Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Previn, Potts and Porgy

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Andre Previn was right about the deluge that followed Samuel Goldwyn’s 1959 release of his film version of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

It seems as though every Jazz group had a recorded version of it and each of these had a different “take” on the tunes that made up Gershwin’s memorable score.

Actually, I rather liked the outpouring. It was wonderful to hear so many unique adaptations of these timeless Gershwin melodies.”

Over the years, however, one of these adaptations have remained my favorite - The Bill Potts Big Band: The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess. It was originally issued as a United Artist LP and subsequently as a Capitol Records CD [CDP 7 95132 2].

Many of the aspects that make Bill Potts an arranger of singular style and substance are detailed in the following CD insert notes by Andre Previn.  

“In the musical history of the twentieth century there have been a shamefully large number of instances wherein a noteworthy musical work has been acclaimed at its premiere and has subsequently, through either public apathy or a lack of performances, declined into near oblivion.  

George Gershwin's opera, Porgy and Bess, is an encouraging example of the reversal of this procedure. When it was first heard in 1935 there was quite some dissension among the critics about its lasting values, and although it was heralded as something of a milestone by much of the audience, it certainly did not create a national furore at the time.

Since then, each subsequent revival has brought it greater acclaim and greater popularity until now, in 1959, it has become a staple in the repertoire of almost every country in the world. Road companies have taken it to the four corners of the earth, symphonic suites are played by orchestras everywhere, countless recordings have been distributed, and surely every singer of great or little note has programmed its highlights.

Nonetheless, it seems as though the next few years will bring about an undreamed-of amount of hearing for the music of "Porgy." Samuel Goldwyn's motion picture production of the opera was premiered in June, 1959 and since it was one of the most widely publicized and heralded pictures in many years, it prompted practically every recording artist in the business to bring forth an album of selections from the score. Apart from the movie soundtrack version there will be literally dozens of vocal albums, symphonic syntheses, reissues of the various Broadway casts, dance bands, choral arrangements, novelty groups, and jazz versions.  

Now, just within the framework of the last-mentioned category; never before have so many jazz artists of so many divergent styles attempted interpretations of the same music. The range covers the entire compass of jazz from the excellent to the indifferent to the downright pointless; many of them attempting to the best of their musical ethics to say something interesting and important and many, alas, simply cashing in on what looks like a sure thing. Since this plethora of recordings was well known in advance by all recording artists, it became a matter of courage for Jack Lewis to join the pack with an album led by a relatively unknown musical personality, realizing that every giant in jazz would be recording the score. The man he chose to lead and orchestrate the score was a man whose musical personality has unfortunately hitherto been unknown to the general public, namely: Bill Potts.

The term, "musician's musician," is an overworked one but nonetheless very true in Bill's case.  His name has cropped up innumerable times in musicians' discussions of their favorite arrangers. This alone is quite notable, since Bill has chosen up to now to remain in the Washington, D.C. area for all of his productive life.  He was the head arranger for Willis Conover's "The Orchestra," an organization which, in the opinion of visiting musicians, rivalled the Washington Monument and the National Art Gallery as one of the indispensable attractions in the Capital.  Since the unfortunate demise of "The Orchestra," Bill has contributed scores to a great many bands, but it is only with this album that he is presented fully and correctly.  

In the fall of 1958 I was one of the aforementioned visiting musicians in Washington; it was at that time that I first met him.  He is a young man of Dickensian proportions with added touches of Peter Ustinov and Captain Ahab. This imposing structure, however, houses one of the most soft-spoken and self-effacing gentlemen I have ever met.  His musical curiosity is insatiable; he is willing to talk music until six in the morning, pause for coffee, then start over again.  

Generally, it was Bill's habit to begin these musical discussions with me while seated in his small open sports car and considering that I, as a Californian, have grown more and more thin-blooded, I can think of no greater compliment to Bill's opinions and ideas than to say that I hardly noticed the cold. At the time I was halfway through my assignment as the musical director of the film version of Porgy and Bess and Bill was in the process of writing his jazz version of the score.

With typical candor he made what seemed like an amazing and somewhat apprehensive confession to me; the fact that he had never before been called upon to arrange and orchestrate another composer's music, but had restricted himself solely to his own originals.  Now, half a year later, after hearing the results of his labors, I can only say that he never should have wasted a moment worrying about it.

One of the most difficult attributes to come by in today's jazz scene is originality.  By that I don't necessarily mean a "far-out" method of playing or writing but rather an immediately recognizable personal imprint upon the music rendered. This is, God knows, as true of arrangers as it is of performers. Too many gifted facile writers pattern themselves wholly or in part after the few innovators. The Basie school of writing currently has the largest following, closely followed by the imitators of Ellington, Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Holman, John Lewis, etc.  Bill Potts is an originator in the truest and best sense of that word.  It is impossible to hear more than eight bars of any of his arrangements without recognizing the man behind the pencil.  

His style is made up of many things: there is an ever-present aura of strength and vitality, an awareness of all the possible dynamic shadings from pp to ff, a rare concern for voice-leading, and a strong preference for ensembles rather than interludes between solos.  

His arrangements have a wonderfully timeless quality about them; he is not concerned with the fad of the moment or of the year, nor does he strive for orchestral effects simply for the sake of the effects. The orchestrations are sensible and mature, while creating the same feeling of freedom and spontaneity usually found in a solo voice. And over all they swing from bar one right through to the end of the coda.

It is my personal opinion that the detailed analyses of record albums, section by section, solo by solo should be separate from the notes. That's why I will not go into them here. The personnel of the orchestra conducted by Bill Potts is indeed a gleaming one, as can be gathered by the listing qf its members, and the band plays with an esprit and a precision hardly ever encountered in a "one-time-together" studio ensemble. …

Having worked on the film version of "Porgy" for a period covering six months; having been exposed to the music of the score innumerable times; having written some two and a half hours worth of orchestrations of the score—I'm sure it would be natural for me to be practically immune to further versions of it; proof of the strength of the music and of Bill Potts' unique creativity is that I found myself listening to this album with the attentiveness and pleasure of a premiere performance.

The Musician's Union requires by law that arrangers be paid a certain amount per page of four bars each; if that law were changed to read that arrangers be paid per each new idea, Bill Potts could retire today a rich man.”

—ANDRE PREVIN May 12,1959

The following video features Bill Potts’ arrangement of Bess, You Is My Woman with solos by Phil Woods on alto saxophone and Charlie Shavers on muted trumpet.

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