THE DOZENS: THE GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY OF PORGY AND BESS
by Alan Kurtz



Kind of Blue (1959) is usually cited as Miles Davis’s best-selling album, and has often been called the best-selling jazz record of all time. Within two years of its release, it had edged past Porgy and Bess (1958) as Miles’s personal chart topper, on its way to eventual multi-platinum status, meaning it has moved millions of units. Porgy and Bess, by comparison, has fallen into relative obscurity. On the 50th anniversary of its recording, Porgy’s Amazon.com sales rank stands at #4,936, not even in sight of Kind of Blue’s lofty #240.

Indeed, Porgy’s reputation has so faded that Scott Saul’s American Book Award-winning Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties (Harvard University Press, 2003) offhandedly dismisses it and Miles’s other orchestral albums with arranger Gil Evans as “lush bachelor-pad collaborations.” In the same concupiscent company, presumably, as Jackie Gleason’s Music for Lovers Only and Percy Faith’s Music Until Midnight (both 1953). Come to think of it, Percy’s Porgy and Bess was released, like Miles’s, on Columbia, the same year as Kind of Blue. Perhaps that’s the lush bachelor-pad fare Professor Saul had in mind.



It’s more likely, though, that Porgy’s present-day neglect stems from the lingering odor of political incorrectness emanating from its source material. First staged on Broadway in 1935, George Gershwin’s “folk opera” (so labeled by promoters who feared the unmodified word opera might scare off customers) was based on a bestselling 1925 novel, written by a genteel white Southerner, about life amidst a squalid black tenement. The production drew mixed reviews and had, by Broadway standards, an unspectacular run that failed to turn a profit. Progressive Negroes, meanwhile, deplored the libretto’s racial stereotypes. Duke Ellington, for one, thought it was time to “debunk Gershwin’s lampblack Negroisms.” Even so, jazzmen could not resist the music. “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “I Loves You, Porgy,” “My Man’s Gone Now” and the overwhelming favorite “Summertime” all became standards of American popular music and fixtures in the jazz repertoire.

As early as 1941, Gil Evans had arranged a Porgy and Bess medley for Claude Thornhill’s big band. But it wasn’t until 1958 that Miles Davis got interested. Truth be told, Miles was initially more interested in Frances Taylor, a dancer in that year’s New York revival of Porgy and Bess. (That may be her on the LP cover, suggestively fingering Miles’s instrument.) Hanging out at the theater had a couple of propitious consequences: (1) Miles became enamored of, and later married, Miss Taylor; (2) the show’s music eventually caught his attention as well.



Actually, 1958 witnessed a full-blown Porgy and Bess fad. Besides the Broadway revival, legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn’s big-budget Hollywood movie began shooting, starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge in the title roles. Meanwhile, Nina Simone’s single “I Loves You, Porgy” was a hit, and no fewer than half a dozen album-length jazz versions vied for shelf space. All of these, however, paled by comparison with the second installment of Miles & Gil’s masterful 1950s trilogy (Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain).

It’s a pity that Miles & Gil’s Porgy and Bess has gotten lost in the historical shuffle of political correctness. But then, its underlying intellectual property had from the outset been subsiding into the sinkhole of race in America. DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel was inherently problematical, with its depiction of impoverished, uneducated, superstitious Negroes, reliance on a crude Gullah dialect (“De las’ man in de grabe-yard goin’ tuh be de nex’ one tuh git buried”), and frequent use of the “n” word among blacks. The controversy was exacerbated in 1927 as Porgy, faithfully dramatized by Heyward and his wife, Dorothy, became a New York stage hit. When Gershwin’s 1935 musical adaptation incorporated many of the same offensive elements, it served as an acute reminder of how little progress had been made over the preceding 10 years. This “folk opera” of but not by black folk struck many of the latter as the same old same old: whites exploiting blacks’ misery with yet another tuxedoed fieldtrip to the exotic land of the Noble Savage.

Yet there were compelling counterarguments, often raised by Negroes themselves, particularly those involved in the original stage productions and subsequent revivals. In 1927, Porgy presented a large black ensemble not in a lighthearted musical revue (to which New York theatergoers had become accustomed), but in a serious drama staged with gritty purported realism. That season’s cinematic sensation, The Jazz Singer, starred Al Jolson in blackface. Where was the greater offense? (Over the years, Jolson repeatedly expressed interest in staging a musical Porgy with him in blackface as the lead. Mercifully, this harebrained scheme never materialized.)

Similarly, the various productions of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess provided unprecedented opportunities to African-American vocal artists, bringing such enormous talents as baritone William Warfield and soprano Leontyne Price to appreciative audiences worldwide. Even Maya Angelou, early in her career, toured Europe and North Africa unapologetically in the cast of Porgy and Bess.

And certainly the most convincing musical argument in favor of Porgy and Bess remains the 1958 LP by Miles Davis and Gil Evans. The brash trumpeter and his taciturn arranger would go on to many more artistic triumphs, once together (Sketches of Spain) and thereafter separately. But for sheer emotional wallop, none would surpass Porgy and Bess.

Below, jazz.com reviewers Scott Albin, Alan Kurtz, Eric Novod and Jeff Sultanof individually analyze the 12 principal tracks from Porgy and Bess. (A 13th track, “Here Come de Honey Man,” serves as a transitional device. Little more than a minute long, it is not reviewed here.)


Miles Davis: Buzzard Song

Track

Buzzard Song

Artist

Miles Davis (flugelhorn)

CD

Porgy and Bess (Columbia/Legacy 712764)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Miles Davis (flugelhorn), Bill Barber (tuba), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums),

Johnny Coles, Bernie Glow, Ernie Royal, Louis Mucci (trumpets), Joe Bennett, Frank Rehak, Jimmy Cleveland Dick Hixson (trombones), Willie Ruff, Julius Watkins, Gunther Schuller (French horns), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), Jerome Richardson, Romeo Penque (flutes), Danny Bank (bass clarinet)

.

Composed by George Gershwin & DuBose Heyward. Arranged by Gil Evans

.

Recorded: New York, August 4, 1958

Albumcovermilesdavis-porgyandbess

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

Miles's and Gil's Porgy and Bess opens with a loud chord, proceeding to Miles's take on a song cut from the opera's original New York production in 1935; Evans no doubt learned it from Columbia Records' near-complete recording, released in 1951. But the track takes a left turn as it continues with a written bebop solo played by Barber and Chambers in unison, with brass as background. Only Gil Evans would have written such a solo to open an album of songs from a major theatre score, and the pairing of bass and tuba, not a very safe thing to do because of possible intonation problems, is near flawless here because of the virtuosity of the musicians themselves. This track also reminds us of the many musicians and arrangers who often said that Evans could notate excellent solos as if they were being improvised on the spot. The track is over before the listener realizes.

Reviewer: Jeff Sultanof


Miles Davis: Bess, You Is My Woman Now

Track

Bess, You Is My Woman Now

Artist

Miles Davis (flugelhorn)

CD

Porgy and Bess (Columbia/Legacy 712764)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Miles Davis (flugelhorn), Bill Barber (tuba), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums),

Johnny Coles, Bernie Glow, Ernie Royal, Louis Mucci (trumpets), Joe Bennett, Frank Rehak, Jimmy Cleveland Dick Hixson (trombones), Willie Ruff, Julius Watkins, Gunther Schuller (French horns), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), Phil Bodner, Romeo Penque (flutes), Danny Bank (bass clarinet)

.

Composed by George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward & Ira Gershwin. Arranged by Gil Evans

.

Recorded: New York, July 29, 1958

Albumcovermilesdavis-porgyandbess

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

Of the numerous jazz adaptations of Porgy and Bess in the mid-to-late 1950s – many motivated by the production of a Hollywood film version of Gershwin's opera – only one had the benefit of Gil Evans's orchestrations coupled with the lead voice of Miles Davis. Evans and Davis managed to be, at one and the same time, artistically uncompromising and popularly accessible. Ironically, the 1959 Porgy and Bess movie itself was a flop. In 1972, Ira Gershwin recalled the film rights and halted its distribution, having disliked this "Hollywoodization" of his late brother George's work. He, and subsequently his estate, proceeded to destroy every copy they could lay their hands on.

On "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," Miles's mellow flugelhorn hints at the melody in his brief intro prior to a sudden brass fanfare. Miles then delves into the theme wholeheartedly, this time answered by Bill Barber's profound tuba commentary. As Miles continues, the reeds and brass respond vigorously and sympathetically. Miles's solo is simply an exquisite melodic embellishment of the theme, his lovely and poignant flugelhorn tone carrying the day (and actually sounding more like muted trumpet). Davis is in arresting call-and-response mode with the orchestra as the piece winds down, and then in scintillating harmony with Evans's sonorous voicings at the very end.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


Miles Davis (featuring Philly Joe Jones): Gone

Track

Gone

Artist

Miles Davis (flugelhorn)

CD

Porgy and Bess (Columbia/Legacy 712764)

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Musicians:

Miles Davis (flugelhorn), Paul Chambers (bass), Philly Joe Jones (drums),

Johnny Coles, Bernie Glow, Ernie Royal, Louis Mucci (trumpets), Joe Bennett, Frank Rehak, Jimmy Cleveland, Dick Hixson (trombones), Willie Ruff, Julius Watkins, Gunther Schuller (French horns), Bill Barber (tuba), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), Phil Bodner, Romeo Penque (flutes), Danny Bank (bass clarinet)

.

Composed by Gil Evans

.

Recorded: New York, July 22, 1958

Albumcovermilesdavis-porgyandbess

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

"The thing about Philly Joe's playing," said Paul Motian in a 1996 Percussive Notes interview, "was that somehow his ideas and his phrasing, when he soloed and played fours and eights, you really knew where he was in the tune. So I learned from that." As with all great jazz drummers, but especially with Philly Joe and Max Roach, instrumental composition was their priority, whether playing behind a famed soloist or improvising an individual statement of their own. "Drum Solo!!!" certainly did not equate to temporarily abandoning all remnants of the tune until the drummer counted the band back in. And like great soloists on other instruments, their improvisations can later be analyzed as instantaneous compositions, in which musicians who thoughtfully combined melodic ideas on a rhythmic instrument (or vice versa) often yield the most satisfying analytic findings.

One can hear this in "Gone," Philly Joe's feature from Porgy and Bess. Note how his drum breaks either act as responses to the calls previously played by the band, or how they occasionally predict what rhythm the band is about to play. There are no throwaway fills here – every drum break (and there are many) propels the song forward with vigor and sophistication. A highlight is the extended break from 1:16 to 1:25, where Philly Joe masterfully executes both swing and bop mainstays in nine seconds: advanced bop fills throughout the middle of the break are bookended by triplets that cleverly mark the band's exit and sets up its return. A master in fine form.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Miles Davis: Gone, Gone, Gone

Track

Gone, Gone, Gone

Artist

Miles Davis (flugelhorn)

CD

Porgy and Bess (Columbia/Legacy 712764)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Miles Davis (flugelhorn), Paul Chambers (bass), Philly Joe Jones (drums),

Johnny Coles, Bernie Glow, Ernie Royal, Louis Mucci (trumpets), Joe Bennett, Frank Rehak, Jimmy Cleveland, Dick Hixson (trombones), Willie Ruff, Julius Watkins, Gunther Schuller (French horns), Bill Barber (tuba), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), Phil Bodner, Romeo Penque (flutes), Danny Bank (bass clarinet)

.

Composed by George Gershwin & Ira Gershwin. Arranged by Gil Evans

.

Recorded: New York, July 22, 1958

Albumcovermilesdavis-porgyandbess

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Act I, Scene 2 of Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess (1935) finds a roomful of destitute Negroes attending the sheet-covered body of a lately murdered man, their fellow Catfish Row denizen Robbins. Upon his chest, a large blue saucer beckons donations. Robbins, an unlucky gambler with no life insurance, left a widow and baby penniless. By custom in such cases, mourners must sing lamentations to attract neighborhood condolences in the form of coins to defray burial costs. Otherwise, the Board of Health will cart away the remains for deposit into the hands of white medical students. And that, it was agreed by one and all, would be a fate worse than death.

In a mere 30 seconds, with nary a word sung or spoken, Gershwin's stark orchestral music chillingly evokes the majesty and mystery of death. Similarly, Miles Davis and Gil Evans require scarcely more than two minutes to lift Gershwin's delicate dirge from funerary to phantasmagoric realms as spectral as souls raised from the dead. Abrupt tape splices badly mar this track, obviously a patchwork composite and not a continuous performance. But even so, Gil's arrangement and Miles's flugelhorn here are the stuff from which goose bumps are made. Spine tingling.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Miles Davis: Summertime

Track

Summertime

Artist

Miles Davis (trumpet)

CD

Porgy and Bess (Columbia/Legacy 712764)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Miles Davis (trumpet), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums),

Johnny Coles, Bernie Glow, Ernie Royal, Louis Mucci (trumpets), Joe Bennett, Frank Rehak, Jimmy Cleveland Dick Hixson (trombones), Willie Ruff, Julius Watkins, Gunther Schuller (French horns), Bill Barber (tuba), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), Jerome Richardson, Romeo Penque (flutes), Danny Bank (bass clarinet)

.

Composed by George Gershwin & DuBose Heyward. Arranged by Gil Evans

.

Recorded: New York, August 18, 1958

Albumcovermilesdavis-porgyandbess

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

This is a straightforward rendition of the Gershwin classic, with Miles playing the melody, then improvising against a simple background. The background repeats and is heard in different instrumental groups upon each repeat. Gil Evans was a master of orchestral color, and even these simple instrumental groupings are interesting because he shifts them unobtrusively. While the casual listener may not hear anything very different from chorus to chorus orchestrally, the attentive listener will appreciate the subtle changes in sonic tone. This same basic setting was later reused for one of the last dates Evans recorded, 1987's Collaboration with singer Helen Merrill.

Reviewer: Jeff Sultanof


Miles Davis: Prayer (Oh Doctor Jesus)

Track

Prayer (Oh Doctor Jesus)

Artist

Miles Davis (flugelhorn)

CD

Porgy and Bess (Columbia/Legacy 712764)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Miles Davis (flugelhorn), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums),

Johnny Coles, Bernie Glow, Ernie Royal, Louis Mucci (trumpets), Joe Bennett, Frank Rehak, Jimmy Cleveland Dick Hixson (trombones), Willie Ruff, Julius Watkins, Gunther Schuller (French horns), Bill Barber (tuba), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), Jerome Richardson, Romeo Penque (flutes), Danny Bank (bass clarinet)

.

Composed by George Gershwin & Ira Gershwin. Arranged by Gil Evans

.

Recorded: New York, August 4, 1958

Albumcovermilesdavis-porgyandbess

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

This section of Porgy and Bess was never well known by the general public. In the opera, Bess goes with other residents of Catfish Row to a picnic on a small island, where she meets up with her former lover Crown. By the time she returns to Porgy, she is quite ill (the implication being that she has overdosed on drugs). The character Serena sings a prayer for her recovery, with Porgy and Lily singing responsively. In the world of Miles and Gil, Miles prays for Bess's soul as if he were a preacher, and the congregation responds. These responses build to a powerful climax before everything dies down. Listen closely for the subtle orchestral colorings, such as the tremolo in the string bass and bass clarinet, exemplifying how the Davis/Evans collaborations reveal many layers the more one listens to them.

Reviewer: Jeff Sultanof


Miles Davis: Fishermen, Strawberry and Devil Crab

Track

Fishermen, Strawberry and Devil Crab

Artist

Miles Davis (flugelhorn)

CD

Porgy and Bess (Columbia/Legacy 712764)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Miles Davis (flugelhorn),

Johnny Coles, Bernie Glow, Ernie Royal, Louis Mucci (trumpets), Joe Bennett, Frank Rehak, Jimmy Cleveland Dick Hixson (trombones), Willie Ruff, Julius Watkins, Gunther Schuller (French horns), Bill Barber (tuba), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), Phil Bodner, Romeo Penque (flutes), Danny Bank (bass clarinet), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums)

.

Composed by George Gershwin & Ira Gershwin. Arranged by Gil Evans

.

Recorded: New York, July 29, 1958

Albumcovermilesdavis-porgyandbess

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

As Act II, Scene 3 of Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess (1935) opens, dawn breaks over Catfish Row. As always, daylight summons forth itinerant street peddlers. First the plaintive Strawberry Woman, and in turn the crabby Crab Man hawk their pitiful wares. In opera, expository material is often a necessary evil, throwaway stuff whose sole purpose is to move the plot along. Not so with Gershwin, who transforms the mundane into a masterful vignette of the struggle for survival. For this interpretation, Miles Davis and Gil Evans faithfully recapture the pathos of Gershwin's peddlers, yet add an ineffable, transcendent dignity. Through the gently breaking dawn of Gil's gorgeous flutes, muted trumpets and trombone/French horn choir, breaks Miles's heart-wrenching flugelhorn, crying across the ages, reminding us that just as the quiet desperation of everyday life is universal, so too is our ultimate triumph. These four minutes of music are as miraculous, mysterious and irresistibly beautiful as a sunrise.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Miles Davis: My Man's Gone Now

Track

My Man's Gone Now

Artist

Miles Davis (flugelhorn)

CD

Porgy and Bess (Columbia/Legacy 712764)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Miles Davis (flugelhorn), Paul Chambers (bass), Philly Joe Jones (drums),

Johnny Coles, Bernie Glow, Ernie Royal, Louis Mucci (trumpets), Joe Bennett, Frank Rehak, Jimmy Cleveland, Dick Hixson (trombones), Willie Ruff, Julius Watkins, Gunther Schuller (French horns), Bill Barber (tuba), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), Phil Bodner, Romeo Penque (flutes), Danny Bank (bass clarinet)

.

Composed by George Gershwin & DuBose Heyward. Arranged by Gil Evans

.

Recorded: New York, July 22, 1958

Albumcovermilesdavis-porgyandbess

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

British critic Max Harrison felt that the full potential of Gil Evans's charts for Miles Davis's Porgy and Bess was not realized in the recording. He based this belief largely on a letter he received from a musician on the date who claimed that the rehearsals were rushed, Evans was not a great conductor, and that as excellent as the end result turned out, it should have been even better. Harrison did not disclose the musician's identity, but Larry Hicock's biography Castles Made of Sound: The Story of Gil Evans (2002) quotes session participant Gunther Schuller by name and at length to the same effect.

Listening to a piece like "My Man's Gone Now," one could hardly imagine how it could be significantly or even noticeably improved. Serena's lamentation for her slain husband Robbins, "My Man's Gone Now" as reworked by Davis and Evans is mesmerizing from beginning to end. Miles plaintively caresses the melody with the support of Paul Chambers's resonant bass figures and an insinuating orchestral vamp, soon to be replaced by pungent brass punctuations. The tempo doubles as Miles solos thematically over the urgent pulse of Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. The orchestra's voicings display a resigned mournfulness in contrast to Miles's grieving flugelhorn cries, and the wailing brass exclamations in the closing section culminate in a dirge-like interlude by the full ensemble.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


Miles Davis: It Ain't Necessarily So

Track

It Ain't Necessarily So

Artist

Miles Davis (flugelhorn)

CD

Porgy and Bess (Columbia/Legacy 712764)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Miles Davis (flugelhorn), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums),

Johnny Coles, Bernie Glow, Ernie Royal, Louis Mucci (trumpets), Joe Bennett, Frank Rehak, Jimmy Cleveland Dick Hixson (trombones), Willie Ruff, Julius Watkins, Gunther Schuller (French horns), Bill Barber (tuba), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), Phil Bodner, Romeo Penque (flutes), Danny Bank (bass clarinet)

.

Composed by George Gershwin & Ira Gershwin. Arranged by Gil Evans

.
Albumcovermilesdavis-porgyandbess

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

The wistful, longing intro by Davis, cleverly utilizing the opening melodic line from "I Got Plenty of Nothin'," could just as easily have been attached to the end of the previous melancholy track, "My Man's Gone Now." It builds to a gradual crescendo before a blast from the brass that initiates Miles's improvisation on "It Ain't Necessarily So," underscored by Jimmy Cobb's kicking drumbeat. Miles then plays the theme, only to quickly enter phase two of his solo. His attack is aggressive and deadly serious, not at all jocular or lighthearted, a far cry from the tone of Sportin' Life's skeptical assessment of religion, the basis of this selection in Gershwin's opera. Miles seems to be affirming that life is, after all, very hard in Catfish Row. Evans's arrangement here is one of his sparsest, allowing Miles the spotlight except for occasional short, assertive interjections from the trumpet section. Miles ends the piece with one kissed, insolent little note, his only real acknowledgment of the cocky Sportin' Life.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


Miles Davis: I Loves You, Porgy

Track

I Loves You, Porgy

Artist

Miles Davis (trumpet)

CD

Porgy and Bess (Columbia/Legacy 712764)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Miles Davis (trumpet), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums),

Johnny Coles, Bernie Glow, Ernie Royal, Louis Mucci (trumpets), Joe Bennett, Frank Rehak, Jimmy Cleveland Dick Hixson (trombones), Willie Ruff, Julius Watkins, Gunther Schuller (French horns), Bill Barber (tuba), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), Jerome Richardson, Romeo Penque (flutes), Danny Bank (bass clarinet)

.

Composed by George Gershwin & Ira Gershwin. Arranged by Gil Evans

.

Recorded: New York, August 18, 1958

Albumcovermilesdavis-porgyandbess

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

One of the most beautiful songs in Porgy and Bess, the music during the entire first part of this track seems to float, as alto flutes and brass play shimmering figures against Miles's muted trumpet in steady tempo, but sounding rubato thanks to the background figures Gil has written. Evans reharmonizes the song's bridge with horns and alto flutes prominent, with part writing that stresses counterpoint over chord changes. While it is too bad that this song fades and might be unsatisfying for some, Evans is clearly using it to set up the album's final song.

If one hears this casually, it almost sounds like mood music. But repeated listening reveals many layers of sound under Miles's improvisational singing. In the history of music, few composers could weave such a web of sound as Gil Evans, and few soloists could be so inspired by it as Miles Davis.

Reviewer: Jeff Sultanof


Miles Davis: There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon for New York

Track

There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon for New York

Artist

Miles Davis (flugelhorn)

CD

Porgy and Bess (Columbia/Legacy 712764)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Miles Davis (flugelhorn), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums),

Johnny Coles, Bernie Glow, Ernie Royal, Louis Mucci (trumpets), Joe Bennett, Frank Rehak, Jimmy Cleveland Dick Hixson (trombones), Willie Ruff, Julius Watkins, Gunther Schuller (French horns), Bill Barber (tuba), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), Jerome Richardson, Romeo Penque (flutes, clarinets), Danny Bank (alto flute, bass clarinet)

.

Composed by George Gershwin & Ira Gershwin. Arranged by Gil Evans

.

Recorded: New York, August 18, 1958

Albumcovermilesdavis-porgyandbess

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

Although this song is actually sung in the opera's penultimate scene, it makes a fine ending for the album. Clearly in a celebratory mood, Gil Evans begins with a quasi-New Orleans small band sound which breaks out to a roaring ensemble as Miles improvises away. Evans even ties things up by musically referencing "Gone," perhaps a sly joke since Bess has left Catfish Row by the end of the opera. Stereo allows us to hear trumpets and trombones on the right side of the listening stage, reeds and French horns on the left. On a note of excitement and triumph, both song and album end.

It should be mentioned that by the late 1950s, Gil Evans clearly had no use for the standard five-man sax section, and the only saxophonist on both this album and the previous year's Miles Ahead is an altoist, either Lee Konitz or Cannonball Adderley. The remaining reeds are three in number, mostly two flutes or clarinets and bass clarinet, but there are passages of three alto flutes, Danny Bank being lead.

It is well known that the Davis/Evans projects went over budget because of the difficulty of the music, hence the splicing mentioned in other reviews of tracks on this album. However, it is also true that all four of their albums (Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain, Quiet Nights) have never gone out of print. Great art sometimes pays off well!

Reviewer: Jeff Sultanof


Miles Davis: Bess, Oh Where's My Bess

Track

Bess, Oh Where's My Bess

Artist

Miles Davis (flugelhorn) and Gil Evans (arranger)

CD

Porgy and Bess (Columbia/Legacy 712764)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Miles Davis (flugelhorn), Gil Evans (arranger), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums), Johnny Coles (trumpet), Bernie Glow (trumpet), Louis Mucci (trumpet), Ernie Royal (trumpet), Joe Bennett (trombone), Jimmy Cleveland (trombone), Frank Rehak (trombone), Dick Hixson (bass trombone), Willie Ruff (French horn), Gunther Schuller (French horn), Julius Watkins (French horn), Bill Barber (tuba), Jerome Richardson (flute), Romeo Penque (flute), Danny Bank (bass clarinet), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax).

Composed by George Gershwin.

.

Recorded: Columbia 30th Street Studios, NYC, August 4, 1958

Albumcovermilesdavis-porgyandbess

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

In Act III, Scene 3 of Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess (1935), Porgy returns to Catfish Row after a week in jail that, owing to his crap-shooting prowess, left him flush. Bess, however, is nowhere to be found. In despair, Porgy pleads: "Oh Bess, Oh Where's My Bess?" A theatrical set piece lasting only 1½ minutes, it transcended its stage function thanks to Gershwin's soul-stirring melodicism. Miles Davis and Gil Evans expand the song to 4½ minutes, sacrificing the original's urgency in favor of a more subdued but sweeping minidrama, accurately mirroring Porgy's anguish. It's not one of the album's crowning achievements, but this is a long way from filler.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


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