How dare the Chicago Jazz Orchestra record one of the unchallenged masterpieces of jazz: the Gil Evans/Miles Davis version of George Gershwin’s equally classic Porgy And Bess? Forty-fix years later, the accepted wisdom is that their recording could not be improved upon and that it should be valued for its unassailable aesthetic supremacy, like other works of art that stand at unreachable planes above all of the others.
But the Chicago Jazz Orchestra’s artistic director, Jeff Lindberg, had an ace up his sleeve.
The Chicago Jazz Orchestra was celebrating its 25th anniversary, and he was considering a way to distinguish the orchestra with a legendary recording. Why not re-record the Gil Evans arrangements, but with Miles Davis’ friend and mentor, Clark Terry? After all, Terry knew Davis when the younger trumpeter was a young dentist’s son from East St. Louis as he was breaking into some of the St. Louis bands. And Terry took Davis under his wing at time after he after he moved to New York, even allowing Davis to stay in his apartment for a while when his money ran out. Nonetheless, both developed distinctively different sounds, Davis’ dark and brooding and spare and Terry’s bright and declarative and based upon the cadence of the human voice. Duke Ellington recognized this when he appointed Terry to play the part of Puck on "Up And Down, Up And Down" from Such Sweet Thunder. Like all of the other members of Ellington’s orchestra, Clark Terry’s playing was personalized, and he could be identified immediately when he played.
That same personalization occurs on Porgy & Bess. The difference is that instead of playing just one part in a musical adaptation of a play, as in Such Sweet Thunder, Terry plays all of the parts, from the fanfare-to-sweetness-to-swing-to-myteriousness introduction of "Buzzard Song" to the taking up of the character in "Here Come De Honey Man" when Terry sings, almost scats, the part on the minute-and-a-half track. While Terry plays "I Loves You Porgy" with open trumpet, his tone unforced and burnished, "Summertime" comes across muted, more reminiscent of some of Davis’ work than the other tracks. Some of the surprises of the Terry’s participation in Porgy & Bess are his bluesiness on "Fisherman, Strawberry And Devil Crab" with bent notes and flatted thirds, as well as the upbeat, sunny approach to "There’s A Boat That’s Leaving Soon For New York."
As for the Chicago Jazz Orchestra, it has devoted all of its resources to the accomplishment of the task, including the prominence of tubaist Dennis Carroll to fill out the sonic spectrum or drummer George Fludas’ animation of "Gone." More important, the Orchestra, with absolute respect for the original recording and the uniqueness of the arrangements, has re-created the fullness of sound and the atmosphere inherent in Evans’ work, more interested in richness of shifting colors than presentation of song. And so, the Chicago Jazz Orchestra’s recording of Porgy & Bess, entirely valid rather than imitative, offers another perspective of the folk opera and one, that bookends, along with Miles Davis’ classic version, the incomparable Gil Evans interpretation.