Of the handful of albums Miles made with the composer/arranger Gil Evans, Porgy and Bess may or may not be the best, but it’s in a class of its own. The music of Gershwin’s groundbreaking folk-jazz opera inspired Evans to some of his most imaginative scoring, drawing a rich tapestry of sounds and effects from a jazz orchestra which, with the more traditional big band instrumentation, blends the additional colouring of tuba, French horns and flutes. On many of the tracks the orchestrations seem to take precedence over Miles’s solos, and some of the material (like “Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess”) lends itself more to “interpretation” than to jazz improvisation as such. So it’s an album that will appeal most to those listeners who are as interested in Evans’s work as in that of Miles the soloist.
At its best, though, the collaboration between Miles and the orchestrations produces some wonderful music. The masterpiece is “Summertime”, which reconstructs the famous operatic lullaby using a gospel-style ‘call and response’ structure. Over a perfectly judged slow walking pace set by bass and drums, the orchestra plays a repeated six-note ‘response’ phrase which Evans subtly varies with changes of voicing and instrumentation. Above this, on muted trumpet, Miles floats a series of inspired, though essentially simple, variations on the melody. The opening statement of Gershwin’s theme uses fragments of the well-known melody in a hint of a declamatory style, as if Miles is giving the ‘call’ to which the orchestra ‘responds’. If that sounds at all complicated, the effect is actually very simple, and as direct in its appeal as any piece of music can be. But for me part of that appeal lies in the emotional ambiguity of the performance – the way in which it seems to hover between plaintive lament and optimistic joy.
My other favourites are the more obviously plaintive “Gone, Gone, Gone”, the up-tempo variation on it – “Gone” – which has a superb solo from Miles accompanied only by Paul Chambers’ driving bass and Philly Jo Jones’s excitable, intense drumming, “The Buzzard Song” with Miles’s rich-toned flugelhorn floating above some equally rich brass scoring, the beautifully arranged fragment “Here Come de Honey Man”, and a joyous, spontaneous sounding “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York”.
A classic album. But is it really not possible in the 21st century for remastering technology to eliminate that ghostly pre-echo which has so far haunted every version on LP, tape and CD?