Béla Fleck Shares Previously Unreleased & Unrecorded Gershwin Composition

Listen to “Unidentified Piece For Banjo” off the forthcoming studio album, Rhapsody In Blue, an homage from the banjoist to George Gershwin.

By Scott Bernstein Dec 8, 2023 10:44 am PST

The worlds of two great musicians born in New York City will collide on February 12, 2024 when banjo legend Béla Fleck releases his new album, Rhapsody In Blue, to honor the famed late composer/pianist George Gershwin. Fleck previewed the five-song collection by unveiling the inaugural recording of Gershwin’s “Unidentified Piece For Banjo.”

Béla Fleck has long been fascinated by Gershwin and his work. The project marks the culmination of Fleck’s passion for a fellow artist who spent his whole career redefining music with a forward-thinking vision. Rhapsody In Blue includes three variations on the title track, perhaps’ Gershwin’s most well-known song, along with “Unidentified Piece For Banjo” and Gershwin’s “Rialto Ripples.” The album arrives 100 years to the day George Gershwin debuted “Rhapsody In Blue” at New York City’s Aoelian Hall.

Fleck enlisted the core band from his My Bluegrass Heart ensemble (Michael Cleveland, Sierra Hull, Justin Moses, Mark Schatz and Bryan Sutton) to record “Rhapsody In Blue(grass),” while a blues version of the track finds Béla accompanied by longtime collaborators Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Victor Wooten. A classic “Rhapsody In Blue” orchestration pulled off by the Virginia Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eric Jacobson sees Fleck perform the song’s traditional piano part on banjo.

“A piano player can play Rhapsody a lot faster than I can,” stated Fleck in a press release. “But the truth is, they’ve played it so much that it sometimes gets rushed through. I’d listen and think, ‘There is so much in there but it’s going by so fast that I’m not getting it all.’ That gave me a window into a way to reinterpret those parts on banjo. It could be a new experience for listeners rather than hearing it banged out on piano for the twenty-fifth time. It might even be revelatory.”

“Unidentified Piece For Banjo” was discovered at the Library of Congress. Arranging Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue author and Fleck pal Dr. Ryan Banagle introduced Béla to the previously unrecorded and unreleased composition. “It’s very much like a ragtime tune through a Gershwin lens, with a highly catchy melody and some surprising harmonic moves at the ends of phrases,” the banjoist explained. “He didn’t write out the harmony, but the implications seemed to point clearly towards ‘I Got Rhythm’ types of chords, though a little more quirky. To keep the authenticity of the piece, I played it on an old gut-string, five-string banjo.”

Listen to the debut of George Gershwin’s “Unidentified Piece For Banjo” as recorded by Fleck below:

Béla Fleck will deliver the New York City premiere live performance of his “Rhapsody In Blue” at Carnegie Hall in New York City on May 4, 2024 with the Aoelian Orchestra. The night dubbed Rhythm, Raga & Rhapsody will also feature Fleck’s My Bluegrass Heart band, pianist Bruce Hornsby, clarinet player Anat Cohen and tabla master Zakir Hussain.

A presale starts on Tuesday, December 12 before tickets go on sale to the general public next Thursday, December 14 at 11 a.m. ET. Buy Béla Fleck Rhythm, Raga & Rhapsody tickets via the venue’s website.

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Rhapsody In Blue Tracklist

  1. Rhapsody in Blue(grass)
  2. Unidentified Piece for Banjo
  3. Rhapsody in Blue (featuring Eric Jacobson & the Virginia Symphony Orchestra)
  4. Rhapsody in Blue(s) (feat. Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Victor Wooten)
  5. Rialto Ripples
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