Who can deny the greatness of George Gershwin? Rhapsody in Blue alone would be enough to put him on the Mount Olympus of modern composers. And from a highly personal perspective, An American in Paris is just about perfect for me who is exactly what the title suggests. Both marvelous pieces of music by the way, which were composed in the 1920’s, my default cultural decade. First, there’s the mythical lost generation of American writers who moved to Paris because it was both inexpensive and there was no Prohibition and these guys and gals liked their cocktails: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, being the most prominent of the lost legionnaires of literature. But there were others too, like John Dos Passos, Archibald MacLeish (I mentioned him in “Metaphysical Moments” from my current EP Wonder-Full) as well as the poets E.E. Cummings and Hart Crane as well as novelist Kay Boyle (who was blacklisted during the McCarthy Red Scare) and wonderful Janet Flanner who covered Paris and all its doings for The New Yorker for decades. Speaking of which, I’ve two confessions to make: first, I have been subscribing to The New Yorker since I moved to Paris 34 years ago; and second, I don’t think I have ever read an entire issue in one sitting. But I nearly always read the short stories (especially if they’re by Thomas McGuane), the book and film reviews, any pop music coverage which catches my eye (although not enough coverage of literate singer-songwriter which one might think would be a given) and anything Adam Gopnik writes. For all my ex-pat life, The New Yorker has remained my cultural lifeline to an America that is constantly shape shifting.
Which brings me to “Summertime” – another George Gershwin classic that he composed for the musical play Porgy and Bess in the mid 1930’s. To his credit, Gershwin insisted that all parts be played by African Americans and I commend him for that although the story line can be stereotypical. But any musical with a character named The Sporting Life has got to be cool. Anyway, I’ve loved “Summertime” ever since Janis Joplin covered it in 1969 and made it hip where it’s remained ever since. And what else was happening in the summer of 1969? Well … the Woodstock Festival and the first man on the moon. Is that enough?
A few summers ago I was in Bastia, Corsica playing at an eclectic music festival held in a village called Brando (!) which featured the amazing African American jazz organist Rhoda Scott, a long time ex-pat American living in France, like yours truly. I met charming Rhoda during her soundcheck, and we hit it off; she invited me to sing something with her that evening during her show. For some reason, we both immediately came up with “Summertime” and as I remember it was a blast. She plays a Hammond B3 organ the way it should be played – with soul and determination. If anybody recorded it that evening, please get in touch! Sometime later, I made an iPhone recording of me singing the song solo with a picked guitar behind me and it got buried among the hundreds (more like thousands!) of song ideas which I’ve been recording for years and years and often forget to go back to. But I was going into the studio with Gaspard Murphy a month ago and while researching what some more recent song idea recordings I found that version of “Summertime.” I played it for Gaspard, and he suggested we re-record it and give it the justice it deserves. And so in a brief afternoon session, I re-recorded the song, singing it just once and played acoustic guitar, and Gaspard adding orchestration on his trusty Mellotron and the slightest touch of Telecaster. And now it’s available on YouTube, Spotify and all streaming platforms. That’s what I love about modern technology. Music moves at the speed of light …
Speaking of moving at the speed of light like a superhero. Last night as I was watching Batman: The Dark Knight on Netflix, my oldest friend in Paris, Laurent Bachet called, saying he had a brainstorm:
“Elliott, I just had an idea … and I think it’s a good one.”
“Go ahead, because Gotham City is about to be destroyed by the Joker.” (Poor Heath Ledger – what a talent and so young to leave us…)
“I think you should make a Four Season EP …”
“Like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons?”
“Something like that. You’ve already done ‘Summertime’ and now you should do ‘Autumn Leaves’ and ‘April in Paris’ and for winter the choice is obvious … ”
“’Winter’ by the Rolling Stones from Goats Head Soup!”
So now I’m thinking of doing exactly that and releasing an EP … but first back to Batman!
Photo by Muriel Delepont