Wynton Marsalis: The Ways of Love

Marsalis's evocative writing for the score of the 1990 film Tune in Tomorrow was a further indication of his progress as a composer and arranger, which would soon be emphatically affirmed on the CDs Blue Interlude, Citi Movement, and In This House, On This Morning. This soundtrack also marked the recorded debut of the trumpeter's core septet (plus additional musicians). Based on the novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa, which was set in the early '50's in Lima, Peru, the screenplay transferred the location to Marsalis's hometown of New Orleans, a place and time that Marsalis deftly brings to life in his music.

Whereas much of the score rejoices in the multifaceted traditions of New Orleans style polyphonic jazz, from its midst emerges a winsome Marsalis ballad with lyrics by Joel Siegel, a sort of less subtle "Teach Me Tonight" involving the relatively inexperienced film character Martin (Keanu Reeves) and Julia (Barbara Hershey), the older woman that he woos. The band plays a poignant vamp preceding Marsalis' limning of the graceful, floating theme, as the horns waft gently in and out. Then Shirley Horn enters to tenderly express, with her usual masterful understatement, the essence of the lyrics. "Cradle me in your embrace / and soothe me until you hear me sigh / pleasure me in all the secret places / teach me all the ways of love." Marsalis lush writing for his augmented septet, in support of Horn's vocal, is warmly articulate and radiantly colored.

August 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Henry Mancini: The Pink Panther Theme

Who is the coolest of the cool cats? Certainly the laconic and iconic panther who parades around to this tune makes the short list. But this theme song also represents a milestone in cinematic music. Cool jazz has always been more than just an interpretive style; it also possesses a mysterious symbolic resonance with the general public, and summons up strong mental images that even the jazz-o-phobic seem to find enticing. No one understood this better during the late 1950s and early 1960s than Henry Mancini, who continually raided the warehouses of jazztown to find inspiration for his immensely popular film and television scores. This is one of his grandest moments, and if they ever crown the king of the cats, Mancini's chart will be used for the coronation march. But also give credit to saxophonist Plas Johnson, who will forever be associated with this catchy melody. In a truly cool universe, everyone would get a personal theme song as stealthy and hip as this one.

May 13, 2009 · 0 comments


Quincy Jones: Rack 'Em Up

The speedy "Rack 'em Up" energizes its way through a maze of electric jazz guitar, predominant piano overdubs (panned heavily to emphasize the stereo recording technique), and abstract percussion that accents this rather brief and very repetitive track. Interestingly, percussion elements include scatted vocals, and they do not detract from the palette. However, the question is one of how many times you will return to this track, and the answer is that, since a single chord form is repeated constantly and the content is limited to it and some very understated guitar soloing that ends too quickly, probably not very many. However, it is easy to understand how this music would work in the film The Pawnbroker, and its vocal approach does contain some of the 60s kitsch factor found in many of the era's novelty tunes. There isn't much here, in terms of content, but what has been captured is at least enjoyable enough to be experienced once and then shelved, as its function is limited in today's music buying marketplace. Approach-wise, it can be considered "jazz," but it sounds like a curio from an era to which the film it represents is forever linked.

May 08, 2009 · 0 comments


Gato Barbieri: Last Tango In Paris

Musical eroticism prevails on "Last Tango in Paris," a steamy pastiche of swirling instrumentation, revolving chord structures, and thick and sexy tenor sax. Gato Barbieri's soulful horn surfs atop tuneful string accompaniment, and during his poignant performance listeners can clearly hear and identify the varied facets of his instrumental technique. His improvised minor-keyed themes work well in this particular setting; during his leads, he uses tremolo to great effect and also proves himself a master of the strategic pause. Remaining silent for several measures, then resuming his breathtaking soloing where he left off, his deliberation adds a smoldering intensity even as the cut lays back quite far.

The ingredients for Barbieri's "Ultimo tango" mix Argentine sensibilities with aspects of improvisation generally associated with fusion. Even so, it is an elegiac, thought-provoking piece that never loses sight of its jazz qualities. The appropriately French-sounding work basks in Barbieri's sensual glow, and while the 1972 Marlon Brando film was rated "X" when released, after hearing this you get the feeling that an additional "X" should have been added. The tune is catchy, confident, cool and simultaneously naughty, and is a great introduction to Barbieri's experimental yet timeless musical flair.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Erroll Garner: Theme from <i>A New Kind of Love</i>

Released in 1963, the comedic film A New Kind of Love, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, featured original compositions by Erroll Garner. The theme features an ensemble consisting of a big band with strings. As in other recordings, Garner alternates a Latin feel (in this case, the cha-cha-chá) with swing sections. Garner once again gives primacy to the main theme, but still provides himself a little space for a few improvisatory passages. The horn sections are unfortunately relegated to incidental fillers, but the overall arrangement provides propulsion that is somewhat suggestive of the bustling Parisian locales in which the film was set.

August 20, 2008 · 0 comments


Philip Glass: Koyaanisqatsi

Minimalism, when it succeeds, captures that elusive moment when the repetitive and predictable create a virtuous circle, self-reinforcing and building inwardly on its own energy. Yet this transcendence comes at a risk: a thin line separates the mesmerizing from the boring. Alas, too often, I find Philip Glass lingers in the realm of ennui. But here, in the opening track to his breakthrough score for the film Koyaanisqatsi, Glass hits a rich musical vein. To achieve the full effect, you should see the movie. Yet the CD is not to be scorned. The vocal by Albert de Ruiter is so far down in the bass clef, you would need to send down divers in pressure suits to ascertain which notes he is hitting. But the organist bravely volunteers to make the plunge, and delivers a passacaglia, full of gravitas, to explore the dangers of the deep in tandem with the singer. This is Philip Glass at his most austere—no migraine-inducing patterns, no chords hammered at ad infinitum—and the results are impressive.

June 28, 2008 · 0 comments


George Shearing: George in Brazil

The producers of this CD faced a Hobson's choice. In Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), Bert Stern's documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, the sequence "George in Brazil" runs slightly more than two minutes. Even at that, it's only a fragment of the original performance. To make matters worse, the soundtrack's first 40 seconds contain voiceovers that for technical reasons could not be erased from atop the underlying music. The dilemma, then, was whether to retain the voiceovers, to which musical purists would surely object, or trim the track to a scanty 1½ minutes. The producers elected to trim.

Bad decision. Of course, the voiceovers are still in the movie. But missing from the CD is the delightful Donna Larsen, roving radio reporter. "What do they say," Donna asks her unseen listeners rhetorically, "the joint is really jumping? I think that's kind of passé by now." If not, it became so at that moment. She goes on to interview NJF co-director Elaine Lorillard, then married to a descendant of Pierre Lorillard, founder of the Lorillard Tobacco Company. Only a year earlier, Lorillard had introduced its best-selling Newport brand of menthol cigarettes. "I brought along a heavy leather coat," gushes chatterbox Donna, "and I don't think I'm going to need it at all." Mrs. Lorillard, her upper-crust baritone hinting that she may have already smoked a few too many packs of her family's products, readily concurs. "No, I don't think so, either." Naturally she pronounces it eye-ther. "I have a sweater that I've tucked away in my bag."

Believe it or not, this banal banter is actually more entertaining than "George in Brazil," which so belabors a simple vamp that you wish Elaine Lorillard had tucked away some extra chord changes in her bag, right next to that sweater she didn't need.

April 13, 2008 · 0 comments


Mahalia Jackson: The Lord's Prayer

According to British scholar Martin Halliwell's American Culture in the 1950s, most reports identified gospel singer Mahalia Jackson as the star of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. In particular, Professor Halliwell cites "The Lord's Prayer," with which she closes Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), Bert Stern's documentary of the '58 NJF. "Jackson's contralto voice and religious devotion," Halliwell contends, "is a powerful spiritual counterpoint to the secular coolness of the Festival's jazz rhythms."

Miss Jackson, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the same year as The Jackson Five (perhaps voters thought she was related?), seems to have been all things to all people. It's a stretch, however, to contrast her indisputably powerful spiritual force with "the secular coolness" of Newport '58. The NJF's marquee that year boasted such certifiably hot performers as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Big Joe Turner, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Horace Silver, Max Roach, Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, and Maynard Ferguson (whom few would mistake for Chet Baker). Even such cool pioneers as George Shearing and Gerry Mulligan appear in the film serving hot fare—Shearing's Latin-jazz "George in Brazil" and Mulligan's frenetic "As Catch Can." Another '50s cool figure, drummer Chico Hamilton, is represented by "Blue Sands," an exotic drum feature more ethereal than secular. Among the dozen headliners in Jazz on a Summer's Day, only the Jimmy Giuffre 3 can legitimately be characterized as embodying "secular coolness."

In any case, Mahalia Jackson didn't so much contrast with preceding acts in Jazz on a Summer's Day as culminate a head-spinning hodgepodge running the gamut from Louis Armstrong's "When the Saints Go Marching In" and collegiate Dixieland from Eli's Chosen Six (which included future avant-gardist Roswell Rudd playing tailgate trombone) to Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" and Thelonious Monk's "Blue Monk." On the heels of this incoherent mishmash, a soothing gospel song was as welcome as the calm after a storm.

Yet without impugning Miss Jackson's devoutness, there remains a tinge of Show Business in all this, as if Jazz on a Summer's Day had been stage-managed by CBS-TV's reigning ringmaster of masscult entertainment, Ed Sullivan. Ending a jazz film with The Gospel According to Mahalia was equivalent to following an Alaskan dancing bear, a Catskills comic and a troupe of Chinese acrobats with an aria from some hefty coloratura soprano on loan from the Metropolitan Opera. This, we suspect, was NJF impresario George Wein's calculated showman's piety capping the secular crassness of a Really Big Shew.

April 13, 2008 · 0 comments


Chico Hamilton: Blue Sands

"Blue Sands," composed by flutist/saxophonist Buddy Collette for the original Chico Hamilton Quintet (1955), was part of a long tradition of jazz exotica dating at least as far back as Ellington's "Caravan" (1936). In 1956, Collette recorded an especially insinuating "Blue Sands" with The Lighthouse All-Stars, featuring Bob Cooper's atmospheric oboe. In Chico Hamilton's band, however, "Blue Sands" became a set piece showcasing the leader's mallets on tom-toms, where he would tenaciously repeat a single rhythmic pattern, maintaining hypnotic interest merely by varying dynamic level. This display would go on at length and, like all drum solos, was fascinating to watch but less entrancing on a record, absent its visual flair.

By 1958's Newport Jazz Festival, where "Blue Sands" was preserved for posterity in filmmaker Bert Stern's documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), Chico Hamilton must have performed this tune hundreds of times, necessitating untold thousands of repetitions of that single rhythmic pattern. Amazingly, under the circumstances, the piece retains considerable excitement. Moreover, it served as an icebreaker for such later explorations of monotony as John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" (1960). Casually listen once or twice, and you won't get it. Put it on automatic repeat, and gradually—indeed, almost imperceptibly—you'll be as surely sucked in as a probe approaching a black hole. And we all know what lies at the center of a black hole. Blue sands.

April 12, 2008 · 0 comments


Chuck Berry: Sweet Little Sixteen

Impresario George Wein believed that if each major jazz style (traditional, swing, modern) could attract a small audience, then a festival presenting all those styles ought to draw decent numbers. Moreover, if the playbill were expanded beyond jazz, why, enough fannies to fill an outdoor venue might materialize! Accordingly, the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, subject of Bert Stern's documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), booked Hail Hail Rock 'n' Roller Chuck Berry. When the brown-eyed handsome man blew into town in a purple Cadillac with a pair of white girls at his side, he raised more than a few eyebrows. In tony 1950s Rhode Island, purple Cadillacs were considered inexcusably gauche.

Onstage, the Rock 'n' Roller was accompanied, more or less, by a pickup group of Swing Era jazzmen who mostly stood around with thumbs up their behinds looking bewildered and patronizing—the latter being especially unwarranted considering their ineptitude backing "Sweet Little Sixteen," Berry's sly variant of Nabokov's Lolita (1955). Journeyman clarinetist Rudy Rutherford at least tries to get in the spirit, but his strident solo is embarrassing proof that jazzmen were as clueless about youth music as Humbert Humbert was about the laws governing statutory rape.

April 10, 2008 · 0 comments


Big Maybelle: I Ain't Mad at You

In a typically misguided attempt at crossover appeal, the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival strayed far afield (and went far awry) with blues shouter Big Maybelle. Judging from Bert Stern's documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), the personable performer pleased the crowd. But of course holiday jazz-fest attendees have never been notably discerning. The ad hoc backup band manages to swing without an arrangement, and Buck Clayton's trumpet solo is presentable enough. Yet there's no escaping the vocalist, who sounds like she'd gargled with Dr?no before stepping onstage. We'll never know how many moviegoers in 1960, or VHS and DVD viewers in subsequent decades, naïvely mistook "I Ain't Mad at You" for jazz simply because it's part of Jazz on a Summer's Day. But this track has less to do with jazz than snowballs do with July.

April 10, 2008 · 0 comments


Gerry Mulligan: Catch As Catch Can

It takes cheek to show up in New England on the Fourth of July sporting a red blazer. Yet as shown by Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), Bert Stern's documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, Gerry Mulligan had cheek aplenty. Less than two hours' ride from Lexington and Concord, the red-coated redhead charged in leading his pianoless quartet, a formation he'd commanded for most of the 1950s. Significantly, though, this edition was so raw that Farmer, Crow and Bailey had by then engaged in but a single rehearsal with the lanky baritonist. To make matters worse, Mulligan's musical material was as ill-chosen as his uniform color. Disdaining the sound advice of 1957's teen hit "Rock and Roll Music," Mulligan tries to play his tricky, up-tempo original "As Catch Can" too darn fast—Chuck Berry's only kick, after all, against modern jazz. Raggedness predictably ensues. Indeed, a short drum break following Farmer's leadoff solo so boggles the beat that the band sputters like an engine about to stall. Mulligan quickly takes charge, wresting the engine back on track through the sheer willpower of his playing. It's an impressive rescue, but doesn't absolve the redcoat general of under-drilling his green troops. To hear how "As Catch Can" was meant to be executed, check out the same group's spit-&-polish studio performance recorded five months later.

April 09, 2008 · 0 comments


Dinah Washington: All of Me

It's easy to see why novice filmmaker (and non-jazz fan) Bert Stern picked "All of Me" instead of a different Dinah Washington number for Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), his documentary of 1958's Newport Jazz Festival. Having belted the opening chorus with customary gusto, Dinah steps aside for most of Terry Gibbs's ensuing solo, only to mischievously butt in near the end for some 4-handed vibes frivolity that's as visually entertaining as it is musically negligible. Strictly for listening, however, this track has less to recommend. Max Roach rushes the tempo as the second chorus begins, and Urbie Green's throwback trombone solo, while technically admirable, makes you wonder why J.J. Johnson wasn't at Newport that year.

Another track from the same day, though, shows Miss Washington at her brash best. "Backwater Blues," a tribute to its composer, Bessie Smith, is Dinah-mite with the fuse lit. Backed only by Roach, bassist West and the extraordinary Wynton Kelly on piano, Dinah does her precursor proud. If Bessie was Empress of the Blues, Dinah was the Doyenne of Delight.

April 08, 2008 · 0 comments


Zubin Mehta: Rhapsody in Blue – as heard in Woody Allen's <i>Manhattan</i> (1979)

In 1924 bandleader Paul Whiteman, the reigning "King of Jazz," introduced his unruly domain to Gotham highbrows, premiering George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with its composer at the piano. Gershwin described his piece better than any reviewer could as "a musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, our unduplicated national pep, our blues, our metropolitan madness." True to its name, Rhapsody revolves thematically around the blues scale that is central to jazz. From its outrageous opening clarinet glissando—as instantly recognizable as the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony—to its final triumphant chord, Rhapsody in Blue exudes Jazz Age chutzpah. Here covered by the New York Philharmonic with piano soloist Gary Graffman, as conducted by Zubin Mehta especially for Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979), Gershwin's crowning glory remains a vibrant, everlasting monument of Americana.

April 05, 2008 · 0 comments


Sonny Stitt & Sal Salvador: Loose Walk

"Loose Walk" begins with Sonny Stitt in mid-solo. No, the musicians did not forget the opening. Filmmaker Bert Stern left it on the cutting-room floor for his documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960). And since this is the Original Soundtrack, that's all we get. It's a shame because, judging from his extant three choruses, Stitt was hotter than the noonday sun.

Guitarist Sal Salvador fared better than his co-star. Sal's 8-chorus solo is intact. (Assuming that the two frontline players took solos of equal length, which is usually the case during such loosely organized jams, that means nearly two-thirds of Stitt's solo is missing.) Except for his 1952-53 stint with Stan Kenton's New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm, Salvador maintained a low profile throughout a career that spanned five decades, spent mostly in New England. But, as he shows here, Sal was a fine technician who could execute single-note lines with grace and imagination.

The head—heard only at track's end—was previously recorded by Clifford Brown & Max Roach as "The Blues Walk" (1955). According to Verve's 2000 reissue thereof, the tune originated with altoist Chris Woods, who recorded it in 1952; issued years later, it was wryly titled "Somebody Done Stole My Blues." In honor of Sonny Stitt, perhaps this track should also be retitled: "Somebody Done Stole My Solo."

March 30, 2008 · 0 comments


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