Written by Will Friedwald. Published in the Wall Street Journal.
The idea of a jazz-Broadway recording in which a single artist (or duo or band) devotes a whole album to music from a single show goes back at least as far as 1944. That’s when trumpeter and bandleader Charlie Spivak, on a set of 78 rpm records, played four selections from “Porgy & Bess” (even then regarded as an American classic). And in the decades since, which have seen the breakout success of “Porgy” albums by the combinations of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald (1957) and Miles Davis and Gil Evans (1958), the “folk opera” by George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward is almost certainly the most covered score in jazz history. So it’s not altogether surprising that the latest jazz-show album to cross the doorstep is “A Different Porgy & Another Bess” by the Brussels Jazz Orchestra.
The jazz-Broadway vogue began properly in 1956 with “Shelly Manne & His Friends: Modern Jazz Performances of Songs From ‘My Fair Lady,'” a best-selling LP that launched an entire cottage industry of jazz-show hybrids, many by the drummer Manne himself and his No. 1 “friend,” the pianist André Previn. The new Brussels Jazz Orchestra release joins last year’s “Fleet Street” by Terry Vosbein and the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra (featuring music from Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”), and “Three Penny Opera Live in Aarau” by the Renolds Jazz Orchestra, in showing that jazz interpretations of Broadway scores by full-sized orchestras is thriving.
“A Different Porgy & Another Bess” comes out of the long history of vocal-driven interpretations of the folk opera, which often involve juxtapositions of elements from classical and pop music, as well as jazz and Broadway. As in the versions by, say, Ray Charles and Cleo Laine or Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne, all the songs written for male characters are sung by David Linx and the female parts are handled by Portuguese singer Maria João. But that is the only way this version is in the least traditional: The 11 orchestrations, each by a different arranger, paint an array of tonal pictures behind and around the singers, including lots of funk backbeats.
“I Love You, Porgy” (the Catfish Row ebonics having now been dropped) immerses both singers in a dizzying backdrop of swirling counterpoint; the melody and the narrative would be hard to follow if we didn’t know the material so well. “Clara, Clara, Don’t Be Downhearted,” one of Heyward’s gospel-styled texts, achieves an entirely different and more secular feel from the prayer it usually is. Sung by Ms. João in a tight, pinched voice, it’s now more swinger than spiritual. At different points, a Fender Rhodes piano takes a solo, and Ms. João harmonizes wordlessly with the horns. Like most jazz-show albums, “A Different Porgy & Another Bess” picks and chooses from the full score, and reorders the songs for its own purposes.
“Three Penny Opera Live in Aarau” by the Renolds Jazz Orchestra, however, offers the complete Kurt Weill score from beginning to end, rendered instrumentally, with an all-star orchestra that includes such American headliners as the trumpeter Randy Brecker, saxophonist Bobby Watson, trombonist Buster Cooper and drummer Victor Lewis. Given the completeness of the project—a full two hours long—it is especially puzzling that the Weill estate decided to suppress the recording. The double album was taped live in Switzerland in 2000. But, according to a press release from the Shanti Records label, the estate decided after the concert was finally released in 2011 that it didn’t approve of the “rearrangements” (by pianist Christian Jacob) and demanded that the CDs be withdrawn from the market. In addition to following the show order, Mr. Jacob’s charts generally retain the tempos and moods of each piece—very effectively in the “The Jealous Duet,” where Polly Peachum and Lucy Brown are played instrumentally by a feuding trumpet and trombone, their animosity resolved by an alto saxophone that takes the ballad part of the melody. It’s impossible to understand the rationale of the composer’s estate—this is an inspired interpretation of a work by a composer who was a major jazz fan himself. Surely Weill would have wanted it to be heard.
“Fleet Street” is another stunner, the work of Mr. Vosbein, a composer and arranger who teaches composition at Washington and Lee University and is far from a household name. This full-length instrumental treatment of “Sweeney Todd,” Mr. Sondheim’s 1979 masterpiece, is not only a tribute to Mr. Sondheim, but also to bandleader Stan Kenton; the overall groove and tonal colors of “Fleet Street” owe much to Kenton’s classic 1962 jazz version of “West Side Story” (with lyrics also by Mr. Sondheim).
Like Kenton’s arranger Johnny Richards, Mr. Vosbein relies heavily on deeply voiced trombones to paint a dark, somber portrait—highly suited to a heavy melodrama about serial killing and cannibalism. But while “West Side Story” is a dance-oriented show with lots of songs in tempo, Mr. Vosbein has to look hard for lighter moments in the “Sweeney Todd” score, and he makes the most of them. “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” is almost a throwaway on stage, but it now becomes a major part of “Fleet Street,” as do the two versions of “Johanna” (reflecting the way it’s sung in Act 1, as a ballad, and Act 2, much more upbeat).
One can only hope that this is hardly the conclusion of the tradition: I’d love to hear the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra commission an interpretation of “The Book of Mormon” or the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra’s takes on “Evita” and “In the Heights.” The combination of jazz and musical theater proves that there’s more than one way to tell a story.