We shared the news last month that five string banjo maestro Béla Fleck was set to release a new album that explored the music of 20th century American composer George Gershwin, most prominently his masterwork, Rhapsody in Blue. Béla tackles the piece three ways, quite like the 1920s original with a jazz orchestra, again in a blues vein, and in the version released today as a single, with a bluegrass ensemble.
Rhapsody in Blue(grass) finds Fleck accompanied by the core band from his celebrated My Bluegrass Heart tour, Michael Cleveland on fiddle, Sierra Hull on mandolin, Justin Moses on reso-guitar, Mark Schatz on bass, and Bryan Sutton on guitar. They play through the basic melody of this iconic composition, before breaking out into an improvisational exploration of the tune in a grassy rhythm.
Béla says that the idea came to him while working with these same stellar musicians, though he admits to having had some early doubts.
“One day while on tour with My Bluegrass Heart, surrounded by these geniuses, a thought occurred to me – Rhapsody in Blue(grass)?! I kept the thought to myself, realizing it was either the greatest idea or possibly the very worst I had ever thought of. But it wouldn’t go away. When we started to actually explore it, I realized that it actually sounded quite good. With the bluegrass version, we had the opportunity to stretch out, have some fun, and make some different creative moves.”
Jazz purists might turn up their noses, but in truth it really works quite well, especially under the fingers of these fine performers. New ways to hear older melodies is always an adventure, and this one should find a ready audience across multiple genres.
Have a listen to Rhapsody in Blue(grass)…
It’s no accident that this track is released now, one day before the 100th celebration of Earl Scruggs’ birth, which Fleck will mark by appearing on the big 100th birthday show at The Ryman Auditorium on Saturday night. Earl was never known to explore Gershwin, though he clearly had a fondness for Dixieland jazz, given all the standards of that style he converted to bluegrass, like Bugle Call Rag, Farewell Blues, and Dear Old Dixie.
Rhapsody in Blue(grass) from Béla Fleck is available now as a single from popular download and streaming services online. It is also included on Béla’s next album, Rhapsody in Blue, which is expected on February 12, the 100th anniversary of Gershwin’s premiere.
Pre-orders on CD or vinyl are enabled now online.