Few are called and fewer still are able to keenly rekindle the starlight from golden eras gone by. While said eras harbor timeless treasure chests of standards, those songs are often performed as museum pieces by well-meaning torchbearers instead of moving, living things with miles to go before they sleep. Singer/dancer/actor Elijah Rock has the triple threat skills and blood-pumping heart to breathe life into classic music as he proved on stage as ‘Crooner’ in the musical “Words By Ira Gershwin.” Now he has taken that more traditionalist template and, along with producer/arranger/pianist Kevin Toney, prepared a contemporary and decidedly African American twist to the music of George & Ira Gershwin (and a couple of Ira’s other collaborators) with the innovative recording Gershwin For My Soul. CoverPhoto(notext).jpg
Gershwin For My Soul represents a full circle journey for Cleveland-born baritone Elijah Rock. He began singing at age 13 and stepped up to his first Gershwin songs at 16 in “Porgy & Bess” at the Cleveland Institute of Music. No less than the great Freddy Cole once told him, “Learn a standard a day and you’ll be alright!” Along with the Great American Songbook, show tunes, art songs and other classics that colored him Broadway-bound, Elijah always returned to Gershwin. It was while doing “Words By Ira Gershwin” that he learned how brothers George & Ira were godfather geniuses of Tin Pan Alley in the early 20th century. Reading Michael Feinstein’s book “The Gershwins and Me” sealed the deal. Carrying this art forward, Elijah Rock dove into this project with relish and the trio of producer/arranger/pianist Kevin Toney, bassist John B. Williams and drummer Greg Paul, plus guitarist Jacques Lesure in the west coast jazz sanctuary of Nolan Shaheed’s studio. The 12-song CD opens with “S’Wonderful,” a tender fitting contemporary take a la Al Jarreau. “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” and “Our Love Is Here To Stay” are drenched in that punchy syncopated manner that most recalls their original era, the latter with some of Toney’s signature piano flourish. “I Can’t Get Started” swings and chugs with a four on the floor groove while the lovely “Long Ago and Far Away” floats on a slow hot wind bossa beat. Elijah milks the rarely heard extended introduction to “How Long Has This Been Goin’ On” before it falls like feathers into the brushed blues of its well known verses.
The second half of Gershwin For My Soul is where more chances are taken. The title track – the sole original penned by Rock and Toney – is a hip churchy blues where Elijah testifies his fascination with all things Gershwin. It’s followed boldly by “Tchaikovsky (And Other Russians),” a Hip Hop Swing interlude perfect post the Tonys-sweeping genre bending musical “Hamilton.” And Elijah brings his tap shoes in for solo and drum-dueling duties on the revival rave-up stomp “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’.” Most movingly, the focus becomes sheer aural nudity on a trio of ballads Elijah submerges into that showcase the full resonant beauty of his voice and his skills of interpretation from the acting world. They are the relaxed and romantic “Shall We Dance” (solely accompanied by the guitar of John Storie), the parlor song swoon of “Love Walked In” (featuring solo piano introduction and accompaniment by Toney), and the tour de force closer “Isn’t It a Pity,” a bluesy ballad wish of delicious diction and a heart-stopping dip into a cinematic so long. “Before this experience, I hadn’t really embraced the balladeer aspect of my gift,” Rock reflects. “It was about me being vulnerable enough to know I could do it. It’s been an interesting transformation…everything slowed down. There’s space for introspection and that moment to moment feeling of the lyric. I fell in love with the space between the notes and the simplicity of telling the story.”
Rock – whose resume boasts a decade and a half of acclaimed, across-the-board accomplishments in stage, film and television – found the perfect collaborator in Kevin Toney whose work as a keyboardist, composer, arranger, author, educator and co-founder of the `70s R&B-Jazz group The Blackbyrds provided the optimal springboard for Rock to bounce concepts off. “Kevin Toney is a virtuoso whose experience speaks for itself,” Rock says. “We brought our authentic creative selves to the material and, in that, it became uniquely ours.” Targeting performance arts centers and playhouses as well as traditional music venues, Elijah will bring a unique live presentation of this music with theatrical, staging, choreography and lighting elements that position the show as more than a stand-up vocal concert yet not quite a full-on musical. Directed by Saundra McClain (who helmed his NAACP Award-winning performance in “Breath and Imagination: The Story of Roland Hayes”), Elijah’s vision simply must be experienced to be fully understood and deeply appreciated. Ultimately, Elijah Rock hopes to cultivate a younger audience for himself and this music with his all around showmanship, singing and paddle-n-roll style of tap dance – lost arts all that have found, in Rock, a tireless cultural savior. “I approach singing from a traditional perspective with a fresh twist,” Rock concludes. “Gershwin For My Soul not only represents America’s classical music, it gives me a platform to address other things about the culture and where we all stand today.”