Matt Baker takes Gershwin back to his jazz roots with A RHAPSODY OF GERSHWIN at Birdland
George Gershwin did more than anyone to bridge the worlds of jazz and Broadway and the world of classical music. Already a Broadway prodigy in 1924 due to his work on several editions of George White’s Scandals, his Rhapsody in Blue caused a stir when it was first performed by the Paul Whitman Orchestra.
Written in just 5 weeks for an experimental concert at Aeolian Hall, the work blended jazz tunes with classical structure. Gershwin was not the first to incorporate jazz into classical music. Debussy, Ravel, Milhaud, Poulenc and Stravinsky had all experienced it. But Gershwin was the first to make it authentic. After the success of the Rhapsody, he wrote a series of classical works including the Cuban Overture, An American in Paris, a set of preludes, the Concerto in F, and of course his opera Porgy and Bess.
On Monday, Australian jazz pianist Matt Baker returned to Birdland with a new version of his A RHAPSODY OF GERSHWIN project. The project is very much in the spirit of Gershwin’s blend of jazz and classical styles. Using Gershwin’s original compositions as his kick-off board, he created inventive variations with his 5-piece band. There was a lot of virtuosity in the spotlight. Gershwin’s work lends itself to such displays of bravery. The material is so rich that it can only give rise to fruitful improvisations. Matt Baker’s ensemble definitely rose to the challenge. The joy of the evening was the addition of Grammy-nominated singer Nicole Zuraitis. Ms. Zuraitis has a supple voice that is both warm and delicate. In addition to providing the lyrics, she also had many numbers in which she was treated as another instrument in the band, providing haunting vocals.
The evening began with a solo from Baker’s Rhapsody in Blue which eventually included the whole band and magically transformed into “A Foggy Day In London Town”. After that Baker introduced Ms. Zuraitis who gave us a mix of tracks from Porgy and Bess, Including “I Loves You Porgy” and “Summertime” which are linked by a very beautiful vocalization on the 2nd Prelude. They followed with variations on the central theme of the Concerto in F, with a great solo work by Zuraitis and trumpeter Benny Bennack, III. There was a bit of phrasing in between that involved a descending passage that sounded like a very clever laugh. Matt Baker then gave us one of Gershwin’s perennials, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” by Shall we dance.
The group returned to the Rhapsody in Blue, focusing on the upbeat central theme. Bennack gave inspired solo work here. The highlight of the evening was a very simple and very seductive reading of “Do It Again”. Nicole Zuraitis was nothing but shy coquetry. It was quite charming. They then turned to An American in Paris, focusing on the central theme of the work. It is one of Gershwin’s most beautiful melodies and it produced some lovely variations. The concert finale was a mix of “I Got Rhythm” and “Fascinating Rhythm”. Anyone who approaches this tune has the unenviable task of somehow finding an even more syncopated version of Gershwin’s mesmerizing rhythm. Baker’s solution was clever if a little calculated. Nonetheless, there was amazing solo work here by all the band members, trumpeter Benny Bennack, III, guitarist Max Light, Kevin Hailey on bass, Curtis Nowosad on drums and of course the wonderful Matt Baker on piano.
For my ear, the mix of this concert could have been better. Ms. Zuraitis with her dark, rich voice often had to struggle to cut through the brighter instrumentation. Even when her mic was replaced in the middle of a gig, she could have been louder. Baker also tends to double the vocal line with the trumpet line. This might have helped Zuraitis sing in harmony with the trumpet rather than in unison. I could also have used more Kevin Hailey on bass. He was frequently buried by drums. But it’s a little fly in the ointment. This concert was a series of beautiful inventions. Matt Baker is a fantastic jazzman, and his ensemble gave me a wonderful and moving evening.
For more information on Matt Baker, visit mattbaker.com.au. To learn more about Nicole Zuraitis, visit her site nicolezmusic.com. Their music is available on Spotify and all other streaming platforms. To discover other great Birdland artists, visit birdlandjazznyc.com.