Rhapsody in a Box

I Got Rhythm: The Music of George Gershwin (Smithsonian Collection of Recordings) is another argument for the merits of the boxed set. Gershwin’s importance across the spectrum of American music is clarified by these four discs.

The popular songs on disc one present the basic Gershwin, with “Somebody Loves Me,” “Love Walked In,” and twenty additional classics sung by the great, the unjustly neglected, and the obscure. Beyond illustrating changes in singing style, the roughly chronological performances reveal how vocalists with taste created a Gershwin canon after the composer’s death, in 1937. Disc two, Gershwin on Stage and Screen, generally avoids overlap and concentrates on original-cast and soundtrack recordings featuring the likes of Al Jolson, Fred Astaire, and Gene Kelly, plus excerpts from the first rehearsals of Porgy and Bess.

Gershwin in the Concert Hall places great emphasis on the composer’s own performances of Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, and three piano preludes. It also includes Variations on “I Got Rhythm, ”a later work indicating that Gershwin was reaching beyond his inexhaustible melodic gifts for more-complex effects in his concert works. His songs were already inspiring monumental creations among improvisers: the final disc, of jazz performances, includes a sampling of what Benny Goodman, Erroll Garner, Miles Davis, and so many others were able to build upon Gershwin’s popular material.

Surveys of this type inevitably invite second-guessing, especially when such obvious choices as Nina Simone’s “I Loves You, Porgy” and anything from Ella Fitzgerald’s Gershwin songbook have been omitted. What is included, however, more than makes the case for Gershwin’s genius. —B.B.

Bob Blumenthal is a jazz critic for The Boston Globe and CD Review.

Charles M. Young reviews popular music for Playboy, Musician, and other publications.