1958 Album of the Year: Porgy and Bess

By Justin Scoville, Guest Contributor

Wow, I have had a tough time with this one. Although 1959 was certainly a watershed year for Jazz, 1958 wasn’t too shabby either. A Great Day in Harlem, the famous photo taken by Art Kane, was captured in 1958. (And yes, this photo is hanging in my living room). Many pivotal albums were released in 1958, including these personal favorites:

  • Deeds, Not Words Max Roach’s innovative piano-less group that featured Ray Draper on tuba and a stunning, 20 year old Booker Little on trumpet. My mom bought this for me when I was a teenager and that was the start of my fascination with Booker.
  • Somethin’ Else Miles Davis’, er, Cannonball Adderley’s sublime Blue Note album which offers the definitive, most swinging-est versions of “Autumn Leaves” and “Love For Sale”.
  • Moanin’ If you had to choose one Jazz Messenger’s album that encapsulated all of Art Blakey’s mission as a musician, this wouldn’t be a bad choice.
  • Cool Struttin’ Man, Sonny Clark swung hard. Love that guy. He was out of the Bud Powell school with a lighter touch and infused his solos with blues and wit.
  • Looking Ahead One of Cecil Taylor’s first forays into the New Thing.
  • Milestones An absolute classic. Trane, Miles, and Cannonball as a front line… Wow. The title track foreshadows Modal Miles.
  • Everybody Digs Bill Evans: Keepnews Collection Recorded in 1958 but released in early 1959, this album saw Evans conceptualizing his modal approach in the hypnotic Peace Piece.

Anyways, my choice for 1958 is Porgy & Bess, Miles Davis’s second of three collaborations with Gil Evans in a large ensemble setting. (I’m cheating on this one… Porgy and Bess was actually released in 1959 but recorded in 1958. The field for 1959 is too crowded).

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Miles Davis at the Porgy & Bess sessions, 1958

Miles Ahead (1957) augmented the Birth of the Cool’s nonet into a full-blown big band, allowing Miles to pontificate against an obtuse instrumental backdrop. 

Sketches of Spain (1960) was, at the time of its release, a radical departure from jazz convention and stirred up controversy about what was and wasn’t jazz.

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Miles Ahead, 1957

Porgy and Bess falls in the middle of Miles Ahead and Sketches of Spain chronologically and musically. Gershwin’s conglomeration of the American Folk tradition and European Classical harmony made a perfect musical playground for Evans. His complex yet melodic voicings, brought to life by a top-notch group, laid the foundation for Miles to advance his pioneering style away from Bebop and into the Unknown. Evans also captures the drama of the opera in his adaptation, along with Miles as the lead soloist. Both Evans and Davis were fascinated with the nascent modal innovations of George Russell, and although Milestones captured some of what was to come in Kind of Blue, I feel like Porgy and Bess is the first full realization of the modal approach in Jazz.

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Porgy And Bess, 1959

“Buzzard Song”, “Summertime”, and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” are clear historical favorites from this album. For me, from a strictly musical standpoint, “Gone” and “Prayer” are the standout tracks. “Gone” opens with ragged but spirited ensemble passages sandwiched between brilliant drum fills from Philly Joe Jones. The centerpiece of the song is Miles blowing chorus after chorus over a minor mode with Philly Joe and Paul Chambers. The absence of a chordal instrument doesn’t hinder Miles at all; instead, he sheds his old Bebop skin and emerges a new man. Prayer builds from a mournful blues statement from Miles into a wailing climax. (I always love how Cannonball plays during the crescendo; his levels are so high he must have freaked out the recording engineers). Prayer is a radical departure from the Head-Solo-Head structure of most jazz songs from then and now, with the ensemble building organically together with Miles’s melodic improvisations.

The absence of a chordal instrument doesn’t hinder Miles at all; instead, he sheds his old Bebop skin and emerges a new man.

Porgy and Bess is a beautiful masterpiece and a lasting monument to Gil and Miles, whose musical partnership would span several decades, not to mention genres, of Jazz.

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Justin Scoville is a Denver-based trumpeter and jazz blogger.


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