Miles Davis, Gil Evans: George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess
Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2200
Miles Davis, Gil Evans
If a more significant, influential, and lasting result of a creative musical partnership exists than that of Miles Davis and Gil Evans' Porgy and Bess, society hasn't seen it. It's impossible to overstate the importance of the pair's collaboration on the landmark 1959 update of George Gershwin's opera. Transcending genre, time, and place, the profound statement finds Evans and Davis implementing modal approaches in a mainstream context and advancing jazz idioms that would become the foundation of the form's still-classic era. And that's saying nothing of the soulful playing – legendary performances by Davis' first great quintet that can now be heard in pristine detail courtesy of this definitive digital edition.
Mastered from the original tapes and strictly limited to 3,000 numbered copies, Porgy and Bess attains previously unheard degrees of clarity, openness, immediacy, and depth on Mobile Fidelity's hybrid SACD. Here, the arrangements unfold amidst practically limitless soundstages and burst with multi-dimensional images. Separation between instruments allows you to locate individual band members and trace the decay of the notes. Davis' iconic solo passages take on borderline-surreal qualities of realism and shape. The magisterial scope of the Evans-conducted orchestra emerges with room-filling bloom, color, and dynamics.
While difficult to pinpoint its single-best strength, Mobile Fidelity's reissue gives reference-level credence to what may remain the album's most crucial aspect: tone. Based not on chords but on scales and feeling, Porgy and Bess teems with emotions and possibilities – characteristics conveyed by the nuances, timbre, and temper delivered by the array of horns, woodwinds, basses, and percussion involved. Whether the combination of Bill Barber's tuba in unison with Paul Chambers' bass during "Buzzard Song," Davis' improvisational flights on "It Ain't Necessarily So," or the doubling up on alto flutes on several compositions, never before have they been experienced with such richness, roundness, and palpability.
Just as identifying singular sonic highlights proves virtually unfeasible, so does underlining which songs feature the most memorable exchanges, melodies, and scoring. Davis and Evans' adaptation of Porgy and Bess remains of a piece, an American touchstone, a recording that immediately separated itself from the multiple other versions released during the same period and continues to make waves decades after its creation, assuming a place in the historical canon alongside collaborative masterworks by Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn and Frank Sinatra/Nelson Riddle.
Defined by Davis biographer Jack Chambers as "a new score, with its own integrity, order, and action," Porgy and Bess has been identified by nearly every major outlet and expert as a must-have album. Davis' phrasing alone cements the effort with a genius quality. As Brian Cook and Richard Morton explain in The Penguin Guide to Jazz: "'Prayer' is an astounding tour de force, harmonically suspended, and with Miles' most extraordinarily recorded solo to date punctuated by agonized screams and shouts, whether of affirmation or suffering it isn't easy to judge. Miles was not in good physical condition during the making of the record, which perhaps explains the twisting intensity, the bent notes and slurs which seem to express some inner pain." Then there's the immortal rendition of "Summertime," the epitome of calm, understatement, and beauty.
At once sweet and spiritual, sure and steady, graceful and exuberant, happy and poignant, Porgy and Bess is a phenomenal jazz dance that has never been equaled – and likely, never will. Hear it as Davis, Evans, and company intended.
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2. Bess, You Is My Woman Now
4. Gone, Gone, Gone
6. Oh Bess, Where's My Bess?
7. Prayer (Oh Doctor Jesus)
8. Fisherman, Strawberry and Devil Crab
9. My Man's Gone Now
10. It Ain't Necessarily So
11. Here Come de Honey Man
12. I Loves You, Porgy
13. There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon for New York
Review by Mark Werlin - May 18, 2019
The creative collaboration between Miles Davis and arranger-composer Gil Evans flourished in the late 1950s, at a cultural moment when modernity, breaking out of the confines of nightclubs, coffee houses and art galleries, shook the walls of conservative America with the vibrant sounds of recorded jazz music on a million hi-fi players.
One of the most successful and quietly subversive jazz album of the era was Gil Evans' interpretation of Porgy and Bess. In bold strokes of the arranger's pen, Evans recast the 1935 "folk opera" of George and Ira Gershwin and Dubose Heyward into a new form that conveyed the joys and sorrows, the redemptive power of love and toxic force of jealousy, the aspiration to overcome imposed social adversity — the black experience of the 20th century from the perspective of black people — as exemplified in the cool, defiant, instrumental voice of Miles Davis.
In a work that is so consistent and integral, there are many highlights that deserve close listening and focused attention. By the time of these recording sessions in Columbia's spacious 30th Street Studio, on July 22 and 29, August 4 and 18, 1958, Miles had developed an acute awareness of his own recorded sound and had perfected a technique of playing close to the microphone when using the Harmon mute. On "Summertime", the timbre of the muted horn suggests the female voice, as the open horn suggests the male voice in "Bess, Where is My Bess". The subtlety of Gil Evans' arrangements are familiar to us today, but 60 years ago, how unusual they must have seemed to listeners accustomed to the Basie-inspired big-band sound of that era. From the opening passages of " Fisherman, Strawberry and Devil Crab" on the solo alto flute, to the sustained tension of bowed bass and low horns under Miles' incantatory call to "Prayer", Evans deploys tone colors across the spectrum of the brass and woodwinds orchestral range.
Integrated into a large ensemble of top-flight brass and woodwind players are most of Miles' 1958 working band: his recently fired drummer Philly Joe Jones and successor Jimmy Cobb; bassist Paul Chambers, and new Sextet member, alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. The reconstituted Sextet of Davis, John Coltrane, Adderley, Bill Evans, Chambers, and Jones, had been performing since early 1958, and had recorded half an album's worth of material in May, after which Davis fired the two heroin users, Jones and Evans. But for the Porgy and Bess sessions, Miles recalled Jones to play on 9 of the album's 13 tracks. Philly's energy galvanized the sessions, but at a price; he struggled to stay on top of the accented beats in his feature, "Gone"; perhaps evidence of the impact of substance abuse.
Mobile Fidelity's SACD release of Porgy and Bess was sourced from an analogue tape created by Mark Wilder, who remixed the three-track session tapes to a new stereo master (this was confirmed by Mobile Fidelity engineer Rob LoVerde in response to my query). The SACD sounds very similar to the 2-eye stereo Columbia LP, due to Wilder's remixing skills and to the superb transfer of Wilder's master tape by MoFi senior engineer Shawn R. Britton. For a comparison between the LP and SACD, I focused on the trumpet and drums, both of which are positioned in the center of the stereo panorama in "The Buzzard Song", "Bess, You is my Woman, Now" and "Gone". Trumpets blaring at the climax of "Prayer" sound forceful but not shrill. From a long-time LP listener's perspective, the MoFi SACD narrows the divide between digital and analogue playback.
The relationship of music collectors to specialist record labels parallels that of patrons to fine arts organizations. Mobile Fidelity is a small operation that performs a major service to audiophile LP and SACD listeners. MoFi's efforts to preserve and recreate the authentic sound of classic jazz and rock albums strike a balance between the pragmatism of commerce and the idealism of art. With support from the audiophile community, their work makes possible a deeper appreciation of the heritage of great musical recordings.
Copyright © 2019 Mark Werlin and HRAudio.net