George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess is one of the landmarks of 20th century music, one of the greatest achievements of one of America's most important composers; a genius who's output encompassed jazz, film, popular song and classical forms into unique body of work.
Gershwin noted: "The great music of the past has always been built on folk music. This is the strongest source of musical fecundity… Jazz I regard as an American folk music, not the only one but a very beautiful one which is in the blood and feeling of the American people."
And unlike other white musicians who appropriated jazz and removed it from its black roots, Gershwin chose as his source material Porgy and Bess, a story set in a poor black fishing community in Catfish Row, Charleston, South Carolina. Essentially a love story between the disabled Porgy and Bess, the ex-girlfriend of Crown, a man on the run having committed murder over a game of craps, Gershwin's masterpiece broke new ground by resolutely facing the seamier side of life including drugs, gambling, drunkenness and violence. It was filmed for the big screen in 1959 (directed by Otto Preminger, with Sidney Poitier as Porgy, Dorothy Dandridge as Bess and Sammy Davis Jr. as Sportin' Life), and again for television in 1993 and 2002. Meanwhile in 1958 the legendary partnership of trumpeter Miles Davis and orchestrator-arranger-composer Gil Evans made one of the definitive jazz albums, and orchestral jazz instrumental reinterpretation of songs from the opera. (The same year Davis delivered his only film score, the improvised Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold) for director Louis Malle.) Davis Porgy itself could be the subject of a lengthy review or article; suffice to say without it the current release would not exist.
Kind of Porgy & Bess by Paolo Fresu is a contemporary response to Evans and Davis response to Gershwin. Fresu says, "I've been obstinately following for several years the famous opera Porgy & Bess…" noting how he wanted to offer his own personal interpretation.
That interpretation dispenses with the orchestral arrangements from 1958, changes the order of the tracks, and sometimes goes with entirely different selections, and concentrates on intimate exchanges between just six musicians; Fresu himself on trumpet, Nguyèn Lè, guitars, Antonello Salis, electric and acoustic pianos, Furio di Castri, bass, Roberto Gatto, drums, Dhafer Youssef, voice & oud. The result is a much more modern sound, one laced with a hint of world-music, global fusion, but still with its heart very much in melodic, accessible jazz. The musicianship is superb, the melodies sufficiently strong to withstand some highly discursive treatments, taking intriguing journeys but always returning to Gershwin's original tunes, and the recording is clean and uncluttered with excellent imaging.
Tastefully presented in digipack form, in a manner similar to that in which many classic jazz albums are reissued on CD, this is a class act from beginning to end. Personal, lyrical, richly musical and imaginatively conceived, this is a disc to delight Gershwin fans and adventurous film music buffs alike.