Friday, February 10, 2017

Fascinating Rhythm

George Gershwin
“I like to get the most effect out of the fewest notes.” - George Gerswhin

Fascinating Rhythm, one of the classics of jazz repertoire, was written by George and Ira Gershwin in 1924. George came up with the first eight-bar fragment while finishing up the score for the musical Primrose in London, and upon returning to his home city of New York, he showed the tune to his brother and frequent collaborator, Ira, who initially responded, “For God’s sake, George, what kind of lyric do you write to a rhythm like that?” Indeed, the melody, which consists largely of polyrhythmic variations on a six-note phrase, doesn’t seem terribly lyric-friendly. (George had at first nicknamed the tune “Syncopated City”.) However, the melody grew on Ira, and he soon came up with a title that reflected the melody and fit the primary six-note phrase perfectly: Fascinating Rhythm.

According to George, crafting the full set of lyrics generated “many a hot argument” between Ira and him, especially in regard to the placement of accents. Although Ira eventually did his brother’s bidding, many surmise that he retaliated against George in the lyrics themselves, in which he lashes out at the pesky rhythm: Won’t you take a day off, decide to run along / Somewhere far away off, and make it snappy

In the last line, Ira also complains, “Won’t you please stop picking on me?” George and Ira may have been world-class songwriters, but they were still brothers!

The Gershwins included Fascinating Rhythm in Lady, Be Good!, a Broadway collaboration with Guy Bolton, Fred Thompson, and Fred and Adele Astaire that premiered in 1924. It was one of the principal songs in the musical, and as was the case in many Broadway shows during the 1920s, it was reprised near the end with an altered set of lyrics (“Fascinating wedding, that sure appeals to me / Fascinating wedding, I hear you calling”). The song was a hit with the audience; a critic for The New York Herald Tribune wrote, “When at 9:15, they sang and danced ‘Fascinating Rhythm’, the callous Broadwayites cheered them as if their favorite halfback had planted the ball behind the goal posts after an 80-yard run.”

Stephane Grappelli 1979
George and the Astaires recorded the song for Columbia Records in 1926, and it has been a standard in the American songbook ever since. Although there is no visual record of Lady, Be Good! featuring the Astaires, the musical was filmed for MGM in 1941 with different entertainers. Interestingly, the MGM version follows a different plot than the original, and it features two black pianists anchoring the orchestra (instead of two white pianists, as in the original), perhaps in an attempt to stay more authentic to the musical style, given that most of the highly regarded stride pianists in the 1920s were African American.

A number of authors, critics, and composers have expressed high praise for Fascinating Rhythm  including Aaron Copland himself, who described the song as “rhythmically not only the most fascinating but the most original jazz song yet composed.” Howard Pollack refers to the song as “paradigmatic to the Jazz Age,” while Ted Gioia asserts that “no one moved more aggressively in mixing popular song with a jazz sensibility than George Gershwin.” It is the rhythm, of course, that remains the most innovative and compelling attribute of the song; Gioia also writes that, in building the hook from a metric displacement, the song “anticipates the riff-based charts that would usher in the Swing Era.” Deena Rosenberg writes that “such rhythmic complexity was rare in American theater song of the time; so was such a close blending of words and music. The rhythm is so absorbing, so extraordinary.” Gerald Mast sums it up best: “The result of this playful trickery is a rhythmically complex song about rhyth- mic complexity.”

George and Ira Gerswin
George and Ira GerswinIn 1956, my mentor, jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, recorded his own arrangement of Fascinating Rhythm  which features repeated half-step modulations near the end. When I recorded the song with my Hot Swing ensemble and singer Jane Monheit in 2002, I used Stephane’s arrangement as a springboard for my own version, which modulates by half-steps throughout. Stephane and I opted to turn a rhythmic journey into a harmonic one as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment