Thursday, July 21, 2011

Gerry Mulligan “Watching & Waiting”

Dave Grusin, like fellow Silver Age film composer Lalo Schifrin, has steadily slowed the pace of his movie scoring down over the last few years. Like Schifrin, Grusin – also a jazz pianist – has devoted more of his attention to other facets of his remarkable musicality. But even as Dave Grusin seems to have moved away from film, he thankfully remains an active force in music.

Grusin, who turned 77 last month and has been quietly turning up in the most unexpected places of late, has also seen some fervor on CD as his latest, An Evening With Dave Grusin, has seen the light of day, along with recent reissues of the maestro’s glorious soundtrack to Mulholland Falls (1995) and the upcoming Divorce American Style (1967), Grusin’s first feature film score, both on Kritzerland.

So why discuss Dave Grusin in an article about Gerry Mulligan?

Well, Dave Grusin contributes significantly to this particularly obscure recording that very few even know anything about. It all started when actress/producer Denise Petitdidier contacted the great jazz leader and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan (1927-96) in the spring of 1977. Petitdidier had told the jazz legend that director Alain Corneau (1943-2010) had specifically requested that Gerry Mulligan score his thriller, La Menace, starring Yves Montand.

Mulligan had previously scored Clive Donner’s little-known film Luv (1967) and had several of his songs featured in films, particularly by French filmmakers. Much of his own music was perfectly well suited to film, offering a moody sense of romance and longing and a painterly sense of mystery and adventure.

No better examples exist than Mulligan’s subtle and sublime Night Lights (1965) – one of his most perfect recordings – and his too-much derided masterpiece The Age of Steam (1971), an ode to his youthful love of trains. There are many other great Mulligan masterpieces and many more famous and significant jazz mileposts. But these two albums in particular are the ones that appeal most to this listener and, no doubt, drew filmmakers of substantial merit to Gerry Mulligan and the quality of musical mood and perfect resonance he offered in a visual medium – particularly a French thriller.

Mulligan accepted the job of scoring La Menace, but found it difficult to complete his assignment in the 15 days allotted to him. During this period, Dave Grusin happened to be visiting the composer at his home in Connecticut and graciously agreed to help Gerry Mulligan organize the finished tracks into a filmic semblance, as well as play behind the saxophonist for support.

That support is significant as the music to La Menace is energized more by its piano and keyboard backings than Mulligan’s still quite appealing melodic lines – driven, for the most part on baritone sax, but also on other saxophones, clarinets, keyboards and synthesizers.

At this point Grusin was well-known for his scores to such films as The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter (1968), The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), The Yakuza (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975) and Murder by Death (1976) as well as his TV themes and/or scores for The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., It Takes A Thief, The Name of the Game, Baretta, Maude andGood Times.

In 1977 alone, Grusin waxed four film scores including Sydney Pollack’s Bobby Deerfield and Herbert Ross’s hit The Goodbye Girl as well as his first jazz album in his newly-formed “Grusin Rosen Productions,” the start of the famed GRP Records, One of a Kind.

Mulligan’s soundtrack to La Menace yielded 13 tunes, with Grusin on piano and keyboards and a group including Derek Smith on piano, Tom Fay on piano and Fender Rhodes, Pete Levin on Moog synthesizer, Ed Walsh on Oberheim synthesizer, Jack Six (who worked with Mulligan in Dave Brubeck’s brilliant late 1960s group) or Jay Leonhart (who would go on to work with Mulligan on other recordings) on bass and Bobby Rosengarden or Michael Di Pasqua on drums.

The French arm of CBS issued a soundtrack to La Menace in 1977 (pictured above). Since the film, known in English-speaking climes as The Threat, never had a proper US release, the music had also never had a proper American release until this 1999 CD release, stupidly titled Watching & Waiting.

The disc inexplicably takes its title from one of the seemingly randomly-chosen songs included on the 13-track set. It’s a great little tune, with Mulligan in his prime. But why they would call this anything but La Menace is anyone’s guess. Still, hardly anyone knows that the American DRG CD of Watching & Waiting totally equals the French CBS LP of La Menace.
It seems like a bootleg, looks like a bootleg (even though Mulligan recorded Walk on the Water for DRG in 1980, arranged by Tom Fay) and presents itself as any other Gerry Mulligan album, with no musician credits on the outside and a very small note on the back panel that the music is the original motion picture soundtrack of La Menace. As an aside, many write-ups on this disc, and the music, inexplicably indicate that music was made and/or released in 1982 – but it wasn’t…it was 1977.

While it’s often derided as a lesser Gerry Mulligan set (keyboards and real jazz apparently don’t go together for real jazz critics), it is easily celebrated as a wonderful addition to any Dave Grusin soundtrack discography. Keep in mind, too, that the prolific Dave Grusin, in addition to all of his own jazz and film work, has done plenty of session work on other artists’ records and many other composers’ film scores (Patrick Williams, Quincy Jones, etc.). Grusin also later recorded with Gerry Mulligan on the baritone saxophonist’s Little Big Horn (1984) and the sensationally beautiful Dragonfly (1995).

Were it not for Mulligan’s terrific compositions, one could easily consider La Menace / Watching & Waiting a Dave Grusin soundtrack, with special guest soloist Gerry Mulligan. Grusin’s sensitively aesthetic touch is much in evidence here. The brief opener, “Dance of the Truck,” trumpets its Grusin origins as does the soundtrack’s single strongest piece, “Introspect” (which doesn’t even introduce Mulligan until his solo two minutes in). Grusin’s influence is also evident on the lengthy “The Trap,” a keyboard-driven piece that will remind some of Grusin’s Condor conspiracies, and the attractive bossa, “The House They’ll Never Live In.”

Mulligan fares well throughout; perhaps less as an improviser and more as a mood setter. But the wonderful clarification he brings to his horn parts sings with the overall goal of the piece. Like any composer, he isn’t aiming to be the star soloist. He is suggesting the right setting for the film he is accompanying. But his beautifully signature-sounding baritone is bountiful on such pieces as “Introspect” (both versions), “Watching and Waiting,” and the lovely “Vines of Bordeaux” (heard here in two versions and one which probably deserved to transcend this score).

La Menace / Watching & Waiting makes for some wonderful listening, whether you are a Gerry Mulligan fan of the Night Lights or Dragonfly order or whether you are a Dave Grusin aficionado who revels in the moody jazz of his GRP releases or the bountiful scores he has on offer, many of which are now quite fortunately easy to acquire.

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