George Gershwin’s jazz standards occupy a unique place in the pantheon of 20th-century American music. They ingeniously fuse classical with popular music, reaching a crescendo in the Depression-era folk opera Porgy and Bess. Immortal and melodic hits like “Summertime”, “Rhapsody in Blue”, “Someone to Watch Over Me”, and”Let's Call the Whole Thing Off” have been a staple of Hollywood films, awards shows, and lounge acts the world over.
So why would a sensational Israeli jazz pianist, Guy Mintus, want to create an entire album of this music 83 years after the Jewish composer’s death?
“I wanted to think what these songs mean to me now in 2020—and not try to reproduce something that already exists,” Mintus, 29, says on the line from his home in Israel.
The first single from the Guy Mintus Trio’s Gershwin Playground, “Summertime”, is a rich demonstration of this.
Mintus injects his trademark high-voltage energy, including rapid-fire piano fills and a pulsating jazz beat, to what’s normally a placid lullaby.
He explains that to him, this song is about driving out the bad energy affecting Porgy and Bess, whose lives are filled with difficulty.
“Really, the idea behind it is less about putting the baby to sleep,” Mintus says. “It’s more like sending away the evil eye.”
Previous interpretations of “Summertime” have been slow and serene, but Mintus points out that it’s also possible to dance away demons.
To achieve this, he’s injected “Summertime” with lively Latin and North African rhythms and Middle Eastern scales, as well as musical influences derived from global tours and studies in New York and India. Mintus traces his own Jewish family history to Poland, Iraq, and Morroco, further enriching his musical palette.
“Everything you hear on the album, it came from a very intuitive place,” he says. “It just came out of me. And it kind of has to happen like that because it needs to be real. It needs to be raw.”
Gershwin hit helps define Mintus
Another Gershwin standard, “Rhapsody in Blue”, is a song that Mintus considers part of his DNA. In 2018, he performed it with the Bayerische Philharmonie on the 70th anniversary of two famous Leonard Bernstein concerts in Bavaria following the Second World War.
On May 10, 1948, Bernstein, then 29 years old, led an orchestra of 17 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust—known as the Displaced Persons Orchestra—in afternoon and evening performances.
“They were all there in the displaced persons camp after the war, waiting for a sign of somewhere to go,” Mintus says. “In the middle of this, they started an orchestra. When Bernstein heard about it, he decided to conduct it.”
The centrepiece of these 1948 concerts was Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, which Mintus reprised in a unique way for the first time at the 70th-anniversary show.
He points out that this audience included the survivors’ descendants from Europe, Israel, Canada, the United States, and New Zealand.
“They all came specially for this occasion, so it was like a really defining moment,” Mintus recalls.
He has also performed “Rhapsody in Blue” for two of Bernstein’s daughters, Jamie and Nina, in their New York apartment.
“So it’s a piece that’s close to my heart,” Mintus continues. “It’s very powerful. It connects classical, blues, and a lot of influences—some klezmer as well.”
Props on album cover tell a story
While intuition is at the core of Mintus’s artistry, he also engages in a lengthy refining process in the rehearsing, recording, editing, mixing, and mastering of an album.
He employed a similarly meticulous approach to the album cover for Gershwin Playground.
“These songs were some of the most famous and played jazz standards ever,” Mintus says. “And yet, we took them into our own playground and kind of pulled them apart and then put them back together—took them into really different worlds and expressions and mood and atmosphere.”
So the cover also represents a playground, but not of toys. Instead, it’s filled with different objects of significance to him and his bandmates, bassist Omri Hadani and drummer Yonatan Rosen.
“There is a little code, a riddle in it, because there are a bunch of objects there that represent something to do with Gershwin, like the New York taxi or the piano or the little Statue of Liberty,” Mintus adds. “But more than that, there are objects taken from lyrics from songs—songs that are on the album. And this is pretty subtle. It’s not so that easy to guess.”