GEORGE GERSHWIN’S 1930s American folk opera, Porgy & Bess – a tale of against-all-odds love set against a backdrop of prostitution and drug addiction – is known to many for its popular songs such as Summertime, It Ain’t Necessarily So and I Loves You Porgy.
In 1959, iconic jazz trumpeter Miles Davis and renowned bandleader Gil Evans together issued a recording, on Columbia, of their own interpretations of songs from the opera, which became one of the most enduringly favoured Davis albums from what has become a considerable discography. The inherent blues/jazz feel of the original was what particularly drew them to their new nine-piece band explorations (not just ‘jazz treatments’), leading Evans to divulge, “The three of us, it seems to me, collaborated in the album.”
Some fifty-odd years later, it’s that landmark Davis/Evans recording which has provided the inspiration for London-based singer, songwriter and composer Fini Bearman to present this new album of eight numbers/impressions from the original score, backed by an impressively adaptable line-up: Ross Stanley (Hammond, Wurlitzer), Matt Calvert (guitars, plus piano), Jon Cox (double bass) and John Blease (drums, percussion). All arrangements are by Bearman, Calvert and Blease and are transformatively compelling.
For example, in Bearman’s hands, Davis’ New Orleans-style funeral march interlude of Gone, Gone, Gone breaks into a strong-beat Sixties single, courtesy of Ross Stanley’s evocative Augeresque organ playing and Matt Calvert’s lively, tremulant guitar (interesting to consider Miles’ recording was made on the cusp of a decade that was to be characterised by this sound). Fini Bearman’s voice is strong, soulful and, if emulating this period, utterly convincing. The despair of My Man’s Gone Now, as heard in Gershwin’s vocalised original (though more smoothly swinging in Davis’ world) is beautifully weighted in its solid, sustained, major/minor bluesyness; and, in stark contrast, the plainly optimistic (usually baritone-sung) I Got Plenty of Nuthin’ skips in countrified abandon, Bearman getting into its cheeky, resigned character.
Porgy, I’m Your Woman Now is touchingly delicate, the spacial arpeggioed guitar arrangement here illuminating the beauty, and even modernity, of Gershwin’s writing; and the richness and feeling in Fini Bearman’s delivery carries the song so well. Lively blues to the fore, It Ain’t Necessarily So rings to the crashing, gritty precision of Calvert’s guitar and Stanley’s truly authentic chordal and soloing organ tone – sensational stuff from the whole quintet. I Loves You Porgy, a well-covered classic (and here, as in Miles’ version, a first take) is winsomely engaging – Bearman feels the emotion of the lyric, and echoic guitar and brittle percussion provide a certain weightlessness, whilst Ross Stanley’s bright melodic tone is quite magical.
The chirpy beat of Davis’ There’s A Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon is delightfully remodelled as an easy-going groove, held up well by bassist Jon Cox and drummer John Blease, which Bearman clearly revels in; it all sounds remarkably fresh, shimmering to guitar and Rhodes soloing. And to close, Prayer – a freely-improvised, less obvious impression of Summertime – perhaps suggests the misty poignancy of the previous number as it ebbs and washes to vocal and instrumental overlays, idealistically heading out to New York.
David Ewen, Gershwin’s first biographer, reputedly stated of the man and this opera that he “never quite ceased to wonder at the miracle that he had been its composer. He never stopped loving each and every bar, never wavered in the conviction that he had produced a work of art.” Its longevity, although due in part to the popularity of the mainstream ‘hits’, is testament to that belief – and thanks to the vision of artists including Miles Davis, and now Fini Bearman, his work can continue to be appreciated through contemporary interpretations. And that, happily, is one of the wonders of a living, breathing, creative genre such as jazz.
Released on the ‘F-IRE presents’ label on 28 October 2014, Porgy & Bess is available from ProperMusic and usual outlets.
Fini Bearman voice
Ross Stanley Hammond organ, Wurlitzer
Matt Calvert guitars, piano
Jon Cox double bass
John Blease drums, percussion
(original credits: music by George Gershwin; libretto by DuBose Heyward; lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin)
F-IRE presents – F-IRECD 76 (2014)