By Don Heckman
It was Gershwin night at the Bowl on Wednesday. And there wasn’t a moment’s doubt about the identities of the real stars of the show. Although the line up embraced a collection of singers ranging from BeBe Winans, Monica Mancini and Jason Mraz to Annie Clark and Nancy Wilson, I’m sure that each of those stellar artists would have been quick to list the Brothers Gershwin as the evening’s true headliners.
Add to that the big band with strings, with an impressive instrumental collective that included many of the Southland’s finest jazz artists, and the full breadth of the performance’s potential for a display of Gershwiniana at its best becomes apparent.
The program was clearly planned to survey many of the brothers’ high points – their stunning catalog of songs, selections from their opera, Porgy and Bess, a healthy sampling of George’s Rhapsody In Blue and a small taste of An American In Paris. And the verdict that arrived from the application of such an eclectic range of styles to such a wide sampling of performers was the simple fact that the Gershwins’ creativity is utterly timeless, fully capable of surviving, even prospering, in whatever genre comes down the musical pike.
Bebe Winans, opening the show, displayed the easygoing applicability of his gospel-based, r&b spiced sound to a classic such as “How Long Has This Been Going On.” Later in the show, singer/songwriter Annie Clark (who performs as St. Vincent) applied her unique style and quirky phrasing to an appropriately murky version of “A Foggy Day” and a jaunty take on “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
Jason Mraz started with the ‘60s-revisited aspects of his style, adding in his own jazz sensibilities to an intriguing “Summertime,” before digging up Ira Gershwin’s too rarely heard, whimsical lyrics for “Blah, Blah, Blah.”
Jazz was a constant presence, of course, sneaking in, around and through the differing interpretations –- understandable, since Gershwin tunes have been essential elements in the jazz lexicon since “I’ve Got Rhythm” became (after the blues) the most often heard jazz chord chart. And with players such as Arturo Sandoval, Shelly Berg, Tom Scott, Bob Sheppard, Gordon Goodwin, Eric Marienthal in the house, the jazz glories of Gershwin’s music were on full display – its possibilities broad enough to even make room for some smooth jazz showboating from Dave Koz.
That said, the highlights of this highlight-filled evening were provided by a pair of very different divas nearly a generation apart in age. Monica Mancini comes from a noble lineage, to be sure, but her singing has now moved well beyond its roots to position her as one of contemporary music’s most engaging vocal artists. The lush sound, rhythmic flow and insightful storytelling she brought to a medley of “I Loves You Porgy”/”My Man’s Gone Now,” “But Not For Me” and “”I’ve Got Rhythm” were irresistible, precisely what the music of the Gershwins’ deserves.
Nancy Wilson, at the performance’s peak, added a final touch of musical elegance. Always a masterful ballad singer, she took three of the Great American Songbook’s ultimate classics – “Embraceable You,” “Someone To Watch Over Me” and “Our Love Is Here To Stay” – offering them as definitive examples of the very special music coursing through this very special evening.