DON STIERNBERG and JOHN CARLINI "By George"
reviewed by David McCarty
Two of the best acoustic jazz musicians on the planet, backed by a tight, swinging rhythm section, all focused on the work of two quintessential American songwriters--George and Ira Gershwin. How can you go wrong?
Well, the short answer is that as long as you're talking about mandolin giant Don Stiernberg and his all-world guitar buddy John Carlini backed by longtime rhythm section members Jim Cox on bass and Phil Gratteau on drums, you can't.
On their latest collaboration, the duo focuses exclusively on classic Gershwin ("Is there another kind?" I can hear you ask.) Perhaps a better question, though, is what can be done to these songs that hasn't been done already?
Fair enough, and in his liner notes, Stiernberg makes it clear that they were completely aware of the risk of sounding mundane or dated before tackling this demanding project. But their lifelong love of this music--Carlini's mother often performed Rhapsody in concert on piano so, her vast library of Gershwin sheet music was their first stop in searching out the material to present here--coupled with the restless, endlessly inventive musical soul of each soloist, pushed them to find new, very personal ways to express these timeless melodies.
"But this is not a nostalgia project," Stiernberg gently reminds the listener. "We continue to be genuinely intrigued by the musical possibilities these tunes present. There's a certain thrill and challenge in meeting the energy this music carries."
There's a certain thrill (sounds like a Gershwin title, doesn't it?) apparent on every track here, as John and Don delve deep into the inner workings of each great song.
Somebody Loves Me pops along, driven by Gratteau's slap brushwork and Cox's cleverly conceived bass line. Fascinatin' Rhythm wears its title (and musical heritage) like a crown here, with Carlini laying down a Latin-influenced solo that dances along like Carmen Miranda auditioning for the Rockettes. And then "Big Stern" implements one of his patented Jethro-meets-Miles mandolin solos that perfectly reflects the bright melody in the deep pool of his endless capacity to reharmonize.
Any fan of their earlier work, which is to say anyone who has heard their earlier work, will undoubtedly seek this disc out and add it to their permanent rotation at home or in the car CD player.
If you're one of the few who hasn't experienced this utterly sublime combination of taste, tone, and sophistication, well, by George get this CD at once. Here's a rhapsody that will never leave you blue.