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Various Artists: George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess

Avenue Jazz has resurrected Bethlehem’s ambitious, bizarre jazz interpretation of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, originally released in 1956 as a three-LP set. The short-lived label drew on its stable of singers and instrumentalists to create what was, at the time, only the second comprehensive recording of the opera’s score. Russ Garcia wrote the arrangements and conducted a large studio orchestra, an assignment he repeated the following year for Verve’s two-record Porgy and Bess set featuring Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Garcia’s inventive charts are supplemented by instrumental passages featuring smaller ensembles (drummer Stan Levy’s group and the Australian Jazz Quartet), and Duke Ellington’s orchestra contributes a brief “Summertime” as part of the album’s overture.

In a benchmark example of non-traditional casting, Mel Torme and Frances Faye sing the title roles. Ethnic issues aside, the smooth-voiced tenor and the irrepressibly raspy lounge performer might have been more effective if they had switched parts. Nevertheless, their duets “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy,” are unexpectedly, if weirdly, affecting. The more plausible supporting cast includes Johnny Hartman as Crown, comic George Kirby as Sportin’ Life, Ellington songstress Betty Roche as Clara, cabaret tigress Sallie Blair as Serena, and trombonist Frank Rosolino in a rare vocal appearance as Jake. Bob Dorough, Joe Derise, and Loulie Jean Norman offer brief but memorable cameos as street vendors, and the Pat Moran Quartet provides choral backing.

Disc jockey Al “Jazzbo” Collins’ grating narration is the hair in this odd but entertaining stew, interrupting the music 30 times to recite synopses of the opera’s libretto. (Mercifully, on this reissue, Collins’ commentary can be deleted by programming your CD player.) Avenue Jazz has supplemented the original’s skimpy notes with Art Hilgart’s informative history of Porgy and Bess productions and recordings, and Joseph F. Laredo’s knowledgeable account of the recording’s genesis and the subsequent careers of its participants. As a bonus, engineer Tom Moulton has pieced together a 29-minute instrumental suite from snippets of Garcia’s orchestral underscore. All that’s missing from the reproduction of the blue jean-pocket original package design is the removable red cloth bandana that contained facsimile signatures of the singers and musicians.

Bethlehem’s Porgy and Bess can’t compare with the classic versions by Ella and Louis and Miles Davis and Gil Evans. Still, for all of its eccentricities (and sometimes because of them), it remains a fascinating guilty pleasure.

Originally Published