Jazz on Film

It doesn’t often happen that two universes collide, but a little while ago, two of mine did. If you happen to drop by at my place, two things will quickly become apparent: I love jazz and I love films. And, as it so happens, some really good films have excellent jazz soundtracks. Of course, we are not talking your average “Transformers” or “Hangover” Hollywood potlach, but if titles such as “A Streetcar Named Desire”, “The Man with the Golden Arm”, “Anatomy of a Murder”, “The Wild One”, “Les Tricheurs”, “The Subterraneans”, “A Bout de Souffle”, “Ascenseur Por L’Echafaud”, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”, “Black Orpheus”, “Audace Colpo Dei Soliti Ignoti” and “Intrigo A Los Angeles” ring a faint bell, do read on.

So, the other day (just about three years after its debut), I was alerted to a wonderful reissue series entitled “Jazz on Film” which, so far, spans four boxed sets, “Film Noir” (2011, 5 CDs), “Beat, Square & Cool” (2012, 5 CDs), “The New Wave” (2013, 6 CDs) and “Chet Baker: Italian Movies” (2013, 3 CDs). When googlin’ around for vendors, I quickly discovered that “Moochinabout”, the company behind these releases, was selling them in its Amazon marketplace disguise (a.k.a. “Little Moochin'”) at more than reasonable prices and I jumped on all four of the above right away. Two or three days later they arrived, all shiny and new, well-packaged and speedily delivered.

Being the discerning customer I am, I made sure to read reviews first and whatever I read and wherever I turned, word on the street was that this endeavor was one to support. Everyone from BBC Radio to “Mojo Magazine”, from the “Evening Standard” to “The Observer on Sunday”, from “The Times” to “The Independent”, from “Record Collector Magazine” to “The Guardian”; really everyone, music critics and jazz fans alike, seemed to be throwing stars, accolades and whatever else they use to honor a worthy project with at this series, in heaps. That can’t be too bad, can it?

Well, it ain’t. What you get here is a true labor of love which highlights some of the best (and sometimes also hard to find or plain obscure) jazz film music out there.

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And, before we get into a bit more detail, the CDs that make up the first four sets sound fabulous as well. Often remastered from vinyl sources, as far as I know, the music has depth of soundstage, separation, warmth, presence, and clarity; in short, it is dynamic, impressive and a real pleasure to listen to, much more than a lot of music I have that was sourced from master tapes. A great job!

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Jazz on Fil (all four currently available sets).

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When “Film Noir” hit the market in 2011, it caused quite a stir, not only because of the excellent mastering but, of course, mainly for its editorial excellence (enlightening, detailed and argumentative liner notes by compiler and “Jazzwise” writer Selwyn Harris) as well as the selection of films that were covered. The music is that of the 1950s, covering both the well- and the lesser-known gems “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951), “Private Hell 36” (1954), “The Man With the Golden Arm” (1955), “The Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), “Touch of Evil” (1958), “Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959) and “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959).

A lot has been written about these films and, if you care to spend some time looking around the Net, about the film scores accompanying them, so I will refrain here, but a quick glance at just some of the personnel that is assembled here is equivalent to a jazz fan’s wet dream: Ziggy Elman and Babe Russin on “Streetcar Named Desire”, Pete Candoli, Shorty Rogers, Harry Betts, Lennie Niehaus, Bud Shank and Claude Williamson (link) on “Private Hell”, again Candoli, Betts and Shorty Rogers (and his Giants) on “The Man with the Golden Arm”, The Chico Hamilton Quintet on “The Sweet Smell of Success”, Barney Kessel, Pete Candoli, John Grass, Plas Johnson and John DeSoto on “Touch of Evil”, Duke Ellington, Clark Terry, Gerald Wilson, Ray Nance, Johnny Hodges, Russell Procope, Paul Gonsalves, Billy Strayhorn and Jimmy Woode on “Anatomy of a Murder” and Bill Evans, Jim Hall, Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, Connie Kay, and Gunther Schuller on “Odds Against Tomorrow”. This was (and is) the cream of the crop in many respects, with a healthy dose of west coast legends and west and east coast studio cracks permeating these tracks composed by Alex North, Leith Stevens, Elmer Bernstein, Chico Hamilton, Fred Katz, Henry Mancini, Duke Ellington and John Lewis.

One could argue that not everything here is “Film Noir” (Selwyn Harris begs to differ), but really, people, if you don’t buy into this boxed set, you are losing out.

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The other three boxed sets follow suit and opens up a treasure trove of music which has been around before but is served up here in one fell swoop to get your hands on.

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Beat, Square & Cool” (2012, 5 CDs) covers both wider cinematic and stylistic grounds with flashbacks “[…] to a more innocent age when young people first realized they did not have to live by the codes and conceits of their parent’s world.” [Jon Newey, Foreword]. We get definite shades of Stan Kenton in Leith Stevens’ score for the classic “The Wild One” (1953, starring Marlon Brando), we get to hear the marvelous piano styling of Ray Turner in Franz Waxman’s score for Don Siegel’s “Crime in the Streets” (1956), a healthy dose of Hollywood’s take on the west coast sound on display on Johnny Mandel’s soundtrack for “I Want to Live!” (a fabulous 1958 score with Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer, Bud Shank, Frank Rosolino, Pete Jolly, Red Mitchell and Shelly Manne), and André Previn’s 1960 score for “The Subterraneans” (again with Mulligan as well as Art pepper, Jack Sheldon, Dave Bailey, Russ Freeman, Red Mitchell and many others), we get the Jazz at the Philharmonic crowd on “Les Tricheurs” (a bit of a hodgepodge, but with the stellar musicianship of Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins, Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, Ray Brown, Gus Johnson and Sonny Stitt from 1958), Ellington and Strayhorn on “”Paris Blues” (1961), a full album of vintage Charles Mingus with the score for “Shadows” (1959) and, last but not least, Freddie Red’s score for “The Connection” (1961), featuring a classic Jackie McLean, Freddie Redd, Mike Mattos and Larry Ritchie “Blue Note” line-up.

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Important note for unsuspecting customers: With the third boxed set, “The New Wave”, there seems to have been a bit of a falling out between the former “team” of “Moochinabout” and suddenly two identical looking sets appeared. Without getting into the details, I would recommend buying the original 6-CD boxed set from said label. ‘Nuff said.

The New Wave” (2013, 6 CDs) delves into filmmakers of the French “nouvelle vague” who “were working on the edges of commercial cinema”, with protagonists who “meandered in and out of relationships, engaged in leisurely conversations, and wandered through an alienating modern architectural landscape” while, at the same time, speaking in “contemporary slang, making the dialogue sound authentic and hip, the real language of the moment.” This sentiment is reflected in the 13 soundtracks present here, which cover the whole range and also showcase some of the most well-known soundtracks of the day, Miles Davis’ “Ascenseur Por L’Echafaud”, Louis Bonfa’s and Antonio Jobim’s “Black Orpheus” and, perhaps, Art Blakey’s “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”, all three of which I already had.

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The last of the sets, “Italian Movies“, featuring Chet Baker both with smaller (Italian) rhythm sections and larger ensembles, contains five soundtracks composed by Piero Umiliani, none of which I had previously. It falls a bit out of the range when compared to the above boxed sets, especially since Baker isn’t always at the center of attention (in fact he is all but absent on Smog (1962) on disc 3), not always at the top of his game, and because a lot of this music tends to veer wildly across the musical landscape, also drifting into somewhat sloppy playing here and there. Nevertheless, I have always been a huge fan of Baker’s tone and even when it’s sloppy, it’s heads above the rest.

This last boxed set I ordered (I’m sure to dip into any follow-ups in this series) unfortunately doesn’t have liner notes to speak of, aside from a list of musicians and track titles. Again, the sound is astonishingly good but when compared to sets 1-3, this is the one I would recommend for Baker fans only..

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Get more info from: MoochinAbout

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

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