Jazz musicians have been drawn to George Gershwins Porgy and Bess since its premier in 1935, but when Bethlehem Records, a New York-based independent jazz label, released a full version of what Gershwin called his "folk opera" in 1956, it was the first time the complete work was performed using jazz musicians and singers. Bethlehem enlisted the talents of many of its artists for Porgy, including Mel Tormé, Francis Faye, Betty Roché, Johnny Hartman, and Duke Ellington. The label chose Russ Garcia to score the work, a task he would perform a year later for Verves recording of Porgy and Bess by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.
Ellington had reservations about Porgy and Bess ("It does not use the Negro musical idiom"), and Tormé called this recording a "polyglot of styles and approaches." There are many enjoyable jazz performances here, especially by Betty Roché and Johnny Hartman, but the jazz interpretations sit uneasily beside more strictly operatic sections of the piece. Sometimes clashes of style take place in a single track. Francis Fayes nightclub style is dramatically different from Tormés and Hartmans jazz-vocal approach.
Bethlehems Porgy and Bess has moments that make it worth owning, although you can sometimes sense that the jazz vocalists are trying to break free of the constraints of staying in character. The mastering is solid, but the original recording is somewhat flat. Shout! Factory does its usual class job with the packaging and presentation. The Bethlehem catalog contains a number of gems, and I look forward to further reissues.
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