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.”
Once Wilson had begun work on the project, Warner/Chappell senior VP of catalog development and marketing Brad Rosenberger contacted Sievers about a trove of more than 100 unfinished Gershwin compositions, of which the company had recently made solo-piano demos.
“They were all between 50 seconds and a minute-and-a-half,” Rosenberger says. “I asked the Gershwins, ‘Would you guys allow me to send this music to Brian Wilson in the hopes that he can do something with it?’ They said, ‘Absolutely.’ They got it right away.” Rosenberger burned a couple of CDs for Wilson with the song fragments, and Wilson selected two to flesh out: the wistful ballad “The Like in I Love You” and “Nothing but Love,” a bouncy pop-rock tune.
Weatherson says Disney allowed Wilson complete creative control. “He went off into the studio and kind of secluded himself during the recording process,” he recalls with a laugh. “We didn’t have ears on the project out of respect for him. Frankly, we didn’t know what we were going to get.” When Wilson played the label’s executives the finished product, Weatherson says, “it was one of those things where within 10 seconds we knew it was special. And it held up the entire time. [Disney Music Group chairman] Bob Cavallo and I walked out and he went, ‘Oh, my God, what are we going to do with this? It’s better than I even imagined.’ “
What the label is hoping to do with “Reimagines”-which it’s releasing as part of its adult-geared Disney Pearl series-is connect the album with the same listeners who turned Susan Boyle’s “I Dreamed a Dream” into a triple-platinum blockbuster.
“Every year one or two records seem to reach that older demographic,” Weatherson says. “Radio doesn’t drive those records and the Internet doesn’t drive them. It’s about reaching out to a number of outlets-AARP, Parade magazine, ‘Charlie Rose,’ ’60 Minutes’-and getting Brian in front of those consumers. He’s a familiar, iconic name. All they need is a reason to look and they’ll find the record.”
To that end, Walt Disney Records marketing VP Rob Souriall says the label is buying TV advertising on boomer-friendly networks like Biography, AMC, BBC America and the Hallmark Channel and is testing with such news outlets as CNN and MSNBC. In the retail realm, Souriall is “having conversations” with Costco, Whole Foods and Nordstrom about stocking the record. Disney also “took a hard shot” at Starbucks. “I really thought that if ever a project made sense for them, this was it,” he says. “But they took in a Katy Perry record over ours. That was a disappointment.”
Indie retailers will be supplied with an autographed lithograph based on the album’s packaging, while the iTunes edition of “Reimagines” is set to include an exclusive bonus track, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” Amazon, Souriall adds, is a “natural partner by virtue of the fact that adults who aren’t living and breathing on Twitter and Facebook, the one thing they’re comfortable with online is Amazon.”
On July 28, Disney hosted an album listening party in Los Angeles for “movers and shakers in all facets of the industry,” Souriall says, though the label is being selective about TV appearances. “We don’t want to put Brian in situations where he won’t be comfortable,” he says.
Sievers says Wilson’s booking agents are in the early stages of planning a tour for 2011 on which the artist will perform “Reimagines” in its entirety, similar to his recent “Smile” and “Pet Sounds” concerts. According to Souriall, the first live performance of the Gershwin material is tentatively slated for October or November at Los Angeles’ Disney Hall. It’s “very likely” that the performance will be filmed for a future PBS special.
In spite of the finely focused nature of Disney’s marketing plan, Mertens insists that such thoughts had “no impact” on the creative process while he, Wilson and the rest of the musicians were in the studio.
“When it came down to making the record, it was just about, ‘How does it sound?’ ” he says. “Brian was nervous going in because he took the responsibility so seriously. But after the first day I remember he said, ‘OK, this is going to work. It’s gonna be cool.’ “