One of the long-running Jim Cullum Jazz Band‘s great achievements is its jazz-band version of Porgy and Bess, the classic folk opera by George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, and DuBose Heyward. For legitimacy – though it doesn’t need it – Porgy and Bess Live includes narration by William Warfield, who played Porgy on stage many times.
Longtime champions of old-time and classic jazz, blues, and Dixieland, and a public radio fixture, Cullum’s ace septet puts its own stamp on the familiar story by finding the deep currents of jazz at the roots of Gershwin’s wonderful music. The joyful, revelatory suite was recorded live in the Cullum band’s home base of San Antonio, TX in 1992, and is now available in a two-CD package.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about Porgy and Bess. Great as the music is, I’ve felt a little put off by its stereotypical characters (Warfield comments on that in a brief interview segment at the end of Disc 2) as well as by its somewhat disjointed juxtaposition of jazz fundamentals with operatic form and voices. And with all that, I can say that I’ve never had such fun listening to the show as in this version. It includes just about every song, and it made my day.
The new CD from The Oatmeal Jazz Combo dips into traditional territory, but introduces an unexpected instrument into the mix.
Instant Oats opens with a tasteful arrangement of Jobim’s “Look to the Sky” featuring James Hubbard’s smooth, slightly groggy trombone tones. But original tunes occupy most of the disc. The assertively rhythmic “Searching for the Truth” settles into a spacious groove with some nice work from pianist Andrew McGowan and drummer Leander Young.
Steel pan player Leon Foster Thomas makes his first appearance on the Latin-flavored “Show Cat Valley,” and it is a showy one for this cat. He pops up again to brighten “Puffy,” a gentle, pleasant but otherwise unremarkable jazz waltz by McGowan, who mixes romance and boogie-woogie on his solo piano arrangement of “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” (It’s the soul tune by Eugene McDaniels that Roberta Flack had a hit with in 1974, not Bad Company’s 1975 hard rock chestnut, though I wouldn’t put it past these clearly fun-loving Oatmealers to think about making that one their own too).
The interesting piano-trumpet feature “Duet” by McGowan and trumpeter Jonathan Saraga begins like a two-part invention, then expands in various seemingly-improvisatory directions.
The band cooks and swings on bassist Tristan Eggener’s punchy, fusion-leaning “Fly Cat,” topped off by an understated solo from guitarist Kenjiro Miyagishi, and Sarago and saxophonist Steven Carrington trade fours energetically on the theme song from “Transformers,” a fun selection as a closer, with Thomas’s metallic trills joining in on a slow, bluesy coda. In skill and sensibility alike, this young band has a lot going for it.