The Manhattan skyline appears on the cover of the new album, “Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin.” But the sounds come straight from the dry, dusty Southwest. Think slide guitars, harmonicas, and Nelson’s gritty-sweet voice floating like campfire smoke.
You never get the sense that the singer is trying too hard as he growls and croons his way through the Gershwin catalog. (The brooding, Biblical “It Ain’t Necessarily So” is particularly good.) But he’s not phoning it in, either. This is simply an American legend, lovingly performing songs that are as old as he is. (Nelson turns 83 in April.)
It’s a jewel of an album, and it got this Gershwin/Nelson fan thinking: Who else belongs on an All-Time Gershwin Dream Team? But a disclaimer is in order before we begin: George Gershwin wrote or co-wrote hundreds of songs, which have inspired thousands of recordings. Listening to every rendition would be near impossible. Feel free to remind me of what I missed, in the comments.
Willie Nelson, ‘Summertime’
Willie’s “Summertime” is a microcosm of the album. This isn’t tuxedo Gershwin; this is frayed-jeans and cowboy boots Gershwin. The tempo is languid. The mood drifts from sweet to foreboding and back again. And you can practically feel your muscles relax as the song progresses. Whether you enhance the experience with a beer or a bit of “Willie’s Reserve” – well, that’s up to you and your local marijuana laws.
Itzhak Perlman and the Modern Jazz Quartet, ‘Summertime’
One could make a quite a playlist with only “Summertime” renditions, but I’ll limit myself to two more. First: a late-’80s performance by a jazz/classical supergroup. Note the joy on Perlman’s face when he says, “Violinists love to play chamber music, but we don’t often get to improvise. So this is a wonderful chance for me to play a little chamber jazz.” A moment later, he turns to the band and says, “Can we do something that I know?… Let’s do a little Gershwin.”
Booker T. and the MGS, ‘Summertime’
While Perlman and the MJQ bring an urbane delicacy to the tune, the Stax Records house band brings it back to the soil. The combination of Steve Cropper’s smoldering guitar and Booker T. Jones’s blistering organ will have you seeing waves of heat. Welcome to Memphis, George.
Aretha Franklin, ‘Swanee’
The Queen of Soul has a knack for putting her stamp on other folks’ tunes. (“Respect” was originally written and performed by Otis Redding; “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” was penned by Gerry Goffin and Carole King.) So it’s no surprise that she knows her way around a Gershwin number.
Her take on “Swanee” from the era before she teamed up with Jerry Wexler (and became a superstar) offers the glorious synergy of a Detroit-raised preacher’s daughter belting a tune by two New York Jewish boys. (The lyrics were written by Irving Caesar.)
Ahmad Jamal, ‘But Not for Me’
If you ask me, the background sounds on this track – conversations, clinking glassware, applause – actually enhance the recording. They help transport us to the night at a Chicago hotel in 1958, when a 27-year-old Jamal sat down at the ivories. Paradoxically, there’s something joyous and triumphant about his take on a tune about loneliness.
Nina Simone, ‘I Loves You Porgy’
You knew Ms. Simone would appear this list. And here she is, with an almost uncomfortably intimate and beautiful number from the 1934 opera, “Porgy And Bess.” For those of you who still haven’t watched last year’s documentary, “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” let this be a reminder.
Brian Wilson, ‘Rhapsody in Blue (Intro)’ and ‘Rhapsody in Blue (Reprise)’
What happens when you filter Gershwin through the mind of the Beach Boys’ tortured genius? You get something like these numbers, from the 2010 album, “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin.” They’re haunting. They’re gorgeous. They’re “Rhapsody” meets Pet Sounds.
George Gershwin, ‘Rhapsody in Blue’
Thanks to the technology of “piano rolls” (which I still don’t quite fully understand), we don’t have to wonder what it sounded like when George Gershwin performed his 14-minute opus. And, really, there’s no better place to end this list. “Rhapsody” has long been used in commercials for air travel, and for good reason. Nothing conveys grandeur, colossal heights, and mind-blowing achievements — whether in airplane construction or piano composition — like this masterpiece from 1924.
Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence, RI. He is the former news editor of the Providence Phoenix.