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The Continuing Redefinition of Porgy and Bess

The story of Porgy and Bess, or rather the story of the telling of the story of Porgy and Bess, is a long and involved tale of continual adaptation. Whether it be Leontyne Price singing the role of Bess at La Scala, Janis Joplin belting out "Summertime" with Big Brother and the Holding Company at the Fillmore, or even the memorable recitation of that tune's lyrics by the cast of Seinfeld Gershwin's dramatic creation, informed by his careful study of jazz and African American spirituals, has always brought out the best in its interpreters and captivated its audience. Conceived with jazz influences foremost in the mind of composer George Gershwin, the work has been visited successfully by many jazz artists through the years, perhaps most notably by Miles Davis and Gil Evans at the end of the 1950s. Two worthwhile new interpretations of the work have appeared over the last year, the first being a reworking of the Evans arrangements by Clark Terry with Jeff Lindberg and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra and the other being Porgy and Bess Redefined a new interpretation of Gershwin's piece by the Mark Masters Ensemble.

The tale of love, redemption, greed and betrayal--operatic themes all--was first told in the novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward, then rewritten for the stage by his wife Dorothy, that in turn forming the basis for the libretto (with further lyrics by Ira Gershwin) of the "American Folk Opera" Porgy and Bess. Simple enough, I suppose, if it ended there; but with the piece running three hours if performed in full, the work was being pared down even during its first performances in 1935 and it wasn't until forty years later that the Cleveland Orchestra under Lorin Maazel gave the score its first performances as the composer wrote it. The opera has been performed in various versions on many stages in-between and since, condensed into concerto form by Gershwin, adapted as a feature film and rearranged on countless recordings. (Hollis Alpert's 1990 book The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess provides an excellent discussion of the opera's turbulent history.)

It takes some courage to revisit a recording as well-loved as Miles Davis and Gil Evans' 1959 Porgy and Bess and attempt to put your own stamp on it. Clark Terry, Jeff Lindberg and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra succeed admirably at just that on the 2004 Americana Music/A440 Music Group release George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. The venerable Terry plays brilliantly throughout the entire program, his warm sound different from Davis's cooler tone but absolutely as expressive. His plaintive solo on "Bess, Oh Where's My Bess" is but one of many outstanding examples, and his not the date's only outstanding horn: Art Hoyle joins in the fun on second flugelhorn for a rousing version of Evans' contribution to the score, "Gone."

Mark Masters delivers on the titular promise of Porgy and Bess: Redefined! on the Capri Records release, the set culling a somewhat different selection of songs from the original piece than Evans and Davis offered as well as a radically different approach to arranging them. Cool is the last word that comes to mind in describing this swinging, bop-inflected big band session featuring such fine musicians as bassist Ray Drummond, pianist Cecilia Coleman and drummer Joe LaBarbera. Restoring a brief overture, the group interprets ten other tunes, including a remarkably freewheeling "Summertime" that gives tenor saxophonist Billy Harper ample room for invention.

Now in it's second century, Porgy and Bess seems as tenaciously vital a work as ever. George Gershwin's opera has always been open to interpretation and reinvention; indeed, its history has necessitated both. Given the stung sense of jazz the composer put into the score, this should come as no surprise.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: George Gershwin
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