For all who know me well, and even those who do not, it is no secret what a big Miles Davis fan I am. With a little probing, it is not difficult to discover which Davis album is my favorite (the one which I am writing about) and which is my least favorite (Tutu). It is with extra caution that I approach reviewing Porgy And Bess, Miles Davis’ and the Gil Evans Orchestra’s 1958 instrumental rendition of George and Ira Gershwin’s famous opera, written with Dubose Heyward. This is not just my favorite Miles Davis album, but the best album I have ever heard. I have thought this for years. How is one expected to be critical of an artwork one has admired for so long? I figure I can at least explain why it is my favorite album.
The key to Porgy And Bess’s success is variation, both musically and emotionally. Musically, it showcases Gil Evan’s talent for constantly evolving arrangements. Evans is a master of creating familiarity, then expanding upon the already set motif to form landscapes of interpretation and harmonization. Take the album’s most popular song “Summertime.” The song begins with a repetitive counter-melody to Davis’ trumpet*. This interplay between Davis and the orchestra is consistent throughout the song, except during the mid-section, with Evans employing a constant orchestral build upon that counter-melody. Each time the orchestra returns to their counter-melody, it is slightly different from before. This is largely due to perfectly placed instrument appearances. In “Summertime,” Evans starts with simple, sparse instrumentation and gradually layers other instrumentation on top of it to create a lush, full sound. He does all this while using the variation necessary to make repetitive motion interesting.
Evans’ mutative arrangements are the perfect backdrop for Davis to explore a full range of emotions with his trumpet and flugelhorn. These range from joy (“There’s A Boat That’s Leaving Soon For New York”) to romance (“I Loves You Porgy”) to melancholy (“Oh Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess”). Davis’ and Evans’ background in European art-music and gospel allows them to explore sounds and emotions seldom heard in popular music, let alone jazz. The most prominent example of this is “Prayer.” This rendition captures with exquisite detail the intense and frightening nature of viewing an ecstatic person in the midst of a spiritual experience. It inflicts a scourge of caution into its listener, going from the barely audible immediately to the loud and abrasive. In his solo, Davis explores the outer-regions of rhythm, using eerie melodies spliced with long pauses and surprising entrances. With “Prayer,” one is not sure who is being summoned, God or the Devil.
My favorite song on Porgy And Bess is “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” a beautiful version of the well-known love proclamation. Truthfully, the arrangement of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” both in style and orchestration, does not vary much from the opera’s version. But Davis’ interpretation of the melody is a wonderful example of his ingenious ability to transform a song. In the original, Porgy proclaims his love as a definitive statement: “Bess, you is my woman now!” Under Davis’ control, the statement becomes more inquisitive: “Bess, you is my woman now?” Davis’ version evokes the common emotion one feels when expressing love without surety of reciprocation.
So is there anything I can criticize about Porgy And Bess? Well, I can say this: I once loaned it to a friend who offered a bit of criticism. While I do not remember his exact words, his critique went something along these lines: “I put on Porgy And Bess, tried to do some housework, noticed that the album was too intense for me to do anything else but listen to it, so I turned it off and finished my housework.” That being said, I offer a warning. Porgy And Bess is not for your parties, social gatherings, dates or any other occasion where it might be background music. In fact, I have difficulty even listening to it when other people are in the room. That may be the reason I am so drawn to this album. This music demands attention. By exploring the musical possibilities of the opera, Evans and Davis provide the listener with a daring and evocative expose on the human experience. I can think of no better purpose for an album.
*While the liner notes claim that Davis uses a flugelhorn on “Summertime,” this reviewer contends that he is actually playing a trumpet.