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‘Porgy and Bess’ revisited

Porgy 2

As he surveyed the ranks of musicians preparing to play Gil Evans’s score for Porgy and Bess at St John’s, Smith Square last night, Nick Smart knew that he had everything he needed: a 21-piece orchestra including the correct complement of French horns (three), bass clarinets (three), flutes of various sizes (four, when necessary), and a quartet of wonderful trumpeters — Henry Lowther, Martin Shaw, Steve Fishwick and Freddie Gavita — prepared to hand around the role of soloist. Since that soloist was, of course, Miles Davis, the task facing the four men was not without its challenge.

Smart also had the benefit of dealing with Evans’s actual score. As John Billett, the concert’s promoter, pointed out in his introduction, even the best intentioned reproductions of Evans’s pieces for Davis have been forced to make do with transcribed versions which inevitably miss some of the infinite subtlety of the original orchestrations. Thanks to the Evans family’s generosity, last night’s orchestra — consisting of alumni of the Royal Academy of Music, where Smart is in charge of the jazz programme — were able to work from the notes as Gil wrote them.

Of the three much loved albums Davis and Evans recorded together between 1957 and 1960, Porgy and Bess may be the most ambitious and fully realised, the pinnacle of the highly original approach to large-ensemble music that the arranger had been developing since his days with the Claude Thornhill band in the 1940s. Sixty years later, the richness and variety of gesture Evans applied to George Gershwin’s show tunes remain a source of wonder. And it can only be said that, under Smart’s direction, last night’s ensemble did the score complete justice in both execution and spirit.

To watch and listen as the ensemble brought Evans’s unorthodox instrumental deployments and love of dynamic contrast to life was a delight, from the whispered accompaniment of the French horns behind the trumpet solo on “It Ain’t Necessarily So” to the sudden brassy flares of “Prayer”. To hear each trumpet soloist pay the proper homage to Davis without forfeiting his own character was enormously impressive (and I’m not going to compare them: they were all outstanding). To admire the way Jeremy Brown coped with the bass lines written for Paul Chambers and the restrained panache with which Ed Richardson attacked the drum parts played in the studio by Philly Joe Jones and Jimmy Cobb was hugely impressive. Nor can one forget the trumpeter who didn’t solo: George Hogg, who played Ernie Royal’s lead parts with perfectly judged power and precision.

The nave of St John’s was packed for the occasion. The sessions for the original album took place in Columbia Records’ studio on East 30th Street in New York City, in a deconsecrated Armenian Orthodox church whose dimensions created a famously perfect natural reverberation. Apart from a hum that briefly emerged late in the set, the amplified sound in the former Anglican church in Westminster, built in 1728, severely damaged in the war and then restored as a concert hall, was equally sumptuous, revealing all the fine detail of the scoring.

This was the last night of the EFG London Jazz Festival, and earlier in the evening the pianist Chris Ingham had led a sextet through downscaled versions of pieces from Miles Ahead, the first of the three Davis/Evans albums. They included “Blues for Pablo”, “New Rhumba”, “Maids of Cadiz”, and a rearrangement of “The Duke” on which the combo managed to sound like a big band, and there was also a lively account of “Boplicity”, an earlier Evans arrangement for Davis’s 1948 Birth of the Cool nonet. Paul Higgs played the Miles parts on trumpet and flugelhorn with great finesse, flanked by two outstanding saxophonists, Jamie O’Donnell on alto and Colin Watling on tenor.

A long relationship with the music that Gil Evans and Miles Davis made together a lifetime ago tends to create an unusually strong emotional bond. Probably the greatest tribute that can be paid to the evening at St John’s is that the listener emerged with that bond not only confirmed but strengthened. Congratulations, then, to everyone involved in a sublime experience.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Steve Hurrell #

    Thank you for telling us about this. I hadn’t heard about it. I still feel warm when remembering being at the Gil Evans 75th birthday concert at the Hammersmith Odeon some years ago now.

    November 25, 2019
  2. Howard Lawes #

    I was also transported into some auditory paradise, the harmonies were so exceptional that it gives you goosebumps just thinking about it, surely one of the highlights of this years EFG London Jazz Festival.

    November 25, 2019
  3. jasperrees #

    A lovely atmospheric account, Richard. Asking for a nerd: did you happen to catch the names of the French horn players?

    November 25, 2019
  4. Kevin Mitchell #

    Forever impressed by the depth and richness of your critiques, old chum. At Johns a lovely venue. Was there a couple of Sundays ago to see a friend sing with the Brighton choir. By the way, always wondered if there was a connection between Bess’s lover/pimp Sportin’ Life and the less threatening paper. Kev

    Sent from my iPhone

    November 25, 2019
    • Thanks, Kevin. Your guess on that question is likely to be better-informed than mine…

      November 25, 2019
  5. Paul Crowe #

    And congratulations to you too, Richard, for another excellent piece. Loved to have been there.

    November 25, 2019
  6. Mick Steels #

    Great to hear Henry Lowther is still playing so well, as the last surviving member of the triumvirate of Beckett,Wheeler and himself he should be cherished

    November 25, 2019
  7. Conal #

    Sounds like a beautiful evening. Thanks for bringing it to life.

    November 25, 2019
  8. Bob Cornwell #

    Sublime is most certainly the word. Thanks Richard for this great summation of an unforgettable night. And like you, the night’s great revelation for me was the moving, spine-chilling work of Nick Smart’s 22-piece ensemble with Gil’s original scores.
    Even the four track medley from Porgy and Bess on Miles and Quincy Live at Montreux (1991) with “transcription and additional orchestration” from Gil Goldstein, for me, don’t quite make it (even with Miles). But then both Goldstein and Maria Schneider (on Miles Ahead) were working from at that time incomplete charts. The full set, as I understand it, were rediscovered amongst the effects of Miles Davis in 1997.
    Then I remembered the comments in Larry Hicok’s 2002 book on Gil, Castles Made of Sound (brilliant title), made by the genre-straddling composer, conductor and writer Gunther Schuller, and then one of the three french horn players on all four of the recording sessions for the album.
    In a 1992 interview Schuller recalled the struggles, even amongst those widely regarded as the finest session musicians in New York, had with the original charts, as they tried to complete the album in the three hours allotted for each recording session. Only Miles had seen the compete score; once in the studio each individual musician was expected to pick up their part and work through each number until it was perfect, whilst at the same time coping with the changes to studio techniques wrought by the recently arrived commercial stereo recording. Rarely talked about, according Schuller, is the fact that faced with the possibility of a less than flawless track in the time available, Gil would “just cut things out”, sometimes losing “whole sections of instruments”.
    Reading those passages again last night, left me with renewed admiration both for the musicians on the original unforgettable recording, but also for the vibrancy and revelatory detail displayed by Nick Smart’s musicians in their performance of the Gil’s complete Porgy and Bess. Is it too much to hope that there is a recording somewhere…?

    November 26, 2019

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