Jazz review: Gershwin: Porgy and Bess



Various artists

Bethlehem Records

That "Various Artists" label disguises a staggeringly star-studded line-up in this rare recording which has been reissued in remastered clarity on iTunes. Among the luminaries featured in this 1956 recording are the Duke Ellington Orchestra, singers Johnny Hartman and Mel Torme, flautist Herbie Mann and alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges.

There are some odd casting decisions on this, the first recording to give the Gershwins' celebrated folk opera the wholesale jazz treatment. Torme, aka the Velvet Fog, is a smooth crooner whose slick style is an odd aesthetic match to the central role of crippled begger Porgy. Presumably he was the canny commercial headliner when Hartman, theĀ under-rated baritone, might have been a better choice. Hartman is, instead, cast as the murderously violent Crown. Singer Francis Faye is also a tad miscast - her brash, belting delivery ill suits the vulnerable, indecisive Bess.

Despite these quibbles, there are startling moments of beauty, which go some way to explaining why some of the songs from the opera have since become beloved fodder for jazz musicians.

The structure of the recording, keeping to the opera's scenes and recreating practically every tune, keeps the two-disc album on track. A detailed narrative, for newcomers to the opera, is useful in stitching together dramatic context between songs. While it might seem disruptive at first, layered with Russ Garcia's vivid orchestrations, the two elements work well in recreating the dramatic scenes in the listener's mind.

Within this strict delineation, however, the musicians have plenty of room to play and while their deliveries might seem odd in the dramatic context, their fresh improvisations show how strong the songs are, that they can stand independently of the drama. Listen to the gorgeous version of I Got Plenty O' Nuthin', with Howard McGhee's muted trumpet dancing along behind pianist Ralph

Sharon's bouncy piano lines and Torme's souffle light delivery of the melody.

Or Mann's playful flute dipping and diving nimbly in and out of Joe Derise's Here Come De Honey Man, which turns a brief interlude into a humid tropical getaway. The orchestrations are lush but not lurid, weaving together voices and instruments to maximum effect.

This is a landmark must-have for jazz fans.

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