In 2004, Brian Wilson scored a critical and commercial victory by releasing a completed version of "Smile," the legendary "Pet Sounds" follow-up he'd originally begun work on in 1966. Six years later, the Beach Boys mastermind is reaching even further back in time for his latest project, "Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin," due Aug. 17 from Walt Disney Records.
"When I was 2 years old, my mom would play 'Rhapsody in Blue' for me, and I just loved that song," he says while relaxing at his home in Beverly Hills. Wilson, 68, singles out George Gershwin's orchestral-jazz classic as one of his three favorite compositions. (The others are Frank Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night" and "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes). "Later on, a friend of mine who was an expert on Gershwin asked me, 'How'd you like to play the main theme on piano?' and I said, 'Sure!' " Wilson continues. "It took us about two weeks: I'd play a little bit from the Leonard Bernstein recording, then I'd go to my piano, then back to Bernstein, then back to my piano, until I got the whole thing down."
"Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin" opens with a lush, stacked-harmony rendition of "Rhapsody" and closes with a brief reprise. In between, Wilson and his longtime backing band tackle such well-known standards as "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "I Got Rhythm" and "Someone to Watch Over Me," as well as a mini-suite of material from "Porgy and Bess," Gershwin's groundbreaking 1935 opera. The 14-track set, which Wilson produced in three weeks at Los Angeles' Ocean Way Recording, also includes a pair of new songs Wilson based on unfinished fragments Gershwin left behind after the composer's death in 1937. In the more familiar selections, Wilson adheres faithfully to Gershwin's vocal melodies (and brother Ira Gershwin's lyrics) but brings a fresh sensibility to the arrangements, presenting " 'S Wonderful" as a laid-back bossa nova and "I've Got a Crush on You" as a '50s doo-wop number, and giving "They Can't Take That Away From Me" a jolt of surf-rock energy.
"One thing we really wanted to avoid was schmaltzing this stuff up," says Paul Mertens, who plays saxophone in Wilson's band and spearheaded the musical direction on "Reimagines." "I don't want to name names, but there have been some very successful [standards-oriented] records over the last few years that have been incredibly lazy in that regard. We were trying to play the songs as if they were Brian's music, and Brian did them in the way only he could."
At the same time, Mertens adds, the musicians were careful to honor Gershwin's original conception of the music. "Miles Davis is one of the most important artists of the past century, but when he did the 'Porgy and Bess' record with Gil Evans [in 1958], I'm sorry, but I don't hear the songs in there. I hear Miles and Gil Evans launching outward from that music. With Brian, he's doing the song, and what comes through is the sincerity of his performance."
According to his manager, Jean Sievers, Wilson had been mulling over the idea of a Gershwin collection for years, and when Walt Disney Records then-president David Agnew signed Wilson to a two-album deal last year (following Capitol's 2008 release of "That Lucky Old Sun"), "it seemed like a perfect opportunity for Brian to move forward with it."
"From time to time we love to have different artists come in and reinterpret classics from the vast Disney catalog," label GM Jim Weatherson says. "We approached Brian about doing an album geared to children with his signature sound." Weatherson points to 2009's "Los Lobos Goes Disney" and to this year's "Disney Reggae Club" (which features Steel Pulse and Ziggy Marley, among others) as examples of similar projects.
"Brian said, 'I'm eager to talk about that, but my next record is going to be something I've thought about for many, many years.' And he told us about the Gershwin idea. At first blush you sort of scratch your head-like, 'Wow, I don't know . . .' But we decided to do that and signed Brian to a deal that allows him to do this record and then later on to do the other one."
Wilson says he and Mertens decided which songs to record based on which ones made sense for Wilson's register. "I wanted to sing the songs appropriately," he says, "and do justice to the music."