On the Turntable: Buddy DeFranco and Oscar Peterson Play George Gershwin

December 30th, 2019

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The 1954 recording Buddy DeFranco and Oscar Peterson Play George Gershwin (Norgran) was produced by Norman Granz, and includes the guitarist Herb Ellis, the bassist Ray Brown, the drummer Bobby White, as well as Russ Garcia and His Orchestra

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…..In his new book, Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music, the musicologist Richard Crawford describes Gershwin as having brought “a blend of originality and musicianship unique to America’s musical landscape,” whose “success, embracing both popular and classical spheres, has made him a figure well known to posterity.”

…..The albums devoted to Gershwin’s music over the years are countless, performed by the world’s greatest orchestras and the most saintly of jazz artists, so, for those of us who revere jazz music, a day rarely goes by without hearing an interpretation of a Gershwin standard.

…..I am in the midst of preparing for an interview with Mr. Crawford, which has made the music of Gershwin the focus of my year-end listening.  Over the past week I have revisited many old favorites  – everything from the soundtrack to Woody Allen’s Manhattan, to Miles Davis’ Porgy and Bess, to Yehudi Menuhin and Stephane Grappelli’s Fascinating Rhythm, to Bill Charlap Plays George Gershwin – while also discovering some overlooked recordings of surprising interest.

…..For instance, a 1954 album on Norman Granz’s short-lived Norgran label, Buddy DeFranco and Oscar Peterson Play Gershwin, has curiously risen to the top of my play stack this week.  While the heavily orchestrated arrangements can drown out the virtuosity of the players and prevent this from being anything near an essential session to recommend, I am infatuated with it because it feels like a classic time capsule of the era, and an example of how jazz musicians and entrepreneurs used Gershwin’s music as a way to, as Crawford describes, “embrace the popular and the classical spheres.”  In this particular case, this embrace results in a sound we came to often expect from Granz as the years progressed — something since defined as “easy-listening music,” and a harbinger of “smooth jazz.”  But the sufficient moments of impressive and satisfying performances by Peterson and DeFranco (along with guitarist Herb Ellis, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Bobby White) make this a worthwhile addition to a Gershwin listening session. “‘S Wonderful” may set you off in that direction…

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