Michael Finnissy presents a darker version of the great popular songwriter and composer than Herbie Hancock’s recent tribute. In fact, his response to Gershwin is seemingly quite divorced from the use made of him by the jazz tradition. Finnissy began improvising on the songs for recital encores: ‘They developed as part of an evolving discourse on popular culture, the British fear of elitism, the potency of cheap music… legitimised rough trade and kitsch’ (>). The first book of piano transcriptions focusses on the classic songs from the later 1920s and 30s such as ‘Love Is Hear To Stay”, ‘A Foggy Day” and “Embraceable You”. The second book offers exuberant earlier ‘Jazz Age’ products.
As with Gershwin’s own piano versions, there’s no connection with chord-based jazz improvisation; it’s the melodies which are constant. There is an approach familiar from earlier recordings in Metier’s essential Finnissy series, taken to an extreme on Folklore where the ‘harmony’ is really just coloration of the melody. In fact the two books of transcriptions are very different; the first more troubling, complex, hardly conventionally beautiful, the second lighter and more improvisatory. It’s impossible to do justice to the range of this remarkable music in a short review. Ian Pace has forthright views on these pieces and is an ideally characterful interpreter.