Clark Terry & the Chicago Jazz Orchestra: Porgy and Bess

Clark Terry & the Chicago Jazz Orchestra
Porgy and Bess
Americana Music

I remember live concerts along with recordings, since the former help recontextualise the curiously detached aspects of just listening to discs. With Clark Terry, I remember three concerts, the first two of which I for different reasons missed. I was at the third, but he had had to cancel, and Joe Temperley passed on Clark’s good wishes to the audience and remarked grimly that the old boy, then 80, was not at all well. He was being treated for cancer. This cast gloom, which was dispelled slightly by reminiscence of a TV show seen by accident a few weeks previously, with the man sitting in a huge armchair on stage and playing trumpet very well, and also doing his gloriously ludicrous vocal mumbles. The centre of the show was Aretha Franklin, and this presumably was a reminiscence of her early recordings with, among others, Ray Bryant.

Ain’t it amazing that the gloom instilled by the concert from which cancer treatment detained him, a few years ago now, should have been dispersed for me by the least fun-orientated Terry set I can think of. He can’t have worked under quite these circumstances on a regular basis since he left Duke Ellington’s band over forty years ago. His playing is magnificently accomplished, making him in one respect a worthy successor to Doc Cheatham, who could still play magnificently at Terry’s present age of 84.

Of his supposed influence on Miles Davis, Terry is almost dismissive. The English critic John Postgate did, however, write an interesting long article some forty years back about the relationship between Terry and Davis that goes into things in more depth (Jazz Monthly, 1968). Postgate simply pointed out that from trumpeters like Baby James and Dewey Jackson, whom Terry has since mentioned, through Joe Thomas and Terry’s Ellingtonian section-mate Harold ‘Shorty’ Baker (who died at only 52), there was a considerable continuity of playing grown up within St. Louis. It gave a second place to the punching and brassy, and was all flow. Terry was never going to sound like Dizzy Gillespie, or anybody older. Having been a local star before a relatively late national emergence, he was always an individual voice.

Davis certainly became another one fairly young, with a very distinctive, subtly detailed emotional range, and very selective about every aspect of every note he played. Terry likes to celebrate and express happiness. He could play an ordinary nightclub clowning around. Davis wouldn’t have wanted to. Terry even recorded one album playing what the notes described as unpretentious and happy jazz. It was just lightweight. I bought a remaindered copy dead cheap and sold it quickly.

The Gil Evans Porgy and Bess music could only be a very different proposition. The suite was taken up not long back by Terry’s English pupil, the brilliant young Guy Barker. Here, with Jeff Lindberg conducting his own transcritpion of the work with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra (of which he’s director), Daddy trumpeter takes on this fascinating work.

Is any original Evans score extant? Or does the transcription used here identify the work as something like an ‘oral’ one, to be performed again as what Evans saw on tape rather than put on paper? Before the more jamming bands of his later years, which play different music, Evans’s issued recordings with or without Davis were controlled by him in performance with extraordinary finesse and an attention to detail extending to selection of what takes were included. The present set could not have that, and more than the soloist has to be different — though he can’t in some respects be too different.

By and large, the extraordinarily high standard is maintained, probably as a consequence of Terry’s more relaxed approach to life. He has a repertoire of feelings and expression not at all the same as Davis’s, but it’s a wide repertoire, as can be heard in some of the more complex music he’s recorded with much younger musicians in recent years, in addition to that recorded with Ellington fifty years ago. To take “Honey Man” as a vocal number in the ‘mumbles’ style he developed long ago was a decent idea. There’s some depth to his fun, and in a sense it softens up the listener for Charles Harrison III’s arrangement of “I Loves You Porgy”, which is pretty good, but not Evans. Beside Evans almost all scoring sounds ordinary, and most of the four and a half minutes of that penultimate item are solo. The boat leaving soon for New York that concludes the work suffers in comparison with the astringency that distinguishes every Evans loud and pacy ensemble, to the end of his life. That tight sound of contained power is a sort of miracle seldom found in jazz outside Ellington.

Daniel Anderson has a long solo played with a feathery sound on tuba in the opening “Buzzard Song”, and the movement of Dennis Carroll’s bass is a considerable contribution there, and in “Bess, You is My Woman…”, indeed throughout. The rhythm has captured the Evans rhythm perfectly.

The brass in “Gone”, Evans’s composition included in the original set and performed by later bands, benefits immensely from Terry’s being at the front of the ensemble. George Fludas keeps up a wonderful scamper on drums and cymbals with brushes, Art Hoyle duets with Terry, and which of them produces which joke is a little hard to determine. The choir involving lower brass (French horns, trombones — it’s a good performance which leaves unclear exactly what) works well on “Gone, Gone, Gone”, and with sterling bass-playing the melodic orchestral phrases under the tightly muter Terry perform well. Terry’s unmistakable there as elsewhere, and one towering aspect of the performance, of the recording, is the trumpeter’s open emotional expressiveness. His playing relied always on not carrying any excess weight of tone, and in playing slower-paced long phrases and sustained notes he alters the tone the way it happens naturally in a singing voice. “Prayer” is a tremendous performance, with here deployment of lower-note lines, and there a tension of quiet playing finding release as restraint comes off the production of volume.

“My Man’s Gone Now” owes a lot to the play of bass and tuba and bass trombone under outstanding work from Lindberg, but the hair-raising expression of desolation is achieved by some of the most remarkable playing I’ve ever heard from Terry. The whole band is deeply inspired. The phrasing at the opening of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” is miraculous, proceeding through a performance with hoarse-toned passages and, at one point, small light sobs. Perhaps the Terry vocalese on “Honey Man” also means that even Terry himself couldn’t follow that.

Gershwin’s initial ‘opera’ is one of many efforts to integrate jazz and western European music, which only his immense tune-writing talents allow prospects of rescue in performance. Separate numbers are another matter, and the Evans suite something yet different. He took away everything that went wrong, and made a different musical work of genius around the solo capacities of Miles Davis. Clark Terry here plays the whole thing into something else. It’s certainly well worth hearing.