In the early 90's, Joe Henderson "reappeared" as a major star on the jazz scene with a Grammy winning tribute album to Billy Strayhorn. Since then, his new label, Verve, has released a steady stream of well received theme albums by Henderson, and the latest addition to that series is Henderson's attempt at the Gershwins' Porgy & Bess
. After the fairly traditional Strayhorn tribute, Henderson enlisted the services of guitarist John Scofield for his tribute to Miles Davis. After a Jobim tribute, and a foray into big band, Henderson has teamed up with Scofield again for Porgy & Bess
, enlisting the guitarist for this rather mixed bag tribute to the Gershwins' famous jazz opera.
With Henderson's new-found popularity and success, he has been able to assemble some great bands to work with for his recent projects. This album is no exception: with a rhythm section of Dave Holland on bass, Tommy Flanagan on piano, and Jack DeJohnette on drums, Henderson is given the solid support to shine on numbers like "There's A Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon For New York" and "My Man's Gone Now." Up and coming trombonist Conrad Herwig adds depth to the horn parts and offers a swinging arrangement of " I Got Plenty Of Nothing." Scofield and vibraphonist Stephon Harris round out the band, and while both play well, both seem strangely out of place on the this project. Scofield explores some interesting ideas and variations on the classic Gershwin melodies, but the fusionesque sound of his electric guitar sounds gimmicky. The same goes for Harris' vibes, which seem only to "loungify" the music, especially when combined with Scofield's guitar.
Henderson's choices for vocalists on this project lean toward the nontraditional as well, selecting Chaka Khan for the ballad standard "Summertime," and Sting for the swaggering "It Ain't Necessarily So." As unusual as these choices might seem, both are more successful than not: Khan displays a surprising swing early in "Summertime" that later turns towards vocal soloing that reflects her background as an R’n’B singer more than the standard nature of the tune. Sting is more successful in his take on "It Ain't Necessarily So," preaching Sportin' Life's gospel with a P.T. Barnum-like swagger and even more Barnum-like wink. Neither vocalist steals any show, but both pull off their assignments with higher-than-expected marks.
The showpiece of the project though, is Henderson. One of Verve's best selling active artists, Henderson’s earned his living by applying his distinctive tenor tone to various well known works. Porgy & Bess seems like the perfect vehicle for Henderson, who excels at both the up-tempo and the laid back. Throughout the disc, Henderson plays confidently, pushing familiar ideas through his solos, and playfully manipulating the basic Gershwin melodies. On classic ballads like "I Loves You Porgy" and "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," Henderson plays soulfully, giving proper emotion to the characters involved. On the upbeat numbers, Henderson blows out as the leader, pulling the band and the listener with him, and often makes use of his signature "fluttering" on the end of solos.
Over all, this disc is somewhat confusing. With Henderson's understanding of and talent for traditional standard material, the Gershwin opera seems a natural. However, the prominence of Scofield's fusion-sounding guitar and Harris's lounge-sounding vibes seem to take away from the "romantic" essence of the material. Perhaps it is out of place to complain about the nontraditional lineup used for this project, especially when keeping in mind that Gershwin was not really a jazz composer. This material's essence aside, several sections of this disc sound a little too "smooth jazzish" for my taste, and certainly too smooth jazzish for a Gershwin tribute album. Henderson's playing delivers as expected, but good sized portions of this disc leave a great deal to be desired. Armstrong and Fitzgerald, Miles and Gil, even Oscar Peterson....it's not.
Rating 2 & 1/2 out of 5