Friday, September 25, 2020

The NRR Project: 'Fascinating Rhythm'


Fascinating Rhythm

Composed by George and Ira Gershwin

Performed by Fred and Adele Astaire

George Gershwin, piano

Recorded: April 19, 1926

When they first met in 1916, George Gershwin and Fred Astaire were both up-and-comers. Fred was a 17-year-old veteran of the stage, who had been performing as a double dance act with his older sister Adele for years. Gershwin was an 18-year-old song plugger – a lowly demonstrator who played new sheet music for potential buyers, a holdover from the pre-recording era. Eight years later, they would collaborate on a landmark musical that featured this song.

The show they worked on, Lady, Be Good!, opened on Dec. 1, 1924 and ran for ten months on Broadway, then another ten in London’s West End, during which this recording was made. It was the culmination of an annus mirabilis for Gershwin – he composed Rhapsody in Blue earlier in the year. He had finally settled down into a songwriting partnership with his brother Ira, and after writing for topical revues to date, he switched to writing for book musicals (which, unlike the revues, had at least the wisp of a plot). The songs, instead of being free-standing, were to be integrated into the story. Lady, Be Good! was a hit, and “Fascinating Rhythm” was a standout.

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This recording was made in England during the show’s run there. Gershwin’s amazing chops as an accompanist are on jaunty display here. He makes maximum use of the instrument. The Astaires’ flat, reedy voices aren’t musically overwhelming, but they convey the rattling syncopation of the lyrics effectively. The tune is frantically joyful. The idea is that the jazz pulse makes its listeners terminally distracted, but the brisk cheer with which the song declares its conflict belies the complaint. The singer is enthralled by the song.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘Tanec Pid Werbamy’.

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