The greatest songwriters of the 20th century?

BY LAWRENCE TOPPMAN

 

The greatest songwriters of the 20th century?

 

Like discussions about boxing champs or baseball all-stars, this category starts endless arguments. Witty Cole Porter has fervent fans. Jerome Kern, no slouch himself, said Irving Berlin “has no place in American music; he is American music.” Richard Rodgers’ admirers cite his urbanity with Lorenz Hart and humanity with Oscar Hammerstein II. Duke Ellington, still an underrated master, wrote complex classics. And what about Lennon and McCartney?

 

Michael Andrew, lead singer and program arranger for The Gershwin Big Band, calls Savannah native Johnny Mercer “my favorite lyricist, an Everyman” but doesn’t pick a composer. Yet the roughly 30 songs Andrew put together for “An American Rhapsody” – plus a jazz-band version of “Rhapsody in Blue” and at least one encore – make the case that composer George and lyricist Ira Gershwin have few peers in that department.

 

He does say these may be the most difficult songs in the Great American Songbook to get right.

 

“A lot of the melodies are less forgiving than they are with Porter or Rodgers or Jimmy Van Heusen,” he says. “With other popular songs, the intervals aren’t so tricky. You can cheat notes or play with them.

 

“Not Gershwin. There’s something about the way his notes fit in the chords that can deceive you. It sounds easy, but you have to nail it. If you don’t hit intervals precisely, if you’re off a half-step, it’s like a buzzer going off. You sound like a Bill Murray parody.”

 

That, says Andrew, is why jazz master Mel Tormé named Fred Astaire his favorite singer: Astaire lacked a powerful voice but sang accurately and effortlessly. He introduced “A Foggy Day,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” and other Gershwin classics in films and musicals.

 

Andrew grew up long after George was dead and Ira had retired. Yet from his middle school days, he loved their music. Now, in his 50s, he can’t explain why he absorbed songs his parents enjoyed. Record store clerks didn’t help; when he asked about jazz, they handed him “Weather Report”-type fusion. He found a Time-Life cassette series devoted to big bands and fell for Artie Shaw, the Dorseys, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman.

 

As a college theater major, he learned to swing after discovering Tormé, Bobby Darin, Eddie Jefferson. Suddenly, his future unfolded. He sang at the Rainbow Room in Manhattan, on cruise ships, on tours with bands like the one he’ll bring here with fellow vocalist Michelle Amato. (Charlotteans may remember him swinging through the Charlotte Symphony’s “Magic of Christmas” in 2015.)

 

“These songs never date,” he says. “The Gershwins used elements of music the way a great artist uses elements of painting. They weren’t trying to have one hook. They weren’t trying to have a primal appeal or follow fads or trends. They were using all the skills they had to develop a song to its highest form, and you can’t get more sophisticated than that.”

 

The Gershwin Big Band

 

Charlotte Concerts presents “An American Rhapsody: The Gershwin Songbook” on Thursday, Feb. 17. The concert begins at 7:30 p.m. in McGlohon Theater at Spirit Square, 345 N. College St. To learn more about the show, go here.

 

To purchase tickets, go here

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FEBRUARY 13, 2018   I