Published on May 20th, 2013 | by Ballard Lesemann0
Review: Lewis and the CJO Present a Bold New ‘Porgy & Bess’ Suite
Charleston Jazz Orchestra’s Porgy & Bess: Reimagined
Charleston Music Hall, May 18
Many jazz greats have interpreted DuBose Heyward’s and George and Ira Gershwin’s 1935 folk opera Porgy & Bess numerous times before, but the ever-dynamic Charleston Jazz Orchestra brought longtime bandmember Robert Lewis’ fresh arrangements to new life on Saturday evening at the Charleston Music Hall.
As the orchestra’s lead alto saxophonist and flautist, Lewis normally works as part of a top-notch woodwind section alongside Jon Phillips, Mark Sterbank, Jack Pettit, John Cobb, and other CJO regulars. For this special program presented by the Jazz Artists of Charleston, Lewis put in major overtime reworking the familiar tunes and obscurities of the popular suite.
At the beginning of the first of two shows of the evening (the 7 p.m. set), the 17-piece band congregated on stage, tuned up, and waited for conductor Charlton Singleton to take his place at center stage. Singleton and Jazz Artists of Charleston president Leah Suárez bypassed their usual, lengthy introductions and announcements. Instead, Singleton’s father, the Rev. Charles Singleton, stepped up to the podium and delivered an elegant introduction to Porgy & Bess, explaining the origins of the DuBose’s original story. The tales from Church Street, Tradd Street, and the old Cabbage Row (a.k.a. “Catfish Row”) included sinful, wine-drinking characters with broken spirits and triumphs of “mercy, hope, and trust.” It was a terrific, authentically Geechee way to kick off such a Charleston-based piece.
The band launched right into the music from there and immediately picked up steam as they rolled into the opening overture and familiar “Summertime” melodies. They bounced through brassy, bluesy renditions of “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” and “It Takes a Long Pull to Get There” early in the set.
Jeremy Wolf’s walking bass lines and drummer Ron Wiltrout’s slinky rhythms supported the wide-open and muted horns throughout the set. Dynamic crescendos propelled the music with swanky, metropolitan style. While some of the traditional “big band” moments harkened back to the classic swing era, a few modern touches popped up as well — some of which derived from guitarist Tyler Ross’ electric tone and contemporary style.
Video footage played into the show, too. Slow-motion montages of Charleston’s downtown landmarks, alleyways, streets, skylines, and waterways filled on the backdrop as the band played each song. While some shots looked like random modern B-roll from around town, most of it provided a pleasant effect.
Some of Lewis’ new arrangements and transitions added unexpected flair and fire. Several big-boned accents from trombonist Phil King, Ken Foberg, Stephen Spaulding, and featured soloist Teddy Adams added extra muscle and thump, too. Trumpeters Chuck Dalton and Stephan Berry swapped fiery, high-toned solos early in the set. Singleton and Kevin Hackler handled a few mellower, beautifully muted solos late in the show.
Suárez sauntered onstage for several bluesy and operatic numbers mid-set, many of which featured expressive and delicate piano accompaniment from Gerald Gregory. A gifted vocalist with a healthy range of styles, she seemed to be stepping slightly outside of her usual zone, emphasizing with a soulful enunciation and staggered rhythm. By contrast, some of Singleton’s snazzy vocal turns were fast-paced, scat-styled, and gleeful.
The swanky “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” the gospel-tinged “Oh Lawd, I’m on My Way!” and the joyful “Summertime” reprise (one of the popular highlights of Porgy & Bess over the decades) led into a rousing conclusion.
Assembling and executing a “reimagining” of such a traditional suite like Porgy & Bess was a bold move for Lewis and the CJO, one that demonstrates the audacity and heart that will surely continue to lead this band to great heights.
Visit jazzartistsofcharleston.org for more. Top photo by Mariana Veloso Yates, courtesy of the Jazz Artists of Charleston.
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