Thelonious Monk: Blue Monk (live at Newport, 1958)

The most frequently criticized sequence in Jazz on a Summer's Day, Bert Stern's documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, is Thelonious Monk's performance of "Blue Monk."  Like Jimmy Giuffre before him, Monk repeats a tune he'd played on the previous year's CBS telecast The Sound of Jazz. Monk even sports the same bamboo-framed sunglasses outdoors in July as he'd worn in the TV studio the prior December.

The criticism, though, is never directed at Monk, but rather at the filmmaker for relegating the pianist to background music for distracting aerial shots of the America's Cup trials, filmed by Stern leaning out of a rented Piper Cub over the waters off Newport and proving once again Damon Runyon's timeless axiom that viewing a yacht race is like watching grass grow. Even more annoying than the lumbering boats, however, is the fact that much of Monk's solo is obscured by a nautical sportscaster jabbering from his perch on the bridge of the U.S. Destroyer William R. Rush, strategically deployed at taxpayer expense within 200 yards of the starting line. (Did they fear a British Royal Navy sub might torpedo Columbia, the ultimately victorious New York Yacht Club entry?)

Unfortunately for purists, the original soundtrack CD provides not a pristine "Blue Monk," but a badly mangled compromise. In the process of mercifully stripping the inane prattle from this track, 16 bars of Monk's solo have been mislaid! In lieu of the movie's seven choruses, the CD contains a choppy five and two-thirds choruses—which ain't exactly what God had in mind when He gave Moses the 12-bar blues. Consequently, among the more than two dozen recordings of "Blue Monk" that its composer left us, this track in its present form must rank near the bottom. This criticism, though, is not directed at Thelonious, but towards those who treat his legacy with such disrespect.

March 30, 2008 · 2 comments

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Jimmy Giuffre: The Train and The River (live at Newport, 1958)

On its face, the Jimmy Giuffre 3 playing their signature contrapuntal folk-jazz opus "The Train and The River" seems an oddly low-key opener for Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), Bert Stern's documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. For that matter, Giuffre's drummerless chamber jazz seemed as ill-suited to the NJF's open-air park on a balmy summer afternoon as a string quartet at Yankee Stadium. Yet the filmmaker's instinct proved canny. By not showing the musicians until two minutes into the performance, Stern not only teases us with an appealing tune underneath his main titles, but actually builds suspense as to when or even if the players will appear onscreen. Finally they do, and in close-up at that—so close up, in fact, that guitarist Jim Hall goes unseen until the track concludes and he rises to take a bow. Otherwise, Stern holds a single shot of Giuffre bobbing and weaving with his tenor sax, as Bob Brookmeyer hovers behind him in a supporting role, for a remarkable 2½ minutes.

Rendering this piece on the previous year's CBS telecast The Sound of Jazz, Giuffre's trio consisted of clarinet/sax, guitar and bass. Six months later, the bass had been replaced by valve trombone, creating one of the most unusual instrumentations in jazz history. While the audio on this 2004 CD is erratic (it sounds better on the actual movie soundtrack), anyone wishing to concentrate on the music can do so sans artsy images of reflections in marina water. With or without pictures, "The Train and The River" is one of the finest 1950s jazz compositions, and this live performance on the 4th of July glitters like the first sparklers at twilight.

March 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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Freddie Redd: O.D.

The New York Times called Jack Gelber's off-Broadway play The Connection (1959) "a farrago of dirt, empty talk and extended runs of cool music." Dirt and empty talk aptly described a stage full of scruffy addicts awaiting their heroin dealer. The Times was wrong, though, about "cool music." Freddie Redd's score (no pun intended) was hard-core hard bop performed by onstage jazzmen. Sadly, Jackie McLean, his understudy Tina Brooks, and Dexter Gordon in the L.A. production were true-life junkies cast to type. Having once accompanied fictitious felons, crime jazz now supported real ones. If this be progress, progress be damned.

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments

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Elmer Bernstein: Frankie Machine

The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) was the squalid story of a junkie card dealer and wannabe drummer played by Frank Sinatra. Even non-moviegoers made the connection between narcotics and jazz, thanks to this hit single in which Elmer Bernstein's trumpets evoke an urban seediness as unforgiving as a junkie's need. Plus, how's this for spooky synchronicity? Golden Arm was released the same year as Charlie Parker's death, leading to the irony (if that's the right word) of clean-armed Sinatra being nominated for an Oscar, and tracks-aplenty Bird winding up on a slab at the morgue. Man, sometimes crime jazz is just plain criminal.

November 08, 2007 · 0 comments

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Shorty Rogers: The Wild One

Hollywood's first great biker flick told the semi-factual story of a small California town terrorized by rival motorcycle gangs. Marlon Brando, in black leather jacket with skull & crossed pistons on back, was Johnny, laconic leader of one such pack. To enhance verisimilitude, veteran composer Leith Stevens retained Shorty Rogers, the goateed doyen of West Coast jazz, for an exciting drum-driven title track as unstoppable as rolling thunder—an effect heightened by opening and closing sound effects of actual MC revving. VROOM-VROOM!!! Outraged, one jazz critic demanded, "Hey, Shorty, what are you rebelling against?" To which Rogers mumbled, "Whadda you got?"

November 07, 2007 · 0 comments

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Vince Guaraldi: Linus and Lucy

"Twelve drummers drumming?" suggested Linus. "Don't be ridiculous," snapped Lucy, his older sister. They were choosing a gift for her unrequiting sweetheart, Schroeder the toy pianist. "I've got it!" exclaimed Linus, passing Lucy an LP from the stash in Charlie Brown's garage. "Vince Guaraldi?" she hesitated. "Is that classical?" Linus, anxious to finish before Charlie Brown returned from the fool's errand upon which Lucy had sent him, replied, "The classiest!" And that's how Schroeder came to supplement his devotion to Beethoven with a love of jazz. Alas, he still ignored Lucy—one more thing for which she'd never forgive Linus.

November 07, 2007 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: What a Wonderful World


Louis Armstrong, photo by Herb Snitzer

Aside from Satchmo singing throughout, this track has nothing to do with jazz. But that's like saying, "Aside from the Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor has no towering monuments." The single exception is a tad conspicuous. And certainly jazz has no monument more towering than Louis Armstrong. Here he transforms a platitudinous ditty that, done by any other singer, would make us cringe, and instead makes us rapturous. What other voice so embodied dignity, heartache, humor, compassion and downright love of life? By the mid-'60s, Louis Armstrong was the world's most endearing and uplifting American. This song shows why.

November 05, 2007 · 1 comment

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Skip Martin: Riff Blues

Man, that Mickey Spillane. Talk about your hardboiled crime scribblers! Mickey turned trash to cash faster than the mug what invented landfill, and spent it, too. Never spotted in public without which a flashy dame was draped around each arm. "Riff Blues" gets it right, with brassy bluster and silky saxes followed by a romantic interlude of flute and tinkling piano to keep the girls interested, then a big swell with kettledrums to wake up the goodfellas, all done with the slow sway of a savvy stripper sashaying down the runway. Highbrows call this ambience. Lowbrows, knowing better, call the ambulance. Either way, it's made music.

November 02, 2007 · 0 comments

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Modern Jazz Quartet: No Happiness for Slater

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) was the best heist film since The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Singer Harry Belafonte plays a hip, blues-singing vibist who's also a compulsive gambler and aspiring bank robber. In other words, your typical modern jazzman. John Lewis's music is more pensive than pandemonium, as in this 16-bar blues tailored to Milt Jackson. It's telling that whenever Hollywood hacks ran the show, crime jazz was loud and blustery. When sophisticates such as Miles Davis, John Lewis and Gerry Mulligan called their own shots, crime jazz turned as calmly calculated and coolly effective as a heist with a clean getaway.

November 02, 2007 · 0 comments

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Buddy Morrow: Staccato's Theme

Staccato (1959-60), starring John Cassavetes, eliminated the middleman between jazz and TV gumshoes. Based in a Greenwich Village nitery, pianist Johnny Staccato, like so many real-life musicians, doubled as a streetwise private eye. Elmer Bernstein's theme, recalling his earlier crime jazz classic The Man with the Golden Arm, is déjà vu all over again. Same bunco-squad tempo, jailbird shuffle beat, stiletto-in-the- eardrum trumpets and oversexed saxes. Given Hollywood's passion for formulas, which exceeded Mme. Curie's, crime jazz became so self-referential that everything started blurring together. What are you watching, dear? Mickey Spillane's Wild One With the Staccato Golden Gunn. That's nice.

November 02, 2007 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Au Bar du Petit Bac

As director Louis Malle projected scenes from Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (1958), his film policier (released stateside as Elevator to the Gallows) about the perfect crime, foiled by imperfect luck, Miles Davis and four Parisian jazzmen sat in a darkened studio, watching Louis's loops and improvising per Miles's deliberately sketchy instructions. Most film scores take weeks to prepare and days to record. This took four hours. Trusted to work his own way, Miles repaid Malle's respect tenfold with a sparseness that accentuates the film's starkness. Most crime jazz blows you away with a bang, but Miles's hit-man silencer is equally deadly.

November 02, 2007 · 0 comments

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Henry Mancini: Peter Gunn

For TV's hip private eye Peter Gunn (1958-1961), its producer demanded a “distinctive element to invest the series with something extra.” Enter the Klepto Kingpin of Crime Jazz, composer Henry Mancini. Just as Willie Sutton robbed banks because "that's where the money was," Mancini pilfered jazzmen such as Count Basie because he saw dollar $igns. For the show's theme, Mancini also filched Claude Thornhill's French horns and rock 'n' roller Duane Eddy's twangy guitar. In turn, Eddy himself had a hit cover of this tune, but for a truly smoking "Gunn," check out blues-rocker Roy Buchanan's six-string live-wire act.

November 01, 2007 · 0 comments

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Gerry Mulligan: Theme from <i>I Want to Live!</i>

I Want to Live! (1958) is the true story of three lowlifes who, after murdering a disabled widow during a botched robbery, are executed in San Quentin's gas chamber. This intentionally ugly film about the sordid lives of revolting people in seamy settings is the cinematic equivalent of being dunked in a vat of slime for two squirmy hours. Moviegoers must've begged I Want to Leave! The only reprieve was an all-star jazz combo smokin' onscreen in a smoky Frisco bar and, for a standalone album, reprising the bluesy theme featuring Shank's atmospheric flute, Mitchell's lyrical bass and Mulligan's fulfilling baritone. Great jazz; grim movie.

November 01, 2007 · 0 comments

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Count Basie: The M Squad Theme


Count Basie, photo by Herb Snitzer

Pound for pound, the toughest 1950s TV cop was Lt. Frank Ballinger of Chicago PD's M Squad. No, the M didn't stand for Lee Marvin, who played Ballinger. M stood for murder. During its first season the show's theme was nondescript. Then the producers sprang for 2½ minutes of mayhem by Count Basie and his mob of heavies blasting away like the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, aided and abetted on the soundtrack by squealing tires and gunfire. Go ahead, listen if you have the guts. Just don't go runnin' your mouth when the coppers pump you. You never heard of me. Got it?

October 30, 2007 · 0 comments

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Luiz Bonfá: Manhã De Carnaval

Another recording whose popularity begat a resurgence of public interest in Latin American music, “Manhã De Carnaval ,” the theme song from the movie Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus), helped pave the way for bossa nova to take flight with the American public. This composition, sometimes known in English as "A Day in the Life of a Fool," has become part of the jazz canon, having been recorded countless times; however, this is the track in its original form. Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá co-wrote the score for the film, which is a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice tale from Greek mythology. The movie’s award-winning success and widespread popularity ignited the careers of the composers in America and worldwide.

October 24, 2007 · 0 comments

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