The most accurate Gershwin transcriptions by Steve Law

My Gershwin story goes like this:

In 1987, as a teenager, 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….

It was through the recordings made by pianist and composer Jack Gibbons on the ASV label that introduced me to this wonderful joyous world of Gershwin’s own piano playing. 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 genius of Gershwin’s songs. It also shows us more clearly how unique and brilliant Gershwin was as a pianist.

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. Jack Gibbons had already brilliantly transcribed and performed all this material as part of his Authentic Gershwin series on the ASV label in the 1990s. You should all buy these CDs of all original Gershwin scores. The scale of Jack’s achievement and the historical importance of restoring and recreating this music (when so little Gershwin piano music is published and Gershwin died so tragically young), is incredible. Jack is undoubtedly one of the world’s foremost experts on Gershwin.
From the first heard and met Jack in 1993 I was inspired to play the wonderful song improvisations which Gershwin made on electrical recordings in the 1920s. They add hugely and importantly to the Gershwin repertoire and are mostly fiendishly difficult to perform. Gershwin was a genius; no one played like him. He seemed to have a heavenly magic surrounding his piano playing, not to mention 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 her note for note  transcriptions of these song improvisations. She is a good pianist, but her published song transcriptions, (not the piano rolls, which are fine), are woefully inaccurate and for the most part nothing like what Gershwin actually played. My desire to 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 noticed I could hear the notes Gershwin played well when playing back through headphones and speakers on my CD player (particularly with the bass turned down). I transcribed everything I could get my hands using rigorousness methods and checks.

I don’t know if Artis Wodehouse had cleaned up versions on CD but unfortunately her transcriptions of these song improvisations have little value. My quest was to put down exactly what Gershwin played, wrong notes and all. I have been pretty ego-less in going about this but they are the most accurate transcriptions I know of. I’ve had the luxury of having good CD sound to work from rather than old cassette tapes of scratchy 78 records. Having seen so many bad score transcriptions shared on Youtube etc. 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.

compare a couple of pages of my transcription with Wodehouse’s published score: (Bar 88 is particularly silly.)

To do a transcription properly you have to literally hear every note from bass to top that is not an overtone. You cannot guess, 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 – maybe it doesn’t matter – but that’s part of the obsession of transcribing this music and doing the job well.

Most the note for note published transcriptions of jazz piano I have seen are absolutely hopeless. I don’t know if I’m one of the best in the world at transcribing piano (actually quite likely LOL), or if these published arrangers are either simplifying things on purpose or simply hacks (!). It annoys me there are so many bad arrangements and transcriptions circulating on the internet.

I have been looking into what to do with my transcriptions. I wonder if the Gershwin Initiative or Faber would be interested? I would self-publish them through SheetMusicPlus, but I’d earn very little from that. Eventually the need to get my work into the public domain may take over all other considerations. The song lyrics are not out of copyright in the UK as they were written by Gershwin’s brother Ira who died in 1983. The copyright of the lyrics affects the copyright of the music.

I will be programming more Gershwin in concerts as I’ve got a huge collection of scores now. I recently did a note for note version of Strike up the band overture from the rather scruffy / bordering on illegible hand written full orchestral score Don Rose made in the early 1970s. This music is so wonderful it brought tears to my eyes playing it though. It was worth wading through the slap dash mistakes, poor alignment, transpositions and awkward clefs from the source material!!! (Can someone make a neater copy?)

A word about Gershwin’s piano rolls

Recently I checked through some piano transcriptions done by enthusiasts (by ear) I found on the internet of Gershwin’s piano rolls.  Disappointingly they are all bad in varying degrees. Midi files have been made from optical scans of these these rolls in order to preserve their information. I’ve not been able to get my hands on all of these files yet, and reading the notes off them can be a nightmare when you open then in a software program like Sibelius. I didn’t have the rolls I needed or the midi files so I decided to transcribe some rolls where I needed to 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 enough 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. It’s been done well.

I also saw a PDF of Limehouse Nights using Fourier transforms. Interesting, but it still has differences with the original roll so as yet doesn’t seem 100% accurate.

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
Porgy and Bess Suite arr. violin and piano by Heifetz,
piano part corrected to original vocal score

I have, to my knowledge, all Gershwin’s pianos rolls of his own music. I’ve made piano solos by either transcribing (T) or arranging (A). I’ve also made corrections (CO) or 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 (CO 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)

(There are actually a couple of small corrections I’ve made since this video was made some years ago!)