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Jazz Pianist Ted Rosenthal Has A Feel For Gershwin

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR. Ted Rosenthal an early winter of the Thelonious Monk Piano Competition has played George Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue" solo and with symphonic and jazz orchestras. Now he's recorded a version for jazz trio as part of the problem. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Rosenthal has a real feel for the material.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: As familiar as Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue" is you can overlook how radical it sounded. The slick symphonic jazz laced with blues feeling back in 1924 when jazz rhythm could still be rickety. Rhapsody's riffing themes are ready made for improvised variations and many jazz bands have recorded abridgments that zoom in on the best bits. Bucking that trend, Ted Rosenthal's Trio plays whole 17 minute thing. It's a showcase for the pianist and bassist, Martin Wind, who divvy up the melodies. Drummer Tim Horner sometimes sounds hemmed in by his written parts.


WHITEHEAD: Two records don't make a trend but this "Rhapsody In Blue" comes on the heels of the bad pluses equally respectful of more expressionist take on Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" . Ted Rosenthal reduces "Rhapsody In Blue's" lush orchestration but he also opens the piece up, making room for improvising and loosing up the rhythm. That's when these players really make the Rhapsody their own and make it modern again.


WHITEHEAD: As a pianist trained in and comfortable with jazz and classical music he gets Gershwin's sensibility. The composer could also walk the line between worlds. The trio also play some of his pop songs on their album "Rhapsody In Gershwin" to round out their portrait of the composer. Gershwin wrote three of those tunes for Fred Astaire but Rosenthal's trio might trust those springy melodies in Texas. His arrangement of "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off" recalls early homage of malls twist and turns.


WHITEHEAD: That's some clever detail work there. But the best moments on Ted Rosenthal's "Rhapsody In Gershwin" come in between those fancy passages where he really digs in as an improvising pianist. Is also when drummer Tim Horner gets to throw off the shackles. here's another Astaire song "Fascinating Rhythm".


WHITEHEAD: All of these Gershwin Chestnuts have been in Ted Rosenthal's repertoire for a long time and he shines some to a high polish. Case in point is his dryly witty mashup of "Someone To Watch Over Me" and Bill Evens's celebrated improvisation on two chords "Piece Piece". In a way, Ted Rosenthal's playing is one big conceptual mashup. He has a classical pianist reverence for the material and a jazz musician's way of running off of it.


DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for a Point of Departure and Wonder In Sound and is the author of "Why Jazz." He reviewed "Rhapsody In Gershwin" by the Ted Rosenthal Trio on the Playcape Label. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.