature. The rest of the work follows this opening statement in similar manner and tone. There is debate over how Gershwin should be performed, but common accepted practice seems to favor playing the rhythms exactly as written and then taking liberties in the emotion of the phrase. In this recording the clarinetist takes liberties in both emotion, no problem, and rhythm, perhaps a problem. That Gershwin, as well as Ravel, were influenced by jazz is not open for debate - whether their music should be played as jazz is, with this recording as the example, open for debate.
Camilo truly turns in a jazz performance of this work. He has technique to spare and that he can handle this literature is beyond question, but his overemphasis and intentionally altered rhythms, at key points, stands him in the school of those who believe "Rhapsody" should be performed as a jazz work. That not withstanding, Camilo is every bit the accomplished performer whose ideas about this piece deserve to be heard, if not accepted by common practice. Even though many people don’t like Glenn Gould’s interpretations of some works it still doesn’t make his music any less compelling, and the same can be said of Camilo’s "Rhapsody" performance. It is exciting and fun to listen to, if truly unconventional.
The "Concerto in F" is handled in the straight-forward manner usually associated with the work, which begs the question, "Why jazz up the ‘Rhapsody’ and not the ‘Concerto’"? Sure, the "Rhapsody" was originally written for Paul Whiteman’s band, but there was, without a doubt, very little true jazz in that group, aside from the occasional Bix Beiderbecke solo.
Overall Camilo handles the sweeping lines, angular articulations, compelling phrases and powerful fortes with aplomb and ease throughout the disc. He is a true master of his instrument. The Barcelona Symphony is exceptionally well matched for Camilo’s high level of technical virtuosity with an especially strong low brass section. Obviously this CD comes to us from Camilo’s heart, and on that level it passionately succeeds.
Thomas R. Erdmann is the author of two books, the editor of two others, and has had over 70 articles published in journals and magazines including, but not limited to, Saxophone Journal, International Trumpet Guild Journal, Journal of the Conductors Guild, Women of Note Quarterly, and Jazz Player. He directs the Symphony Orchestra and teaches at Elon University, NC.