When I first started writing about pianist Kirill Gerstein, not long after he received the 2010 Gilmore Artist Award, I was aware that he had a jazz background that included studies at the Berklee College of Music. Sadly, I have not really had an opportunity to observe the impact of that background through both his recordings and the concert performances I was able to attend. However, his latest release on the myrios classics label explores both the music and the influence of George Gershwin; and, while most of the selections on the album were written out without explicit opportunities for improvisation, there are still enough signs to suggest that Gerstein knows how to treat jazz with the same respect he devotes to the classical repertoire.
The album consists primarily of “the usual symphonic suspects,” Ferde Grofé’s 1924 instrumentation of “Rhapsody in Blue” for the Paul Whiteman Band and the 1925 concerto (in F). Both of these pieces are performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson. There are also performances of three of the seven études that Earl Wild composed based on Gershwin songs, “Somebody Loves Me,” “I Got Rhythm,” and “Embraceable You.” (The last of these has always delighted me. Wild knew the music of Franz Liszt as well as he knew his Gershwin; and the “Embraceable You” étude comes across as a “genetic crossover” between Gershwin’s song and Liszt’s “Un sospiro” concert étude.)
The album also includes two tracks that provide some opportunities to appreciate Gerstein’s capacity for jamming. One of these is very modest, because he is accompanying Storm Large singing “Summertime.” Gerstein clearly knows all the details that Gershwin wrote out when this song was part of the score for his Porgy and Bess opera, but he definitely knew how to put his own spin in his backup for Large. Mind you, Large’s delivery is shakier than I would have liked, particularly when she has to sustain a single pitch; but Gerstein’s improvising still makes this track “worth the price of admission” (as P. T. Barnum liked to put it).
A better partnership of equals can be found in the somewhat longer track of Gerstein jamming with Gary Burton on vibraphone. This is a significant coupling, since Burton was the one to invite Gerstein to matriculate at Berklee, where Burton was on the faculty at the time. The two of them are responsible for the one “rare delight” on the album, an account of “Blame It On My Youth” by Oscar Levant. In his day Levant was one of the leading authorities on performing Gershwin and even played the man himself in the 1945 film Rhapsody in Blue. Gerstein and Burton weave their improvisations around Levant’s tune as if they are on a mission to get more people to know the song (even without the words); and, on the album, their duo performance provides a welcome calm after the storm of Wild’s étude based on “I Got Rhythm.”
It is also worth noting that Gerstein finds ways to insert a few riffs of his own into the two orchestral selections. These are likely to be recognized only by those who have heard these pieces enough times to pretty much know the entire score. They are subtle, they definitely raise eyebrows, but they are just as definitely not obstreperous intrusions. Also worth noting are the high spirits that Robertson brings to the orchestral side of both of these pieces. His partnership with Gerstein could not have been better, particularly for those who might worry that this is just another instance of the usual treatment of Gershwin.