The chances of hearing a live performance of the Gil Evans arrangement of Porgy and Bess for Miles Davis are about zilch. Not simply because the principals are dead — Porgy and Bess is one of four collaborations between Evans and Davis (one of them being another classic, Sketches of Spain) that were released between 1957 and 1963. And not just because the music requires a 19-piece orchestra. The arrangements were custom made for Davis's horn — concertos with a very particular soloist in mind.
But Berklee's indefatigable big-band sage Phil Wilson, working with trumpeter and vocalist Christine Fawson, gathered a crew to rehearse the piece on five successive Mondays and then give it a try at Scullers. (That's probably more rehearsal time than the BSO gets for a new piece.) And they had a ringer — Miles Evans, son of Gil, named for you know who.
Scullers was jammed with fans a week ago Thursday to hear this rarity. In his remarks, Wilson kept referring to the piece as a suite — and so it is. Evans used the Gershwin opera as a template for jazz invention, extending the harmonies, painting new tone colors, orchestrating multiple lines for accompaniment and instrumental interludes. He had already reconceived the idea of a jazz orchestra to center on brass — especially the low brass of French horn, tuba, and trombones — and flutes. The airy lyricism of these Evans/Davis orchestras is one of the singular sounds in jazz. At Scullers, true to the arrangement, there were three French horns and only one sax — alto.
So from the opening clarion blasts of "Buzzard Song," here it was: the many layers of Evans's conception, where that low brass could conjure a section of double basses or fill out beguiling harmonies behind the soloists. The tempos are mostly slow to medium, but there are hard swingers, in this case nailed by bassist Jared Henderson and drummer Tyler Scott (both students). And on tuba, Greg Fritze of the faculty played his heart out in one of the best jazz parts ever written for the instrument.
And the soloists? Given what they were up against — a sound that still lives on the original recording — they acquitted themselves well. Fawson played with precision and grace, and emotional heft, as well; she opened the piece by singing "I Loves You Porgy." Evans was more raw, with a duskier tone, and he seemed most comfortable when he could break from the written parts into some hard-driving improvised swing. But the piece was the real star here. "The entire suite is one of the most magnificent blues charts I've ever heard," Wilson said. No argument.
I wasn't sure what to expect from Ben Powell's show at Scullers a week ago Tuesday. Here's a twentysomething Englishman (Cheltenham) raised as a classical musician, getting bitten by the jazz bug, going to Berklee (on the advice of Keith Lockhart, no less), and digging into trad jazz and swing. Now he's in the midst of a Django Reinhardt/Stéphane Grappelli kick, celebrating Django's centenary. Another classically trained virtuoso playing that old music.