European singers David Linx and Maria João threw themselves enthusiastically into Gershwin’s “Porgy & Bess,” remade with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra as the Naïve label’s first thematic big-band release.
“Porgy & Bess” is Gershwin’s uniquely black-American folk opera that gained traction with the mass populace in 1935. The story about a crippled black man struggling to survive a Southern slum and trying to save a woman victimized by an abusive lover and drug addiction also lit a fire in musicians of that time and beyond. Jazz adaptations were the norm and superseded the original, without losing the crux of the American tragedy.
The award-winning Belgian singer Linx and especially Portuguese avant-garde artist Maria Joao don’t seem to grasp the original at all in their completely different, juvenile theatrical production as Porgy and Bess. They stray so far from the heart and soul of “Porgy & Bess,” it’s no longer the same story. It is, in essence, a mess of vocal indulgences and off-putting quirks. Linx sounds as if he’s thrilled just to be nominated and Joao, well, imagine if Disney did the remake starring Minnie Mouse.
The ruthless karma of this star-crossed, spectacularly doomed couple just isn’t there. In its stead is a bunch of pretty orchestral background music and vocal gymnastics, sometimes overloaded with borderline hysteria and—could it be?—a resemblance to a Saturday Night Live sketch.
Press surrounding “A Different Porgy & Another Bess” emphasizes different, practically boasting about breaking tradition. Like what Linx and Joao did was a good thing. “…there is actually no danger in this simply being one more interpretation of an over-interpreted collection of songs; the songs’ arrangers and the Brussels Jazz Orchestra see to that.” Rest assured, there’s no danger in anyone mistaking this for Porgy or Bess. So, the artists got what they wanted.
David Linx — winner of best jazz vocalist at last year’s Victoires de la Musique Jazz — isn’t all that bad. He puts everything into his vocal portrayal, with an over-eager dreaminess that’s almost charming. Of the two, he grounds this 2012 release. His voice carries the story of the tortured souls as much as it can. Then, there’s the Brussels Jazz Orchestra (circa 1993), as good as any Broadway orchestra pit. Dieter Limbourg is a particular stand-out, weaving his clarinet, flute, and saxes throughout a fully informed lush, orchestral stratosphere in the little-known “A Red-Headed Woman.” The way the big band pushes the brassy limits heightens any and all drama missing in the vocal chirruping. Without the big, bold, brash cushion of this fantastic big band, there wouldn’t be much to recommend Linx’s soundtrack dream.
“A Woman Is A Sometime Thing” becomes a swanky jazz thing in the capable hands of this orchestra, led by artistic director Frank Vaganée. Representing the vocal narrative, Linx does try. He hits his notes, infusing his own romantic reluctance, but isn’t powerfully charismatic enough for the role Porgy demands. One gets the sense he’s playing catch up, at times, he’s almost breathless, choking over the words as they do not come to him easily. The ear constantly wants to go back to the orchestra, from the soaring horns to the down and dirty guitar, yearning for more. That’s where the dramatic hits lie. Kudos to the 11 distinctly different arrangements.
As much as this album wants to stray from the original in an elevated difference, it painfully strays too much, especially with the inclusion of Joao as Bess. There’s something odd about her vocal mannerisms as it frequently sinks into Minnie Mouse territory, especially when she gets exuberant in “I Love You, Porgy.” What is she doing in the chorus, making fun of Bess’s no-win situation, with such a choppy child-like intonation? Tone that down, and listeners might hear the terror and the hope interspersed in one terribly intimidating plea. When Linx comes in as some Donny Osmond on his white unicorn, the “historical gravitas” of this Gershwin “content” disintegrates into an accidental theatre of the absurd.
Linx strived to recreate “Porgy & Bess” with his favorite writer/childhood mentor/friend, the late James Baldwin in mind, in letting the humanism shine through. Perhaps too much to the point where humanism turns into a feel-good Disney ending.
The most unintentionally funny rendition follows in “Buzzard Song.” The wild contrast between a sobering orchestral intro cut through with a cartoonish vocal animation just about kills this album completely. Halfway through, the temptation to end the agony and amp up Simply Red’s “The Right Thing” is very strong.
Ultimately, an artist seeks to elevate the original. David Linx and Maria João did try. They just failed Gershwin and countless, overdone jazz remakes by going completely left. Their different Porgy & Bess just doesn’t sound like much of anything worth listening to.