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Mark Masters Ensemble: Porgy & Bess Redefined!

John Kelman By

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More than any complete score of the 20th Century, Gershwin's Porgy and Bess has to be the one most covered by jazz artists. A short list of significant players who have tackled the cycle includes Hank Jones, Oscar Peterson, Ray Charles and Cleo Laine, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, and Joe Henderson. Arguably the most definitive arrangement of Gershwin's score is the one Gil Evans created for Miles Davis in the '50s.

So vivid was Evans' score, in fact, that Clark Terry, working with Jeff Lindberg and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra, revisited his original arrangements on a successful A440 recording last year. But while Terry, an early influence on Davis, was a logical choice to reinterpret Evans' score—and, to be fair, Lindberg's vision managed to respect it without sounding strictly imitative—one has to wonder how many times Porgy and Bess can be reworked. How often one can go to the well before it comes up dry? In the case of Mark Masters' new take, Porgy & Bess Redefined!, the answer is: at least once more.

Masters is a fine arranger, having already done memorable work on projects including The Clifford Brown Project and The Jimmy Knepper Songbook. His work with re-emergent trombonist Grachan Moncur III on last year's Exploration, where he arranged some of Moncur's best charts for an octet/nonet, was a clear highlight in an already strong year for jazz. And so, rather than revisiting existing arrangements of Porgy and Bess, Masters returned to the source: the original vocal scores. The result is a fresh look at an almost iconic work.

In addition to a fine ensemble that includes a broader orchestral palette—bassoon and French horn supplementing the usual saxophones, flutes, trumpets, and trombones—Masters has assembled an A-list of soloists, including trumpeter Tim Hagans, tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan, trombonist Dave Woodley, pianist Cecilia Coleman, bassist Ray Drummond, and drummer Joe La Barbera. And, no surprise, everyone gets ample solo space and acquits themselves with the kind of élan and sensitivity to Masters' score that one would expect from players of this calibre.

But Masters' score is the real star here. From the opening fanfare, "Introduction, he introduces the two contrasting elements that, to a large part, define his approach to the whole suite—vibrant swing and some surprisingly free passages. The other predominant characteristic is Masters' unrestricted sense of time; "Summertime alternates between a more expected relaxed lope and insistent double-time passages that bring a new complexion to an often-covered standard. And "It Ain't Necessarily So starts off with a big band swagger but ultimately breaks down into smaller ensemble sections for fine soloing by Harper, Hagans, Woodley, Coleman, and Drummond.

It would be presumptuous to call Masters' new take on Porgy and Bess definitive; but with Porgy & Bess Redefined!, he clearly proves that it's possible to take a piece that has been approached from a variety of angles and still find a new way in.


Track Listing: Introduction; Summertime; A Woman is a Sometime Thing; Gone, Gone, Gone; My Man's Gone Now; It Ain't Necessarily So; Here Come Da Honey Man; I Loves You Porgy; A Red Headed WOman; Clara Clara; There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York

Personnel: Billy Harper (tenor saxophone), Tim Hagans (trumpet), Gary Smulyan (baritone saxophone), Dave Woodley (trombone), Cecilia Coleman (piano), Ray Drummond (bass), Joe La Barbera (drums), Don Shelton (alto flute, soprano and tenor saxophones), John Riley (bassoon, tenor saxophone), Stephanie O

Title: Porgy & Bess Redefined! | Year Released: 2005


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