I’ve never been that keen on jazz, and, if I’m honest, it’s because I don’t really understand it. For all it’s grooviness and funkiness, it’s very esoteric, almost to the point of being impenetrable, sometimes even more inaccessible than the most obscure classical music. I am told, on a fairly regular basis, that the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett is a genius, once a child prodigy, classically trained, who gave his first formal piano recital at the age of 7. However, whenever I have heard recordings of him playing, it just sounds like random notes, a bit plinky-plonky here and there, sounds that move off into the strange tangents of Jarrett-land, avenues and cul-de-sacs of improv which seem to have little coherence or structure. I’ll probably get into trouble with jazz fans and Jarrett-afficionados for saying that, but hey ho…..
Of course, I’ve always been aware of Gershwin. How could one not be, when ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, ‘An American in Paris’, ‘Porgy and Bess’, and his piano concerto are some of the most famous works which bridge the gap between the classical and jazz worlds. His music epitomises the excitement of the 1920s, as the world emerged from the darkness of the First World War and people began to enjoy life again, now liberated from the social mores of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.
My first attempt at playing Gershwin was a piano reduction of ‘Promenade’, more commonly know as ‘Walking the Dog’, a cute little number originally written for clarinet with small orchestra as incidental music for the film `Shall we Dance` (1937) starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. (The music accompanies Fred and Ginger as they exercise their dogs on a ship deck somewhere mid-Atlantic.) It was fun to learn and relatively easy to play.
I had heard the second prelude from the Three Preludes while looking for an MP3 of ‘Promenade’. I liked its languid mood, its tempo, Andante con moto e poco rubato, its use of blues chords, its nod to ‘Summertime’ in the main melody, wending its way above a smooth, steady quasi ostinato bass-line. Gershwin himself described it as “a sort of blues lullaby”. I first heard it, and the first prelude from the set, played live by one of the students on my teacher’s piano course in March. I got hooked on the second prelude and decided to learn it for my students’ concert. It has been a useful and occasionally steep learning curve, for, as my teacher pointed out, it has been necessary to set aside much of my classical training and try to think like a jazz pianist. At first this was very hard: letting go of nearly 40 years of training and method is not easy, and to start with, the piece sounded stiff and formal, with “classical” ornaments, and a melody that refused to ‘swing’. Gradually, though, I learnt to let go and the piece began to assume its own identity under my fingers. A run through for my teacher a couple of weeks ago confirmed this, and by the time I played it in my summer concert, I felt it had exactly the right mood: lazy and ‘cool’.
The first prelude from the set, marked Allegro ben ritmato e deciso, is altogether more ‘jazzy’, with its syncopated rhythms based on Brazilian “baiao”, and chords containing flattened sevenths (which sound – and feel – like “real” jazz chords). It begins with a 5-note blues motif and virtually all the melodic material in the piece is based on this. I’m just beginning to get my fingers, and head, around it. On first sight, I thought “Crikey! I can’t possibly play THAT”, but a bit of careful reading, going through it line by line with a pencil clamped between my teeth, and already it’s a lot clearer. It’s fun to play, as it contains fragments of a number of virtuoso techniques, including repeated notes, octaves, scales and crossed hands, each of which is used for only a moment before the piece catches a glimpse of some new idea.
I love this music, and I can safely say I am well and truly hooked on Gershwin. It’s satisfying to play – those big chords feel wonderful under the fingers – and a refreshing contrast to Chopin, Schubert et al, music that’s at ease with itself. I am thinking of playing the first Prelude at my Christmas concert, and offering all three as part of my performance Diploma programme.