Steve Law’s meticulous new transcriptions of Gershwin’s piano playing.

In 2020 I revised all my transcriptions of Gershwin’s piano playing in meticulous detail so they are now the most accurate I have seen. I am anxious for this work to be preserved and available for Gershwin enthusiasts and scholars. I am working on a project to make them available in the near future.

My love for Gershwin’s music goes back to 1987, when I was a teenager, when I watched the Gershwin 50 year celebration programme ‘The Gershwin Years’ on BBC television. Gershwin was the first composer to open my musical world into classical and jazz music. Of course his most famous works for piano like Rhapsody in Blue or Concerto in F were obvious to us all. Unknown to me, Gershwin had recorded much of his own piano playing on piano rolls and early electrical recordings. Gershwin developed a stride based piano style from the jazz pianists like James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, which he used improvising and performing his own songs. This style never really made it’s way into his compositions although it is hinted at in the brief simplifications of his improvisations which he arranged and published in The Gershwin Song Book. These are the arrangements that most concert pianist play year in year out. But there is far more to discover and enjoy by transcribing what Gershwin recorded….

Over the years I have transcribed all of Gershwin’s solo piano improvisations on his own songs from CD transfers of 78s and radio broadcasts he made in the 1920s and 1930s. It was through the phenomenal concerts and recordings by the pianist and composer Jack Gibbons on the ASV label that introduced me to this wonderful joyous world of Gershwin’s own piano playing (from as far back as 1993). Jack’s idea of transcribing note for note every old recording and bringing them back to life in modern recordings gives us a new appreciation of the beauty and unique style of Gershwin’s piano playing. 

Jack’s recreations and virtuoso arrangements of concert works and film scores (called Authentic Gershwin in 4 volumes on the ASV label made in the 1990s) are a must hear for any fan of Gershwin. The scale of Jack’s achievement and it’s historical importance in preserving this music on disc cannot be over estimated. Jack is undoubtedly one of the world’s foremost experts on Gershwin.

The wonderful song improvisations which Gershwin made on electrical recordings in the 1920s add hugely to the Gershwin repertoire, though they are very difficult to perform. Gershwin was a genius; no one played like him. He seemed to have a heavenly magic surrounding his piano playing and all the panache in the world.

In 1987 (the 50th anniversary year of Gershwin’s death), the American pianist Artis Wodehouse published a handful of note  transcriptions of these song improvisations. Sadly they were nothing like what Gershwin played. My desire for accurate transcriptions came out of correcting her transcriptions. In the process I found these old Gershwin recordings had been cleaned up and re-issued on CD. I had this advantage and I found I could hear the notes well through headphones and speakers (particularly with the bass turned down). I used rigorousness methods and checks and I’ve found mine to be the most accurate. 

My quest was to put down exactly what Gershwin played, including wrong notes when I felt it added to the the music. I have been pretty ego-less in going about this but now I feel I have a duty to Gershwin to get my own work off the computer and into the hands of Gershwin fans and historians.

To do a transcription properly you have to literally hear every note from bass to top and eliminate possible overtones. It’s not easy and you cannot resort to guess work, you need to actually hear it to be sure. There are times when a chord is debatable – especially when wrong notes are played. At some point there has to be a limit to how long you can keep perfecting a transcription, and maybe there will never be a way of hearing it perfectly by ear or computer software.

Many note for note published transcriptions of jazz piano I have seen are really bad. I don’t know if I’m one of the best in the world at transcribing piano (quite likely, LOL), or if these published arrangers are simplifying things or just very bad at what they do. 

Gershwin’s piano rolls

Recently I checked through some transcriptions of piano rolls Gershwin made of his own songs. These were made by Gershwin by enthusiasts whose work I found on the internet.  Disappointingly, most were poor. I corrected practically all of them. Midi files have been made from optical scans of these these rolls in order to preserve their information. Some of these are accurate. Some rolls I had to transcribe by ear. It was quicker than rearranging the midi file on Sibelius in any case!

Admittedly they are hard to transcribe from CD recordings. I noticed with piano roll recordings that some notes don’t come out evenly or there are slight differences from one recording to another. It would be easier to take the piano rolls themselves and put it though a computer with the right software so I could be 100% sure but I’m pleased with my own transcriptions for now.

Artis Wodehouse has arranged and published some of the piano rolls for piano solo and duet. George Litterest transcribed the notes by playing the rolls though a Yamaha disc playing piano and turning the notes into Midi back in the early 1990s. This has been done well.

Some of my Gershwin transcriptions for solo piano (not presently published) from original recordings and scores:

Sweet and Low-Down
That Certain Feeling
S’Wonderful / Funny Face
Looking for a Boy
When Do We dance?
My One and Only
Clap Yo Hands
Someone to Watch Over Me
Fascinating Rhythm
Hang On to Me
I’d Rather Charleston
The Half of It Dearie Blues
The Man I Love
My Cousin in Milwaukee
I Got Rhythm (3 versions)
Strike Up the Band
Andante from Rhapsody in Blue
Mademoiselle In New Rochelle
An American In Paris (note for note from the score)
Strike Up the Band Overture
Tip-Toes Overture
Bess You Is My Woman Now
Somebody from Somewhere
Blue Monday Blues
Porgy and Bess Suite arr. violin and piano by Heifetz,
piano part corrected to original vocal score
Beginner's Luck

Piano solos I have made by either transcribing (T) or arranging (A). I’ve checked through (CH) scores I’ve found on the internet which derive from piano roll scans preserved as midi files.

Piano Solos:

When You Want ‘Em You Can’t Get ‘Em 1916 (T Steve Law)
Rialto Ripples 1916 (T Steve Law)
From Now On 1919 (T Steve Law)
Nobody but You 1919 (CH Steve Law)
Tee-Oodle-Un-Bam-Bo 1919 (T Steve Law)
I Was So Young You Were So Beautiful 1919 (T Steve Law)
Novelette in Fourths 1919 (T Steve Law)
Come to the Moon 1920 (CH Steve Law)
Swanee 1920 (A Steve Law)
Limehouse Nights 1920 (T Steve Law)
On My Mind the Whole Night Long 1920 (T Steve Law)
Idle Dreams 1920 (T Steve Law)
Scandal Walk 1920 (T Steve Law)
Drifting Along with the Tide 1921 (A Steve Law)
Kickin’ the Clouds Away 1925 (A Steve Law)
So Am I 1925 (CH Steve Law)
Sweet and Low-Down 1926 (A Steve Law)
That Certain Feeling 1926 (A Steve Law)

(I have since made a couple of corrections to chords in Strike Up the Band in this video and I Got Rhythm since seeing a new camera angle of Gershwin playing.  At the end of Some to Watch Over Me I purposely play the last playing of the tune in 3rds like the song version. In Gershwin’s piano improvisation, he does not bother with that line.)