various artists,
The Complete Porgy & Bess
(Definitive Special, 2005)

There are so many recorded versions of Porgy & Bess that it's hard to think of George Gershwin's score as anything but a handful of classic tunes -- Miles Davis put his stamp on "Summertime," and Billie Holiday's "I Loves You Porgy" comes instantly to mind among an endless variety of interpretations.

But this is the entire opera, with narration and big band arrangements, recorded in 1956 in New York and Los Angeles. Here is DuBose Heyward's libretto and the full Gershwin score, performed by an array of singers and musicians from some kind of hothouse jazz producer's dream. If you can wrap your mind around Mel Torme as Porgy, then you will no doubt find the narration by Al "Jazzbo" Collins -- hipster raconteur and the voice of radio's "The Purple Grotto" -- absolutely right for this tale of sex, drugs and murder in Charleston's (fictional) Catfish Row.

The rest of the cast -- Frances Faye, Betty Roche, Johnny Hartman, George Kirby as that dope-peddling Sportin' Life -- are good, but it is Frank Rosolino as Jake who livens up the show: "A Woman is a Sometime Thing" is his beautiful, longing ballad, and "Agoin' Out to the Blackfish Banks" showcases Rosolino's own personality as a wisecracking wit. His rare appearance here as both performer and musician (he's also in the band on trombone) underscores the talent that was cut short by a freewheeling drug habit not many years later.

Also here are Duke Ellington & His Famous Orchestra with Maynard Ferguson, Clark Terry, Herbie Mann and Ray Nance, along with several other orchestras, a number of vocal groups, and just about every available musician in New York and Los Angeles. The whole project is at times overwhelming in its scope, but it does make for a full-scale presentation of the whole Heyward/Gershwin jazz opera that's seldom attempted. Whether the story of Porgy & Bess has dated, the score shows a remarkable adaptabity.

The liner notes admit frankly that this version was part of a mid-'50s jazz-and-standards fusion (meant, primarily, to boost the new LP format) that had seen great success. Miles and Gil Evans' orchestrated Porgy & Bess would be released less than two years later, and even that west-coast-cool jazz master Dave Brubeck released an all-Gershwin LP (Anything Goes) soon after.

In addition this two-disc set includes a rarely-heard original performance of "California Suite" written by Mel Torme and featuring Peggy Lee. The inclusion of this "lyric and musical narrative dedicated to the Golden State" is awkward in the context of Porgy & Bess and certainly awkward in the whole, consisting of some civic-boosterish phrases and groan-inducing rhymes that would probably have been better left to some other disc. The Porgy & Bess portion of this program is available by itself elsewhere, although more expensive. Only Mel Torme completists will find the "California Suite" essential listening, and all hipsters outside the door of the Purple Grotto are fairly warned, but this import set is currently cheaper to buy.

review by
Mark Bromberg

22 September 2007

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