Photo by Jeremy Cowart

Béla Fleck Covers George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue

The latest project from banjo great Béla Fleck expands and explores George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue by paying homage to the legendary composer just in time for its centennial. Available February 12, a hundred years to the day Gershwin premiered the work at Aeolian Hall in New York City, Fleck’s Rhapsody in Blue album includes three variations: “Rhapsody in Blue(grass),” “Rhapsody in Blue(s),” and the classic orchestration, but with banjo featured instead of piano, performed by the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Eric Jacobson. The set also features Gershwin’s “Rialto Ripples” and “Unidentified Piece for Banjo,” an unrecorded and unreleased gem discovered at the Library of Congress.

Hear the inaugural recording of Gershwin’s “Unidentified Piece for Banjo,” brought to Fleck by his friend Dr. Ryan Banagale, author of Arranging Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, “It’s very much like a ragtime tune through a Gershwin lens, with a highly catchy melody and some surprising harmonic moves at the ends of phrases,” Fleck says. “He didn’t write out the harmony, but the implications seemed to point clearly towards ‘I Got Rhythm’ types of chords, though a little more quirky. To keep the authenticity of the piece, I played it on an old gut-string, five-string banjo.”

“My first thought was, “Rhapsody in Blue(grass)” is the most horrible idea I could ever imagine,’” he admits. “But when we started to actually explore it, I realized that it actually sounded quite good. With the bluegrass version, we had the opportunity to stretch out, have some fun and make some different creative moves.” He’s joined by the core band from his Grammy-winning My Bluegrass Heart band: Michael Cleveland, Sierra Hull, Justin Moses, Mark Schatz and Bryan Sutton. “Rhapsody in Blue(s)”—the blues version—features longtime Béla collaborators Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Victor Wooten.

Fleck added a solo banjo rendition of Gershwin’s “Rialto Ripples,” a ragtime novelty that initially flopped when it premiered in 1916, Fleck revisits the lesser-known work with grace and unparalleled precision.

“My wish is that George Gershwin might have loved it, that he might have thought, ‘Hmmm, this is not what I expected, but the musicians certainly brought something different to it.’”

About Jerry Holthouse

Music editor for Nashville.com. Jerry Holthouse is a content writer, songwriter and a graphic designer. He owns and runs Holthouse Creative, a full service creative agency. He is an avid outdoorsman and a lover of everything music. You can contact him at JerryHolthouse@Nashville.com

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