Since its New York City debut in September 1935, George Gershwin's beloved folk opera Porgy and Bess has been recreated and performed in almost every possible context, from classical opera to musical theatre to mainstream jazz, in America and overseas. The opera has been probed and dissected so often, in fact, that at first blush another version, this one by a seven-piece trad jazz group that calls San Antonio, Texas, home may seem superfluous at best. What sets this double-disc concert performance apart from most others, however, is the towering presence as narrator of the great William Warfield, the same William Warfield who sang "Ol' Man River" in the 1951 film version of Edna Ferber's Showboat. One year later, Warfield played the lead in Porgy opposite his soon-to-be wife, opera star Leontyne Price.
Another departure from past productions, at least those on stage, is that there are no vocals, only instrumental renditions of Gershwin's timeless music by cornetist Jim Cullum and his Jazz Band (well, that's not entirely true, as Warfield manages to sing a bar or two during several of his prefatory observations). Elsewhere, however, Porgy's familiar (and at times not-so-familiar) score is interpreted (with room for improvisation) solely by Cullum and his mates. Warfield's perceptive commentary, sandwiched between numbers, sets the scene and helps the audience (and the listener) better understand the meaning behind each of the songs. As a bonus, Disc 2 ends with Warfield's five-minute-long backstage interview (the concert was taped in 1992, ten years before his death at age eighty-two).
Cullum's band, for its part, helps bring the score vibrantly to life, such that one scarcely misses the lyrics (several of which, including "Summertime," "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" and "It Ain't Necessarily So," can in most cases be sung in one's head from memory). Besides Cullum, the band is comprised of clarinetist Allan Vache, trombonist Mike Pittsley, pianist John Sheridan, guitarist / banjoist Howard Elkins, bassist Don Mopsick and drummer Ed Torres, each of whom has a pivotal role to play in reanimating Gershwin's lustrous and ebullient score. Without Warfield, this would most likely be no more than another garden-variety recitation of Gershwin's classic opera; with him, it ripens into a luminous and persuasive concert performance that exemplifies the best that Porgy and Bess has to offer.
Disc 1 -- It’s Nighttime in Catfish Row; Jasbo Brown Blues; Summertime; A Woman Is a Sometime Thing; Porgy arrives; They Pass By Singin’; Oh, Little Stars; Crown and Bess arrive; Gone, Gone, Gone / Overflow; My Man’s Gone Now; The mourning scene continues; Leavin’ for the Promised Land; It Take a Long Pull to Get There; Robbins has been in the ground a month; I Got Plenty ‘o Nuttin; A dark cloud moves over Catfish Row; Buzzard Song; Porgy’s newfound happiness; Bess, You Is My Woman Now; Oh, I Can’t Sit Down! Disc 2 – On Kittiwah Island; I Ain’t Got No Shame; It Ain’t Necessarily So; There’s evil afoot today; What You Want Wid Bess?; A week has passed in Catfish Row; Oh, Doctor Jesus; Strawberry Woman; Here Come de Honey Man; Crab Man; I Loves You, Porgy; The scene moves now to Serena’s room; Oh, de Lawd Shake de Heavens; Summertime; Oh, Dere’s Somebody Knockin’ at de Do’; Serena warns Crown; A Red Headed Woman; Clara’s worst fear; Clara, Clara; Summertime; Crown sneaks in the gate; There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York; Porgy survives the police investigation; Oh, Bess, Where’s My Bess?; Porgy learns that Bess isn’t dead; Oh Lawd, I’m on My Way; Backstage interview with William Warfield. Warfield’s commentary is set in italics.
Jim Cullum: cornet; Allan Vache: clarinet; Mike Pittsley: trombone; John Sheridan: piano; Howard Elkins: guitar, banjo; Don Mopsick: bass; Ed Torres: drums. William Warfield: narrator.