The audience was transported back to the roaring twenties Monday night during the opening of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory Summer Concert Series featuring pianist and composer Jack Gibbons.
While Gibbons is a world renowned composer and pianist, the night belonged to George Gershwin, as Gibbons channeled the late composer.
“I’ve chosen this program chronologically so, right at the beginning of his life and I’m going to take you right through major events that took place,” Gibbons said. “George Gershwin’s life was really extraordinary. The real thing is more interesting than any stories you might make up about him.”
The program included selections from shows “Lady Be Good!” and “Porgy and Bess” as well as Hollywood films “Delicious” and “Shall We Dance.”
As Gibbons played, the emotion of the songs filtered through his body language. The grand piano rocked at times with the ferocity of his playing.
One thing that was missing was sheet music – in part because Gibbons had the songs memorized – but most of Gershwin’s songs with his famous improvisations were never put to paper.
“Everything in this program tonight – these are all Gershwin’s original arrangements I’m playing to you,” Gibbons explained. “These are not my arrangements. These are the composer’s own. What I’ve done for most of the program, I’ve transcribed these directly from Gershwin’s original recordings. They’re not the printed scores. These are the improvisations because Gershwin was a brilliant natural improvisor and he was well known at parties in New York for sitting at the piano for hours on end, improvising on his songs.
“Fortunately for us, he recorded quite a few of these,” Gibbons continued. “He recorded songs like “Swanee” on piano rolls and other items like I’m going to play later were recorded on 78s. I’ve meticulously transcribed these – note for note – trying to give you a flavor of what it was like back in the 1920s.”
In between songs, Gibbons gave a short “lesson” on how to play a Gershwin tune – a feat not for the faint of heart. Most of the versions Gibbons played included the piano part and orchestral part, leading him to play “a four handed song with two hands.”
“I began to realize when I first started playing this music, it’s quite complex and although everybody is familiar with the melodies – often, they may not be familiar with the whole style of piano playing,” he said. “There’s so much going on underneath. The secret to playing George Gershwin on the piano in his style is all in the left hand. You’ve got to have your left hand leaping up and down all the time.”
Gibbons, who was trained as a classical concert pianist was more used to playing melodic, flowing tunes but when he began transcribing Gershwin’s work, “I couldn’t even stay on the piano bench,” he said.
“The melody, when Gershwin plays it on the piano, he doesn’t play single notes with just one finger,” Gibbons said. “He puts a whole chord of four or sometimes five notes down on every single melody note and that’s what gives it this big sound.”
Gershwin was at the height of his career when he tragically and suddenly passed away at the age of 38 from a brain tumor.
“Gershwin was this amazing pianist,” Gibbons said. “These are all his improvisations and they’re real virtuoso improvisations but they weren’t written down. They were inside his head.”
Gibbons is the Artist-in-Residence at Davis & Elkins College. This performance was made possible by D&E in partnership with the NRAO.
The piano Gibbons used in the performance was donated to the NRAO by the late jazz pianist Marian McPartland.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org