Lightning looks set to strike twice as the Australian pianist follows up his hit of last year.
Pianist Simon Tedeschi cuts rather a dash for our interview, breezing into Eugene Goosens Hall attired in tux and bowtie. It's rather a long way from the casually scruffy muso that one expects to encounter on a Tuesday afternoon. Admittedly he’s also here to shoot a short promo for his new album, but nevertheless it makes a refreshing change.
After some frantic googling of 'wing collars' to determine if the points go over or under the bowtie (the jury’s still out on that one) and a brief photo shoot, we get down to the nitty-gritty of matters Gershwin. Tedeschi had a huge hit with his first album (Gershwin and Me) last year. Having scaled the heights once, is he worried about a follow-up? His reply is modestly downbeat: “I suppose not, because even if it’s a complete flop, at least I can say I’ve done one good one.”
That first album was notable for its interesting choice of repertoire and clever arrangements. How did he go about choosing the tracks this time around? “Apart from pragmatic realities such as wanting something different, there’s still a lot of Gershwin that isn’t so readily known”, he enthuses. “I’d heard some of this stuff overseas but had barely heard it in Australia. Also, in the process of scouring archives for Gershwin and Me, I found this wonderful volume edited by Maurice Hinson and in that there were some great miniatures such as the Novelette, and various Preludes. These are all gems so I decided to record them.”
He has a point. I was handed a hot-off-the-press copy as I left and a quick listen confirmed two things: firstly that there are some winning unknowns here (the jaunty opening Promenade and that Novelette to name but two); and secondly that here is another beautifully engineered disc courtesy of Virginia Read, the ABC producer and engineer who recently became the first woman to win an ARIA award for her work on Sally Whitwell’s new album.
So what is it about Gershwin that really gets to Tedeschi? Asked the question, he doesn’t hold back: “Gershwin is the universe!” he says. “He’s so mercurial. No matter what mood I’m in – if I’m depressed or if I’m angry or I’m happy – I can play Gershwin and there’s an avenue. He’s like Mozart, in a way. There are all of these layers. It’s a cliché, I know, but he’s that old world merging into a new one – a cultural melting-pot. He’s a recipe with hundreds of different ingredients.”
He offers an example by talking about Gershwin’s taste for Preludes. “The fact he grouped them together is very much the Romantic Gershwin that came from Russia – Gershwin in the old country as it were. It’s the fact that they’re done as Spanish and Brazilian dances that makes him so different.”
I have to agree. Schubert and Gershwin are at the top of my own list as the greatest songwriters of all time. It has something to do with their consistency and ability to write a tune that sticks over and over again without repeating themselves. “It’s something to do with Gershwin’s melodies, Tedeschi says, “and you can say that about Irving Berlin as well. There’s the build up of tension and that perfect release at just the right time and in just the right way. It’s to do with harmonic progression but also the 'harmonic rhythm'. It’s the combination of melody and rhythm and the unique way that Gershwin crosses all the T’s.”
The new album has some interesting guests as well. “James Morrison I’ve known for years,” Tedeschi says. “He’s one of those musicians who’s able to turn his hand to anything, even if it isn’t musical! Sarah McKenzie I had never met before. As it turned out, it was an incredible meetings of minds. I couldn’t work out how this skinny, 25-year-old could come out with that sound. Think of Mozart and those ‘legato drips of oil’. Sarah’s voice has that seamless, interlocking quality between the notes. It was quite incredible.”
Simon Tedeschi’s Gershwin: Take Two is released on ABC Classics on November 1.