Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Andy Warhol - The Record Covers 1949-1987

About six years ago I first visited the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh’s North Side and was surprised by just how much I truly enjoyed it. I’m not quite sure why I really never had a desire to visit the museum, which opened in 1994, about seven years after Warhol died in 1987. Mostly, I was never previously a big fan of Warhol’s work – which will disappoint my artistically inclined niece, Errin, who is an ardent fan of Andy Warhol’s multi-varied and undeniable talents.

Some of it I liked, of course, but not enough to care much about it one way or the other. Not knowing much about Warhol either, I was surprised there was even enough to fill up a seven-story building devoted exclusively to one artist (I knew the location well…as it was formerly the spot where Volkwein Music was located, a great place for anybody who played musical instruments in Pittsburgh as I did growing up).

Despite all the fascinating and wonderful discoveries I made about Andy Warhol and the wide range of art and media that he was involved in at the museum, I distinctly recalled my disappointment at the lack of focus on Warhol’s album covers. Sure, they sold a few of the CDs in the gift shop (Paul Anka, Velvet Underground, Rolling Stones). But that seemed wrong to me. It’s like selling prints of paintings that aren’t even in the museum.

For someone whose life is centered around music as much as mine, I probably knew far more about Andy Warhol from his record covers (the banana, the zipper, etc.) than either his acknowledged masterworks (the Campbell’s soup can, Mao, Marilyn) or film work (even though, like most people, I knew the Paul Morrissey films credited to Andy Warhol rather than the actual films like Sleep, Empire or the brilliant Blow Job - until I studied avant-garde film later on).

One album cover in particular, Querelle, the soundtrack to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s final film, has always been a favorite of mine and something that I think – knowing a little more now than I did then – ranks among the very best in Warhol’s more erotically-charged work.

After discovering a Warhol-designed album for Paul Anka in 1996, Paul Maréchal, a professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal, began a quest to discover all of the record covers Warhol had created or had some part in. Sharing his obsession and his collection of fifty-some records with a curator of the Andy Warhol Museum, a major exhibition, Warhol Live: Music and Dance in Andy Warhol’s Work, was fashioned and two ridiculously over-priced books resulted, Warhol Live and this one, Andy Warhol - The Record Covers 1949-1987.

This book of record covers, appropriately sized like the old 12 x 12 album covers of yore, is a magnificently illustrated and annotated text that focuses on the 51 album covers Warhol is known to have participated in some way (a few covers like The Smiths’ first record and Debbie Harry’s Rockbird are marginally Warhol at best).

Covering a wide range of musical styles from classical to jazz and then rock to pop, the 241-page book catalogs all of Warhol’s album work, from 1949’s A Program Of Mexican Music (Columbia) to 1987’s MTV High Priority. The text makes it clear that the ever-prescient Warhol recognized that album covers provided exceptionally wide distribution and his art could be enjoyed, appreciated – and ultimately, purchased – by more people than would ever visit some small gallery in NYC to see a small week-long show. And, as the text makes clear, no other significant artist of the Twentieth Century who ever dabbled in album cover art (Albers, Max, Haring, Basquiat, Rauschenberg, etc.) did as much in the too-little celebrated commercial enterprise known as album cover art as Warhol did.

The book goes into some rather interesting detail about the origins of album cover art and how consumers could, would and did judge a record by its cover and, in doing so, achieved the goal the (mostly major) record companies set in the first place: a record sells not for the music but because of the cover. Appreciation of the music could and sometimes did come later. Graphic design helped launch the LP into the success it was for some three decades starting in the early fifties and often contributed more to sales than radio airplay or just plain old good music. By the time the compact disc was introduced in the early eighties, album cover artwork became almost meaningless as the medium’s size was so small as to present a playing card version of the original. Now with music downloads and streaming music, artwork isn’t even a consideration anymore – which is a sad loss to music, something which seems to take away a complete dimension of the excitement and satisfaction that comes with buying music – especially given so much of the marginal garbage that comes out these days. Face it, very few record labels even bother putting much thought into good graphic design for their music these days. Surely, no one in this day and age would pay a great artist like Andy Warhol to do a cover for their record. It wouldn’t be worth anybody’s time or money now.

Still, what a pleasure it is to revisit the old days and review the diverse covers Warhol provided to the twelve-inch record medium. The book’s highlights are many and surely include Warhol’s better-known album covers, such as Kenny Burrell’s Blue Lights (Blue Note, 1958), The Velvet Underground and Nico (Verve, 1967), The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers (Rolling Stones, 1971), Paul Anka’s The Painter (UA, 1976), The Rolling Stones’ Love You Live, Diana Ross’ Silk Electric (RCA, 1982), Billy Squier’s Emotions in Motion (Capitol, 1982), Aretha Franklin’s Aretha (Arista, 1986) and the excellent cover for the post-mortem John Lennon album Menlove Ave. (Capitol, 1986).

But Warhol’s lesser-known covers are particularly entrancing, taking on a life that few would even guess had they ever stumbled upon these rarities in some obscure used-record bin.

Maréchal has done a superb job finding some very obscure covers – many for classical labels in the fifties and a few small, independent labels in the sixties (when Warhol was concentrating more on film). These lovely surprises include Arturo Toscanini’s William Tell Overture (RCA Victor, 1954), Count Basie (RCA, 1955), 4 Divertimenti (Epic, 1956), Cool Gabriels (Groove, 1956), the perfect pop art of the ultra-rare Giant Size $1.57 Each (1963) and Miguel Bose’s Made In Spain (CBS, 1983) and Milano-Madrid (CBS, 1983).

Much of the commentary provided for each album cover is sufficiently illuminating and reveals a good deal about Warhol’s thought process and methodology. Maréchal expertly shows original photos and drawings that Warhol used to craft his images and shows how (and sometimes why) he specifically chose parts of an image to illustrate (for example, the orchestra pit of Degas’s “The Orchestra at the Opera” painting for 4 Divertimenti) or exaggerate or his commendable technique for avoiding the obvious (i.e., showing cornett players from an “eighteenth-century illumination from the Vespasian Psalter in which King David is surrounded by an orchestra” for an album led by three trombonists, Trombone By Three).

Maréchal commendably takes the concept of the album cover book one step further by additionally showing all of the album’s back covers and, where applicable, the inner sleeves of gatefold records. This gives the book a true sense of having the whole work of art, not just one part of it. Additionally, Maréchal unravels several myths surrounding several of the covers, including just whose nicely packaged mid-section is seen on Sticky Fingers (no one knows and it’s probably not Joe Dallesandro) and how Warhol felt Mick Jagger’s typography ruined the cover of Love You Live. It’s especially interesting to note that Warhol’s beautiful cover for the soundtrack album of Querelle - which was reproduced in several different colors at the film director’s request for the film’s posters – is more faithful to source writer Jean Genet’s novel than to Fassbinder’s movie (the film inexplicably replaces the man’s tongue with his hand).

There are only two criticisms that could be leveled at this very welcome coffee-table tome. One is the “interactive” nature of Warhol’s two most famous album covers is completely missing here. You could peel the banana on the original LP issue of The Velvet Underground and Nico and you could pull down an actual zipper (yes!) on the original issue of Sticky Fingers. Both of these ultra-rare originals now fetch big bucks and were never repeated on their many LP and CD issues over the years. But, fortunately, Maréchal shows and describes how the originals were intended to be presented by the artist.

Finally, the $75 list price of the book is excessive in the extreme. To be sure, Catalogue Raisonné has crafted a beautifully bound hardback book on some very nice stock. But they could have gotten their bang for the buck at $50 just as easily and not only would they have sold a heck of a lot more of these things – but more people might actually know about the book – which came out a full year before I ever found about it.

Otherwise, Andy Warhol - The Record Covers 1949-1987 is a knockout and highly recommended – a grand piece to brighten any graphic-design lover’s collection and a perfectly poetic look at a neglected facet of a rather overly-celebrated – yet great – artist.

(For the record, I am glad to say that I bought this book about one mile from where Andy Warhol is buried in Pittsburgh.)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Rediscovery: The Freddie Hubbard And Woody Shaw Sessions

On the eve of the first anniversary of trumpet great Freddie Hubbard’s death (December 29, 2008), it seems appropriate to pay tribute to this master who achieved much greatness during the latter half of the twentieth century. I miss his presence in the world and the sad fact that he can no longer contribute his very pleasurable music for our enjoyment.

Freddie Hubbard sometimes joked how he played with all of the jazz greats and, while of course he had, he had also jettisoned into significance on some of jazz history’s most notable recordings; namely, Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, Oliver Nelson’s The Blues And The Abstract Truth (“Stolen Moments”), Coltrane’s Africa/Brass, Olé Coltrane and, more remarkably, Ascension, Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch (and Outward Bound), Herbie Hancock’s Takin’ Off (with “Watermelon Man”), Empyrean Isles (with “Cantaloupe Island”) and Maiden Voyage and Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil. And all of this takes into consideration neither any of the session work the trumpeter was doing at the time nor the string of great Hubbard performances that could be heard on the albums of Art Blakey or Quincy Jones.

It’s a shame that Freddie Hubbard even had to remind us of his significance. In the sixties he recorded a slew of great post-bop records like Goin’ Up, Open Sesame and Ready For Freddie for the Blue Note label, as well as a few nice dates for Impulse! that let him stretch out a bit more.

By 1967, though, Hubbard switched over to the Atlantic label, experimenting more (or “selling out” to some) with infusing “soul” and “funk” into his playing. While the albums were critically rejected at the time, nearly all hold up especially well. Backlash, High Blues Pressure and The Black Angel are Hubbard’s best from his Atlantic period.

Then in 1970 Freddie Hubbard recorded some of his most memorable work at Creed Taylor’s CTI label, offering up the definitive Red Clay, the excellent Straight Life, the Grammy Award winning First Light, Sky Dive and the tremendous Keep Your Soul Together, not to mention headlining two live LPs recorded with Stanley Turrentine.

In 1974, Hubbard departed CTI for a multi-million dollar contract with the mighty Columbia Records, where he produced a great series of records through 1980 including High Energy, Liquid Love, Windjammer, Super Blue and The Love Connection. Unfortunately, these records were critically reviled and did not sell nearly as well as they should have (the majority of the Columbia albums were issued for the first time on CD in 2009 by Wounded Bird).

In the 80s, Freddie Hubbard operated as more of a free agent than before, recording prolifically – but not as consistently or as evenly as before. Still, he recorded a set of stirring live performances on Fantasy (A Little Night Music, Keystone Bop and Freddie Hubbard Classics - all recorded in November 1981) and a rousing 1983 straight-ahead date on Atlantic featuring Lew Tabackin, JoAnne Brackeen (!), Eddie Gomez and Roy Haynes (Sweet Return).

Then the revered Blue Note label re-formed in the mid-eighties, giving Freddie Hubbard yet another platform to prove – as if it was necessary (and, indeed, it was at the time) – that he hadn’t sold out.

Double Take - Freddie Hubbard/Woody Shaw (Blue Note, 1985): In what qualifies as one of the strangest pairings of all time – or some jazz-fan/marketing guy’s wet-dream – trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and doomed trumpeter Woody Shaw (who’s been gone for 20 years now!) were paired together for the first of two times in late 1985 on this remarkably wonderful sextet album. Woody Shaw was unquestionably one of the finest trumpeters of his generation. Always in the shadows of Miles Davis (c. 1950), Freddie Hubbard (c. 1965) and even, later, Wynton Marsalis, Shaw never deserved the second-rate status he got. He was a fiercely straight-ahead player who had waxed some definitive records of his own (namely Rosewood, Stepping Stones and Woody III - all on Columbia, home to Miles, Freddie – and even Wynton – at the time) and contributed some great music to the jazz lexicon, before and after his Columbia sojourn. Both trumpeters probably needed a high-profile gig like this at the time – and both seemed game enough to do something seemingly foolhardy like this. Strangely, it sounded pretty darned nice. Paired with a rhythm section of extraordinarily talented upstarts like reed player Kenny Garrett (who had recorded his solo debut album shortly before this with Shaw and the pianist here – and plays un-credited flute), pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Carl Allen, one can’t help feel the planets aligned for this great little straight-ahead fest. The program is mostly something a Blue Note celebration with Blue Note trumpet covers of tunes by Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro, Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham and Freddie Hubbard himself. Not a bad thing, but not a great thing. Tribute albums rarely become attributable themselves. The sound, caught by master recordist Rudy Van Gelder, is a little too clean, crystalline and crisp – Ajaxed jazz – a sound probably too much in vogue in this weird decade (as far as jazz is concerned). But what is captured here is definitely worth hearing, no matter how it was captured. The playing sounds a bit tentative at first. Still, the groove gives it gusto. This is a classic. Everybody is in good form here. And it’s a pleasure to listen to, repeatedly. Surprisingly, it’s not a cutting contest, but something where each of the leaders shares the front line in order to give it all to some surprisingly fine melodies. Hubbard’s “Hub Tones,” arranged particularly well by the album’s “arranger” Don Sickler, is the album’s sole highlight and makes it all worth every second. It makes for GREAT eighties jazz. And things get even better after this. Lee Morgan’s “Desert Moonlight,” “Just A Ballad For Woody” and Kenny Dorham’s “Lotus Blossom” remind you how wonderful straight-ahead jazz could be – even in the dark days of the eighties. Very, very few jazz guys can make jazz come this alive anymore. This is one to savor.

The Eternal Triangle - Freddie Hubbard/Woody Shaw (Blue Note, 1987): The second of two pairings of trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw didn’t seem very moving at the time, but it is probably the better of the two albums the duo made. Perhaps the familiarity of the tunes on the first set made that one more immediately appealing. Here, Hubbard provides his little-known Blue Note era tunes “Down Under” (from Art Blakey’s Mosaic) and “Nostrand And Fulton” (from Hubbard’s Here To Stay). Shaw provides his classic “The Moontrane” and “Tomorrow’s Destiny” to the program. Each serves the case of good jazz, but there is (a little) less of an effort to mine the depths of the Blue Note archives as obviously as before. Yes, the covers are by Sonny Stitt (the title track, originally from a 1957 Verve session), Lee Morgan (“Calling Miss Khadija”), Kenny Dorham (“Sao Paulo”) and Bud Powell (“Reets And I”). While there’s never a dull moment, the trumpeter’s take on the moody “Sao Paulo” is, perhaps, the album’s highlight, followed closely by “Down Under,” “Calling Miss Khadjia” and “Reets And I.” The Double Take grouping is reformed for this 1987 recording except bassist Cecil McBee is replaced here by Ray Drummond. Given that this was a studio assemblage and not a working group, it’s amazing the sense of cohesion and interplay the group achieves here. If the group’s initial outing was marked by some awkward or clumsy passages, this time they’re all on the same page – even the trumpeter’s have developed a nice chemistry here. The aura of timelessness is present here in this neo-bop setting that could have easily emanated from 1962 as it did from 1987. Part of the group’s success is getting caught marvelously in Rudy Van Gelder’s superb sound structure, less like the pin-drop perfection of Double Take and more like the sterling signature work he’s since done for so many labels like Criss Cross, Venus, HighNote and others.

The Freddie Hubbard And Woody Shaw Sessions (Blue Note, 1995): The two Freddie Hubbard-Woody Shaw albums had been long out of print – and, sadly, trumpeter Woody Shaw had also died in the interim – when Blue Note paired both albums together on a 1995 CD titled The Freddy Hubbard And Woody Shaw Sessions. By this time, even Freddie Hubbard’s pace had slowed down considerably due to the trumpeter suffering from a busted lip that made it excruciatingly difficult to play. So this double-disc CD set was a pleasant look back at two trumpet heroes at the very top of their game and a potent reminder of their shared significance to the jazz language and the musical lexicon. Like so many CDs that Blue Note issues, this one too quickly went out of print and now the few copies that can be found fetch big bucks. It’s a real shame because these two albums were made to be heard together – and they sound better with each passing year.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ithamara Koorax Interviewed at JazzWax

The beautiful and brilliantly talented Brazilian chanteuse Ithamara Koorax discusses her tremendously enchanting new album, Bim Bom: The Complete João Gilberto Songbook with JazzWax’s always insightful Marc Myers. Ms. Koorax discusses Gilberto, his slim songbook, her accompanist on the album, guitarist Juarez Moeira, working with Brazilian legends Jobim, Bonfa, Donato and jazz legends John McLaughlin, Ron Carter and others. Ithamara’s glowing personality, which springs forth from her music, is ever present in this illuminating chat with JazzWax. Part 1 of the interview is here. Part 2 is here.

Christmas With Henry Mancini

Seems this time of year is tailor-made for the beautiful music of Henry Mancini. But, surprisingly, there isn’t that much Mancini holiday music available. What is available, though, is mostly worthwhile, though – like Christmas is for some of us – leaves a feeling of not quite getting near what you hoped for (yes, I know, Christmas is all about giving).

Now, some 15 Christmases after his death, we must learn to make due with what the Maestro has left us. It really boils down to two albums and some change. The RCA album has been reissued year after year since its 1966 release in every topical format since then and many of its songs were compiled on countless (mostly LP) compilations. The EMI soundtrack is a bit more obscure and, to my knowledge, may have appeared on CD only once and very briefly.

A Merry Mancini Christmas (RCA, 1966): While one could hope that Henry Mancini’s one and only holiday album would have been more in the jazz-lite vein of “The Pink Panther,” A Merry Mancini Christmas takes the form of choral medleys, pairing up similar carols. Mancini’s terrific orchestrations make this very traditional holiday fare worth hearing and certainly this rather too-precious music has echoed throughout many family holidays, bringing cheer to many throughout the years. The chorus takes charge of almost all of the melodies here and Mancini spices the Christmas cheer with dashes of oboe, flute, French Horn, Laurindo Almeida’s guitar (“It Came Upon A Midnight Clear/Away In A Manger/The First Noel”) and, most appealingly, Pearl Kaufman’s tastefully appropriate harpsichord. The jazziest things get here is on the Flintstones-like swing of “Jingle Bells/Sleigh Ride” and the only track that – refreshingly – doesn’t feature vocals, “Carol for Another Christmas,” while a typically wonderful Mancini concoction, doesn’t sound particularly Christmas-y. Still, many a fan have kept this record in print for nearly four decades in a variety of guises, notably one featuring a cover showing Mancini at the piano surrounded by his family and another featuring a cover showing a snowflake made out of colorful Christmas bulbs.

The album was issued in full in 2000 as Greatest Christmas Songs (pictured at the top) with holiday-related songs Mancini recorded elsewhere: “Snowfall” (from 1959’s The Mancini Touch), “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (from 1965’s The Academy Award Songs) and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve/Auld Lang Syne” (from an obscure 1975 RCA album called Henry Mancini Selects Great Songs Of Christmas By Great Artists of Our Time, pictured above, marketed through the Goodyear tire company).

Santa Claus – The Movie (EMI America, 1985): This little-known Dudley Moore film, directed by famed TV director Jeannot Swarc, benefits by an inevitably charming seasonal score by composer Henry Mancini. If anyone could score the holidays effectively, it is Henry Mancini (and, to be fair, John Williams, who has provided his share of holiday charm in his Home Alone and Harry Potter films), which makes it something of a surprise that there aren’t more examples of merry Mancini records. What’s even more surprising is that Henry Mancini’s name doesn’t even appear on the cover of the album! There are a number of amiable choral pieces here featuring the lyrics of Mancini’s Victor-Victoria and Tom And Jerry – The Movie collaborator, Leslie Bricusse, and voiced marvelously by The Ambrosian Children’s Choir. These pieces, which have a remarkable air of timelessness, sound like they have been around forever and offer a fair bit more orchestration in and around the vocals than one would expect. But it makes for more Mancini to enjoy and appreciate. Among the highlights here are the delightful and seemingly familiar “Sleigh Ride Over Manhattan,” the immaculately scored holiday medley “Christmas Rhapsody,” “March of the Elves,” “Thank You, Santa” and “Every Christmas Eve & Santa’s Theme,” sung here by Aled Jones (Mancini also recorded the song with Johnny Mathis for the singer’s 1986 Christmas Eve album). The only downsides to this soundtrack album – which appears to be scheduled for CD release from the Singular Sountrack label for January 2010 – are Sheena Easton’s histrionic “It’s Christmas All Over The World,” and the ridiculously out-of-place “Shouldn’t Do That” by Kaja, both having absolutely nothing to do with Mancini or the rest of the score. Santa Claus – The Movie may not hold up well as pleasant background music, but serves as a potent reminder of how spectacular a composer and orchestrator Henry Mancini was.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christmas Listening

Ho ho ho! Music is one of the few joys this particular season actually has to offer. Unfortunately, though, shopping malls and restaurants blast so much of this phony crap at you for so long that the music doesn’t even feel like anything sincere or even remotely worth listening to.

I can think of many-a superstar-of-the-moment over the years who have forced (or were forced to unload) some aural Xmas-snot on the public. Much of it is without any redeeming quality whatsoever outside of the possibly garish cover shot they were forced to do.

While most albums that are issued at this time of year are commercial pieces of crap designed to earn somebody money (does Bob Dylan really need the money???) and some of these people actually even mean it – I think a few of these albums really do have some merit.

A few of those not mentioned here – the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s The Joy Of Christmas (Columbia, 1963, conducted by Leonard Bernstein – or 1970’s Joy To The World), Johnny Mathis’s perennial Merry Christmas (Columbia, 1958 – arranged by Percy Faith) or George Winston's brilliantly-conceived December (Windham Hill, 1982) – are worth more than nearly every piece of crap that passes itself as holiday joy.

But these few albums listed here make my holidays worthwhile and always make my holiday playing list. I'm pleased to share them here.

Three Suites - Duke Ellington (Columbia, 1960): There are precious few jazz recordings in jazz that can make the listener proud to listen to jazz. There are also few jazz recordings that can make the listener, whatever their tastes, forget they are listening to jazz. Duke Ellington’s 1960 recording of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite is one of them. Originally released on LP in 1960, this incredibly arranged and performed suite was paired with Ellington’s take on Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites and Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Suite Thursday” for the 1990 CD Three Suites. I can’t say that the other suites, good as they are, matter much to me but The Nutcracker Suite is a cracking piece of jazz history – which plays especially well during the holidays. It would be worth having this particular suite alone – as it was on the 1960 LP – as the suite features gorgeous, timeless solos by Ellington heroes including Paul Gonsalves, Ray Nance, Johnny Hodges and others, all performing the immaculately imaginative arrangements of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. This is one of those pieces that transcends the holidays – but it’s a joy to hear Ellington and crew perform during Christmas, particularly at mealtime, when the hearty feast can be enjoyed aurally as well. A classic, whatever time of time of year it is.

Sound of Christmas - The Ramsey Lewis Trio (Argo, 1961): A beautiful piece of Christmas-y piano-trio jazz, this 1961 album delivers much more than it promises with Ramsey Lewis’s very sincere and bluesy deliverances. My favorite piece here is the gorgeously scored original “The Sound Of Christmas” (done by arranger Riley Hampton and co-composer Ramset Lewis) – totally worth the price of admission. All in all, it swings, Ramsey plays beautifully throughout and it has a very nice holiday vibe. Very highly recommended.

Christmas ‘64 - Jimmy Smith (Verve, 1964): The popular jazz organist Jimmy Smith was forced, of course, to record his own Christmas album in 1964 and the result was this pretty darned great album, also known as Christmas Cookin', arranged by Billy Byers and featuring any number of great New York session men. It’s a fun listen throughout but the swinging “We Three Kings (Of Orient Are)” is my favorite bit here. I could listen to “the boss” in this mode throughout the holidays. The rest – including the nice arrangement on “The Christmas Song” – is all gravy…

A Charlie Brown Christmas - Vince Guaraldi Trio (Fantasy, 1965): This classic survives as a perennial - at least among everybody in my generation - that lasts throughout the year. Despite the fact they practically force-feed it to you with every latte in Starbucks, it really is a wonderful holiday perennial. It doesn’t matter what time of the year it actually is, this album has the power to escape it. Vince Guaraldi’s music for this great TV special of a few generations past is timeless and pure enough to survive any seasonal straightjacket that could be placed on it. “Skating” and “Linus and Lucy” are enough. But all of the beautiful holiday music, including the program’s original “Christmas Time Is Here,” is worth hearing – during the holidays and beyond. Vince Guaraldi should be heard in any context, particularly during the holidays. But “Skating” and “Linus and Lucy” always make the holidays worthwhile.

Have Yourself A Soulful Little Christmas - Kenny Burrell (Cadet, 1966): Kenny Burrell has always had one of the most wonderful sounds on guitar in jazz and his lone Christmas album is truly a joy. Working under the auspices of the great arranger Richard Evans (who has arranged a fair share of notable holiday themes), Burrell comes up with a winner here. It’s a pleasure to hear Burrell’s mellifluous tones strumming out some of the holiday’s cheers. This is a great collection of tunes that sound good put together as they are. Highlights are plentiful and include a dynamic reading of “My Favorite Things,” the acoustic “Away in a Manger,” the Latin-esque “Mary’s Little Boy Chile,” “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and the exquisitely blues-laden “Merry Christmas, Baby.”

Have A Jazzy Christmas - The Roy Budd Trio (Mastermix, 1989): Many jazz musicians, particularly pianists, yearn to put out a Christmas album. Before his untimely death pianist and composer Roy Budd put out this gorgeous piece of Christmas ephemera. Here, he’s like his hero, Oscar Peterson – who put out his own Christmas CD some years later – but crafts something beautiful. Unique and something that deserved to stand on its own. Some of it is a little too spunky for the occasion. But you have to give the guy credit for feeling it more than most people would. He’s one of those performers who, like a kid, believes in the spirit of the season more than most of those who do it as part of the job.

Christmas With The George Shearing Quintet - The George Shearing Quintet (Telarc, 1998): Nearly half a century after pianist George Shearing broke up his famed quintet, he reconvenes the groove (if not the group) for this remarkably lovely holiday feast. Extraordinarily well accompanied by guitarist Reg Schwager, vibraphonist Don Thompson (who is better known as a bassist and played with Shearing as a bassist in the 80s), bassist Neil Swainson and drummer Dennis Mackrel, Shearing creates some heartwarming music here. He had never done a Christmas album before and comes up aces with this one. It’s not nearly as “soft” as anyone might assume nor is it any less than pretty for the season. It’s hard to fault any of this disc but “Ding Dong! Merrily On High,” “The Christmas Waltz,” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” (with its brilliant “Birdland” quotes), “Let Is Snow!, Let It Snow, Let It Snow!,” the Nat King Cole-esque take on “The Christmas Song,” the brilliant “Take Five” take of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “Away In A Manger.” Nothing here is sentimental or cheesy. It’s the holidays from the heart – and it’s absolutely refreshing to hear a holiday album that doesn’t seem to have been made for commercial considerations. This is really the way to have a swingin’ Christmastime.

Guitar Christmas - Jimmy Ponder (HighNote, 1998): Fellow Pittsburgher Jimmy Ponder is unquestionably one of jazz’s most underrated guitarists. He has made substantial contributions to many a great jazz album, but he has released any number of only moderately interesting albums under his own name. Here, he has assembled a great quartet featuring the late, great John Hicks on piano, Don Braden on tenor sax, Dwayne Dolphin on bass and (producer) Cecil Brooks III on drums. It’s a tremendously simpatico quartet and all seem to be on board for this jazzy exploration of Christmas themes – despite its June recording date! There is definitely something warm and sunny about this recording. But it is heartfelt and seasonally-felt nonetheless. The jazz is in the forefront throughout but the highlights are undoubtedly “Silent Night,” the Coltrane-esque “We Three Kings” and the ultra-bluesy “Merry Christmas Baby” (two of the three pieces do not include Braden). While I love this CD, I realize that I have to track down fellow Pittsburgher Joe Negri’s Christmas CD. Joe Negri is where it all begins for me.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Why Is Everybody Picking On Tiger Woods?

First, I do not follow any sort of sports-related news. I don’t even like any sort of sport – especially golf. Second, I am not much for celebrity gossip. So why is it that I have to read all sorts of judgmental crap taking golfer Tiger Woods to task for something(s) he may or may not have done outside of golf?

How ridiculous is this? Who really cares? Do people really care about whatever indiscretion this so-called “good guy” may have committed? Did he kill someone? Did he hurt you?

Did he offend you personally? Quite frankly the only thing Tiger Woods did to offend me was to promote Buicks. Anyone would know this guy would never believably want to be in a Buick. And didn’t he get caught in this melee in some sort of Cadillac SUV? Ok – argue all you want that GM makes both…but no celebrity drives a Buick, especially not Tiger Woods.

Did you raise your son or daughter to be like this guy only to find out he is human and has human needs, feelings and a right to privacy that every one of us seem to expect when the crap is hitting their particular fan?

I guess people who think like this – journalists, fans, hangers-on, people raising their own kids to be the next Tiger – think or used to think that Tiger Woods has the sun shining out his ass. Sure, his shit don’t smell. Come on, people. Get real.

Who are you to judge anything about anybody who has achieved anything? And, who are you to care so much about what a celebrity does in his spare time? Who did this guy kill? Your stupid over-inflated perception of him! Is that his fault? Jeeze. That balloon was bound to burst.

The media and its tabloid-hungry audience (whoever is to blame here would never take credit for it anyway) really need to get a grip here. This is ridiculous. Poor Tiger is way beyond a request for privacy. He needs an apology from the collective crap that has put him through this media ordeal since his “life threatening” accident (which wasn’t) to this career-threatening accident (which, unfortunately, is).

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Eat 'n Park Christmas Star Commercial

This lovely little commercial has been a favorite in Pittsburgh for some twenty-five years now. Amazing to think it's been around that long. But, as you can see, it's a timeless piece that is as cute and fun as it is sweet and touching.

Despite the commercial concerns evident here, Eat 'n Park has long been one of my favored haunts and their Super Burger is still one of my favorite breakfast, lunch or dinners. I recommend Eat 'n Park to every one for any occasion and it is some place I am sure to visit every time I go back to Pittsburgh. Enjoy this terrific little commercial!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Odds Against Tomorrow

This one delivers a sucker punch. It’s brilliant in a way that’s both tough and tender and touching and remorseless.

Based on a novel by famed TV writer William P. McGivern (1918-82, Adam 12, Kojak) and directed by the great Robert Wise (1914-2005, who had previously directed I Want To Live and subsequently directed the unforgettable West Side Story, The Haunting and The Sound Of Music), Odds Against Tomorrow is the story of Dave Burke (Ed Begley), an ex-NYC cop in the later-than-he-thinks autumn of his years, assembling a team of racist ne’er-do-well, Earle Slater (Robert Ryan), and a down-on-his-luck singer/gambler, Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte), to pull off an “easy” heist in an out-of-the-way backwater town that will solve all their financial woes.

Slater’s got a woman (Shelley Winters in a surprisingly small role that foreshadows her defining performance as Charlotte Haze) who earns the bread in his ramshackle life which, of course, repulses him. Johnny’s gambling debts are so out of control that his ex-wife (the great and beautiful Kim Hamilton) and young daughter (Lois Thorne, in a very believable performance – and one of the only known ones she ever gave) are being threatened. Dave Burke has been wronged for some unnamed reason that he feels he must somehow get justice for. So, while even Johnny knows a plan like this is doomed to fail, he and his disparate partners are desperate enough to comply.

Aside from the absolutely tremendous performances delivered by all, this last-of-the film noirs is remarkable in many ways. First, black people have human roles here – just like the white people. This was not too common in 1959, when this film was made. Ryan, who was an avowed civil-rights champion in real life, may play a racist here. But his character, Slater, realizes that he needs Belafonte’s Johnny much more than he cares to admit to achieve his own personal ends. Slater’s racist reactions and comments are all presented as “Civil War era” feelings his grand pappy might have possessed, but which have no place or validity now.

Secondly, there are all sorts of “alternative” characters presented in this fiction that are neither black nor white and neither all good nor all bad. It might be easy to place labels on some of these folks. But the film never brandishes them one way or the other. For example, Johnny’s ex-wife disapproves of his life and lifestyle (gambling, gangs, late-night gigs, etc.) as much as he disapproves of her way of trying to fit into the white man’s world (PTA, etc.) – but neither pushes their cause onto their daughter, whom they both obviously love and care for very much. And then there’s also the very gay Coco (Richard Bright, a great character actor famed for his appearance in the Godfather films, 1937-2006), who no one blinks at…including Johnny, who seems to be the apple of Coco’s eye. Even the gangster bosses have their sentimental sides.

And then, most notoriously, the blacklisted Abraham Polonsky (1910-99, Force of Evil), writing as John O. Killens, wrote the remarkable screenplay. There were many drafts and many changes made along the way. But however it was done, the ending that was concocted for the film – which surely prefigures Michael Mann’s 1995 film Heat - is brilliant, especially if it was trying to send some sort of message.

Additionally, Robert Wise gives this film a stunningly beautiful look that could have only come from a sensitive, intuitive and incredibly perceptive director (great opening titles too!).

Most of the film was shot in broad daylight. Most of the film was shot on location (the many New York City locales are simply spectacular as presented throughout the film – same goes for the Melton town shots). Some of the film was shot, amazingly, in infra-red, which gives the proceedings not only a haunting, nightmarish quality (and the individuals a ghoulish ghost-like presence) but also a sad realistic beauty – probably like the way people see the world right before they die. Most of the film benefits from some simply tremendous actors doing an utterly perfect job of being human failures (like most of us). Most of the film is tremendously engrossing and sad and, somehow, becomes sadly engrossing. It’s an amazing tapestry of emotion and one that’s hard to walk away from without some modicum of feeling.

Finally, if that’s possible, Robert Wise’s film received a most remarkable score from jazz pianist and composer John Lewis (1920-2001), the formative head of the great Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ). Lewis, who was part of some of jazz’s most remarkable formations – including those of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and as pianist/arranger of the historic The Birth Of The Cool sessions – had previously scored Roger Vadim’s No Sun In Venice (aka Sait-on Jamais, 1957) and would later score A Milanese Story (aka Una Storia Milanese, 1962) – two too little-seen and too little-known films, not unlike this one. Lewis’s “Django” (1954) had also become a jazz standard by this point too. But this score is something special and exceedingly impressive even if it resulted in a most unremarkable jazz standard, “Skating in Central Park.”

It's been said that this is the best of the heist-gone-wrong films and the great Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-73), master of the heist-gone-wrong genre, has expressed - and shown - admiration for this film in his films Le deuxième souffle (1966) and Le cercle rouge (1970).

There were two LPs released on the United Artists label in 1959 to commemorate Odds Against Tomorrow – the original soundtrack (United Artists UAL 4061) and a Modern Jazz Quartet “music from” the soundtrack (United Artists UAL 4063). Both have since been issued on CD – but, unfortunately for me, are now out of print and highly collectable. Both are worthwhile and essential as some of the best jazz music that has been put to filmic images.

Odds Against Tomorrow – An Original Sound Track Recording Composed and Conducted by John Lewis (United Artists, 1959): This 19-track album, recorded in July 1959, features all the cues composer John Lewis wrote for this nearly Nouvelle Vague-esque 1959 film noir, Odds Against Tomorrow. The jazz-oriented score features four trumpets, four French horns (including Gunther Schuller, who did the notes to the MJQ LP), two trombones, a tuba, a harp, a flute, two celli, a tympanist, a percussionist, the guitar of Jim Hall, the piano of Bill Evans (!!!), and the members of the MJQ sans John Lewis. It’s a perfect assembly, gorgeously scored by Lewis. It’s menacing and sensitive all at once; a perfect combination of moods for the film and a perfectly enjoyable sense of jazz to appreciate outside of the film. Missing here are the two pieces Harry Belafonte performs in the film – both which indicate that Belafonte is doing his own work on the vibes (of course, the tremendous vocals are his own). The best known piece, “Skating in Central Park,” is blasted over a hi-fi while people are actually skating in Central Park. But it is presented here are as weird piece of third-stream music (Lewis later adapted this into an MJQ piece which caught favor in the quartet's performances – one of which I am pleased to say I caught in the mid eighties). The highlights on this album are bountiful, but include “Skating in Central Park” (which Odds pianist Bill Evans and guitarist Jim Hall featured on their 1962 album Undercurrent), “No Happiness For Slater,” an excellent feature for guitarist Jim Hall and pianist Bill Evans, “Main Theme: Odds Against Tomorrow,” featuring the great MJQ vibist Milt Jackson (who also has a typically beautiful solo feature in “Games”), the Bill Evans trio feature “Social Call” and “Distractions” (featuring Jim Hall). It’s a terrific score – and for those who like or love Gary McFarland, it’s easy to hear where the young vibist picked up many of his musical ideas (John Lewis was one of McFarland’s early sponsors and there is no doubt that the young vibist knew this score and applied what he’d learned to his later scores for Eye of the Devil and Who Killed Mary What’s ‘er Name).

Music From Odds Against Tomorrow – Played By The Modern Jazz Quartet (United Artists, 1959): This is the jazz variation of pianist John Lewis’s soundtrack to the film Odds Against Tomorrow, recorded in October 1959 (and also issued as the MJQ’s album Patterns). This is probably of more interest to jazz fans than the original and probably superior soundtrack album. Both are exceptional performances. It is here where one can hear the first incarnation of the famed MJQ standard “Skating in Central Park” – which the group performed throughout its career and caught on record many a time after this. Five additional titles from the score can also be heard here – “No Happiness For Slater,” “A Social Call,” “Cue-9” (a source cue from the original soundtrack that’s not on the soundtrack album, when Wayne Rogers, in his film debut, first appears, about 40 minutes into the film), “A Cold Wind Is Blowing” and “Odds Against Tomorrow.” Vibraphonist Milt Jackson makes this album much more swinging and exciting than the soundtrack, which is much more like an MJQ album than the John Lewis soundtrack. Even Lewis the pianist is much more involved here (Bill Evans played the sporadic piano on the soundtrack), which gives the “jazz version” of the soundtrack – something very much in vogue during the period – a certain notability. On its own, it is nice. But it is not nearly as substantial as it could have been, which is probably why no one holds this MJQ album in the high regard it probably deserves. The cover, too, depicting Henry Belafonte’s Johnny reflecting on his crime shortly before he commits it (and the great typography), is worth it too, if the music, unfortunately, isn’t.

Wish I could have both of these albums on CD. They’re both that good. And they’re both worth having. The LPs of each are now probably just as hard to find as the CDs. But it would be great if EMI, Blue Note, or whoever owns this material now would consent to issue both of these above-average albums on one complete CD. It would make for some very compelling listening.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Dave Grusin Soundtracks

Since becoming transfixed by “Mountain Dance” in the early eighties, I have long considered myself a huge and unapologetic Dave Grusin fan. At the time, Grusin (b. 1934) was much better known as a film composer and very few jazz albums under his name were available.

But those that were are all superb and include Discovered Again (Sheffield Labs, 1976), One Of A Kind (Polydor, 1977), Mountain Dance (GRP, 1980), Live In Japan (GRP, 1981) and Out Of The Shadows (GRP, 1982). This was a great period for Grusin and sort of the end of the road for his melodic brand of catchy jazz fusion. After this, it got pretty smooth and a lot less personal.

Back in the day, the occasional Grusin soundtrack also captured my attention and favor, most prominently On Golden Pond (MCA, 1981) and Tootsie (Warner Bros. 1983). The rest of the Grusin soundtrack albums probably didn’t have enough of that Grusin fusion sound for my tastes. But later in life, after becoming more enamored of film and film composers, I learned to appreciate these soundtracks for different reasons.

I’ve recently had occasion to revisit Dave Grusin’s recordings and, especially concentrate on his soundtrack discs, which I rarely give the attention they deserve. Sadly, though, there are very few recent Grusin soundtracks even available (the 2008 HBO film Recount deserved a soundtrack release). But, more significantly, Grusin’s film career has slowed down as considerably as his jazz career has.

Certainly I have not covered everything there is to cover. But I’ve tried to cover as much as possible.

The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. (Varese Sarabande, 1966): The original MGM album of this “soundtrack” to the short-lived spin-off of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. only credited the music’s arranger and conductor, Teddy Randazzo. This swinging set of lounge-y spy jazz surprisingly showed up on CD in late 2008 with Randazzo’s name replaced by Dave Grusin, who composed seven of the 12 catchy themes re-scored here by Randazzo, and Jerry Goldsmith, who composed the better-known “Man” theme. Either way, this is a pretty groovy collection – back when young guys with jazz backgrounds were bringing their touch and talent for fun and catchy jazz to TV and the movies. Grusin’s originals can be heard on FSM’s excellent The Man From U.N.C.L.E Volume 3. Randazzo’s “Somewhere in Greece” derives from Grusin’s “The Dog-Gone Affair” score; “Mother Muffin,” “Out of the Frying Pan” and the exciting “Shall We Gather At The Boat Dock” are derived from Grusin’s “The Mother Muffin Affair” score; and “April” derives from the “The Mata Hari Affair” score. “Bomb Scare” and “Sneaky Search” are derived from Richard Shores’s “The Prisoner of Zalamar Affair” score. Randazzo rejected two songs from the series provided by studio guitarist Jack Marshall in favor of two of his own songs, which probably had nothing to do with the series. Regardless, it is a fine set of fun music that sounds as good today as it did nearly half a century ago.

The Graduate (Columbia, 1967): This Grammy Award winning soundtrack has long been in print due to Paul Simon’s justly famed songs, “The Sounds of Silence,” “Mrs. Robinson” and “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” – all performed by Simon & Garfunkel. But the album (and the film) also features music by Dave Grusin. It was the second feature film he scored. Grusin’s songs here include “The Singleman Party Foxtrot,” “Sunporch Cha-Cha-Cha,” “On The Strip,” “The Folks,” “A Great Effect,” and “Whew.” All of Grusin’s material is, sadly, not worth the effort. It’s joke jazz, Muzak at best. Grusin got stuck scoring the square old fogies while Simon’s music accompanies the younger set’s adventures – or shock at the over-30’s world (it’s hard to accept Hoffman as a college graduate in this picture). Even so, Grusin’s music is scored wonderfully well in an archaic way that suggests something passé, something past tense, and even though he was born only three years before the film’s star, Dustin Hoffman, he suggests something that is totally at odds with the world of young college graduate Ben (as portrayed by Hoffman). Still, it’s not a soundtrack for the average Dave Grusin fan, with the minor exception of the groovy piece of cheese that is “Sunporch Cha-Cha-Cha.” Only Simon & Garfunkel fans need apply here – and they’re certainly not going to be happy with the crappy music Grusin was forced to submit to the soundtrack.

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter (FSM, 1968): Dave Grusin’s pretty theme is much better known than the sentimental Alan Arkin film, based on a Carson McCullers book, it originally accompanied. Grusin has recorded the song often throughout his career and continues performing it in concert to this day. A soundtrack album was released on the Warner Bros. label in 1968 and reissued on CD earlier this year by the good folks at Film Score Monthly. It’s a perfect reminder of how beautiful a composer Dave Grusin is – and can be. Unfortunately, Dave Grusin was tapped for a myriad of sentimental films hereafter, something he showed a particular predilection for in later years. While these later scores are almost all by-the-numbers, they lack the strong sense of composition Grusin brings to “Heart.” Here he comes up with a simply superb theme and a number of remarkable variations. Film Score Monthly did a tremendous job issuing a CD of the original LP with the entire score program and four bonus source cues totaling 73 minutes of music. There’s a bit of fluff here (Mac Davis songs, etc), but overall Grusin performs some wonderful magic here. It’s gorgeous, if for the main theme alone.

The Yakuza (FSM, 1975): This is the first of director Sydney Pollack’s collaborations with composer Dave Grusin and it is, by all counts, a beautiful piece of work. The East-meets-West story, courtesy of famed writers Paul Schrader and Robert Towne, is a tour-de-force for actor Robert Mitchum (not mention the Asian actors involved, especially the magnificent Takakura Ken). And it also shows just how tremendously effective a director Pollack was. Grusin crafted a marvelously understated theme for the film that is reprised throughout the soundtrack in many variations. Grusin, in a mostly orchestral score, employs very subtle Japanese musical effects that never become obvious or overbeating clichés. Surprisingly, given the strength of Grusin’s music throughout, a soundtrack album was never released (something probably befitting Warner Bros. doubt about the film’s stateside potential as an Asian-oriented The Godfather). But the good folks at Film Score Monthly (FSM) found it in their hearts to give this wondrous score its first-ever release on CD in 2006. Most everything is here, including the cool fusion funk of “Shine On” (which is heard as a source cue, underneath another jazz cue Grusin contributed to the score, probably “Bluesy Combo”). The real joy, though, is Grusin’s score, which number 18 tracks totaling about 45 minutes. The film’s main theme is one of Grusin’s most magical and, surprisingly, little known themes.

Three Days Of The Condor (Capitol, 1976): “Condor,” or “Three Days of the Condor” as it has become known, is one of the all-time great movie themes and it ranks among Dave Grusin’s very best. Sydney Pollack’s film is also one of the great conspiracy thrillers of the seventies. This is the second of the nine films Grusin worked on with Pollack and, for my money, the most memorable for both. The music is minimal (and it seems like there is even less of it in the film than on the soundtrack album) and perfect – except for the Christmas source cues (“Silver Bells,” heard here) and the one completely unnecessary pop song (“I’ve Got You Where I Want You”), also provided by co-writer Dave Grusin. The soundtrack, which may be hard to obtain, is worth it for the main theme alone, which Dave Grusin also recorded again on Dave Grusin and the NY/LA Dream Band (GRP, 1982) and Cinemagic (GRP, 1987). Lee Ritenour, who is probably the guitarist on this recording, has also covered the “Condor” theme as a jazz ballad on his 1976 debut First Course (with Grusin) and again on his 2002 disc Rit’s House.

Bobby Deerfield (Casablanca, 1977): A strange and ultimately unsatisfying – yet not dissatisfying – soundtrack album for Sydney Pollack’s 1977 film about a race-car driver, played by Al Pacino, Bobby Deerfield could have and probably should have been a whole lot more. The first side of the soundtrack album gets the obligatory songs out of the way with the very disco-y “Formula 1,” performed by some non-entity called The New York Jailhouse Ensemble (well, the album was issued on Casablanca, the disco label of the day, after all, but there is some good clavinet work to be heard here), the ballad “Bobby Deerfield,” performed by one Victoria Michaels and something really silly called “Ballon Rouge,” performed by Monique Aldebert and something which probably has nothing to do with Dave Grusin at all. This was Grusin’s third assignment for director Pollack and his better work, as one might expect, was heard on the jazzier cues, all found on the second side of the record. “Main Title (Theme)” is an instrumental version of the otherwise forgettable vocal “Bobby Deerfield” on the other side of the record, vocalized here by Chuck Findley’s beautiful flugelhorn. “Samba di Montagne” is a nice orchestral piece that is a classy bit of TV cheese, elevated by Frank Marocco’s gorgeously placed accordion and Grusin’s ever-lovely string work. The rapturous “Bellagio Vista” features the acoustic guitars of Lee Ritenour (who also figures on “Ritorno and Duet”) and Oscar Castro Neves and the album’s highlight, the familiar sounding “Quiet Evenings” (also performed elsewhere by Toots Thielemans) is an essential and most beautiful piece of quiet fusion performed by the composer on the electric piano, Chuck Berghofer on bass and Larry Bunker on drums (with strings). There should have been more Grusin moments like these on the album. Still, it’s worth it for “Quiet Evenings” alone.

The Electric Horseman (Columbia, 1979): One side of this long-forgotten record is dominated by Willie Nelson – but with strong stuff like “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” if you like that sort of thing – and the second side is given over to some of Grusin’s music for this 1979 Sydney Pollack feature starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. A bit too much of Grusin’s music falls into the then-fashionable instrumental disco genre (“Electro-Phantasma,” “Disco Magic” – the latter which was co-written with Patti Austin, who is probably one of the vocalists on the track). But “Rising Star (Love Theme)” works quite well in that country-jazz idiom that Grusin orchestrated and perfected in so many of his later films. “Freedom Epilogue” is an orchestrated variation of the theme, which is still worth the effort but Grusin’s nice main theme (title track?) is an appropriately show-y piece that benefits by what is obviously Lee Ritenour’s guitarisms. A brief bit of Gruisin goodness is on display here (so don’t shell out big bucks for the now out-of-print CD), but Grusin’s music is worth it nonetheless.

On Golden Pond (MCA, 1981): Composer Dave Grusin wrote one of his very best and most memorable scores for this touching and sentimental drama starring Katherine Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda and directed by piano-playing Mark Rydell (whose 1991 film, For The Boys, Grusin also scored). Grusin’s theme, played by the composer on piano, is one of his very best outside of his earlier “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter” – and something he is justly known for and plays to this very day. The 1981 MCA soundtrack album, which briefly found life some years ago on CD in Japan, employs sound effects from the film (the loons) and a bit too much dialogue, yet there probably wasn’t enough music to fill up a whole album. But Grusin’s primary themes (“On Golden Pond,” “New Hampshire Hornpipe” and the gorgeous, yet too-little known “Lake Song”) are all very much worthy of a record release. Indeed, Grusin has since covered “On Golden Pond” and “New Hampshire Hornpipe” elsewhere. But despite all the dialogue, this music is very much worth having and something I have always been glad was, at least at one time, available.

The Fabulous Baker Boys (GRP, 1990): This Grammy Award winning score finds Dave Grusin in a smoother groove than he’s ever been heard, even on his own smooth jazz records of the period. The vibe is jazzy and voiced largely by Ernie Watts’s tenor sax and intermittently by Sal Marquez’s trumpet. But the groove is smoochy, late-night jazz made for the quiet storm crowd with romance on its mind. With more memorable scores by Danny Elfman, James Horner, John Williams and even Peter Gabriel nominated that year, it’s hard to understand how the Grammy voters could have been swayed by such seemingly insubstantial fluff as this. Grusin gets a little more serious on the jazzy “Shop Till You Bop,” but while it probably works quite well on film, it just doesn’t hold up on its own. The film’s singing star, Michelle Pfeiffer, takes two fairly pleasant vocals here on “Makin’ Whoopee” and “My Funny Valentine,” which won Grusin another Grammy for its arrangement. Jazz tracks by the (reconstituted) Duke Ellington Orchestra, the Earl Palmer Trio and Benny Goodman’s “Moonglow” also appear here, which don’t exactly sound comfortable in this mix of smooth, forgettable nonsense.

Havana (GRP, 1990): A surprisingly engaging soundtrack that includes some unusual work by Dave Grusin that fits this film’s motif and métier exceedingly well. While the generally up-tempo pieces, “Main Title,” “Santa Clara Suite.” “Mambo Lido” and “La Academia” are all stand outs for this listener, the soundtrack album does seem to get bogged down by some of Grusin’s otherwise lovely score cues. The Cuban feel is heightened by some tremendous players, who include Lee Ritenour, Dave Valentin, Arturo Sandoval, Clare Fischer, Don Menza, Dori Caymmi and, possibly, an uncredited Ivans Lins on the beautiful “Hurricane Country.” While this is not exactly a predictable Grusin score, there’s lots of talent and lots of worthwhile musical moments that are present here and make this Grusin soundtrack to another Sydney Pollack film exceedingly worthwhile.

The Bonfire of the Vanities (Atlantic, 1991): A strange film that somehow took all the vim and vigor out of Tom Wolfe’s well-considered swipe at American life in the eighties gets a cheerfully anonymous soundtrack befitting the film’s rather cheery anonymity. The film was a miss on almost every level and Dave Grusin’s score is no exception. As one film composer once said, music can make a good film better but it simply can’t improve a bad film. Surely, that was the case here. Grusin mixes a number of brief orchestral cues (that borrow clichés from Strauss, Mozart and Ravel) madly with cocktail jazz (“Hang-Out,” “Blues for Caroline,” “Blues (Reprise)”) and 80s-era fusion excess (“Bronx Exit,” “Yo!,” “Get Away” – all driven along with a slap-happy bass out of Seinfeld). If you read into it much, Grusin’s main theme (reprised in “Jackals” and “Epilogue-Peter’s Theme”) comes across as unnecessarily heroic in the comic tradition, which could have been vaguely offensive. But the theme is so bland that it just blends into the anonymity of the film and any points it’s trying to make. The highlights on this album, which doesn’t even credit Dave Grusin on the cover, are few and far between but can be heard on “Subway Breakdown” and its variation in “Father/Son,” “Blues for Caroline,” even though it is awkwardly faded at the end, and “Bugged” and its variation in “End Credit Theme.”

The Firm (GRP, 1993): Dave Grusin’s absolutely tremendous score for Sydney Pollack’s film of John Grisham’s book gets a very worthwhile soundtrack. Mixing a number of songs by Jimmy Buffett, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Dave Samuels and Robben Ford, Grusin’s pieces here stick to solo piano, which number eight of the soundtrack’s thirteen tracks. Each one is simply spectacular. If you program Grusin’s tracks, it makes for an especially appealing listen. Dave Grusin is not often heard in this mode. And he sounds just amazing throughout. Highlights include “The Firm – Main Title,” “Mitch & Abby,” “Memphis Stomp,” “The Plan” and “How Could You Lose Me? – End Title.” Grusin covered “Memphis Stomp” and “Mud Island Chase” again on his 2004 CD Now Playing: Movie Themes – Solo Piano. While one could wish there was a whole more here, this soundtrack is still very highly recommended as an example of what Dave Grusin can achieve in a film and still come up aces on a soundtrack.

The Cure (GRP, 1995): This is one of the great Dave Grusin soundtracks. Musically, this Tom & Huck story with an AIDS twist has much in common with the touching inspiration Grusin brought to On Golden Pond and even The Firm. There are great Grusin-like cues (“First Visit,” “Shopping Cart Ride,” “Candy Montage,” “Requiem”), Grusin-esque “bonding” cues (“Battleship” and its variations “Missippi Montage,” “Soon as They Find A Cure…” and its variations “Gathering Leaves” and “Found Money”) and just plain old good music in between (“A Million Light Years,” “Chase & Confrontation”). But all tracks are a little more brief than Grusin would normally allow a song to be on one of his jazz albums. It’s right for the film, which is the point, but it’s not enough to dissuade anyone from appreciating this lovely music away from the film. It’s really some of Grusin’s best.

Selena (Angel, 1997): Top-notch mix of Grusin’s familiar orchestrations, solo piano and fusion jazz makes for a surprising score to this 1997 biopic of Texas-born tejano singer Selena Quintanilla-Perez. A CD of songs performed by Selena was also issued so it is additionally surprising that they even bothered putting out a score CD. But it’s a winner. This is probably the last time Grusin actively employed so much fusion jazz for a film score and he comes up with some pretty darned nice stuff in “Kids & Chickens,” “’Salinas’ y los Low Riders,” “Small Talk & Salsa” and “Leap of Faith.” The orchestral pieces (“Main Title,” “Selena’s Dream/Mi Corazon,” “Chris & Selena,” “Dreams of the People”) find Grusin at his best, nicely recalling the strength of some of the composer’s earlier signature cues. The two solo piano pieces, naturally performed by Grusin himself, are just superb, with the pianist’s tribute to Selena, “Como La Flor..,” which is probably not in the film, a truly remarkable piece of music (it’s surprising this didn’t turn up on Grusin’s 2004 solo piano album Now Playing). It’s clear the film and its subject touched the composer. He delivers his very best. The only complaint is the disruptive cover of “A Summer Place” by Gary Lemel, which has nothing to do with Grusin’s score and, presumably, nothing to do with the film itself.

Hope Floats (RCA Victor, 1998): This Sandra Bollock film is exactly the sort of thing Dave Grusin has been known to score of late – sentimental romantic dramas that take place somewhere in the American South (or West). There was also a song soundtrack of the album. But this mostly lovely score features just Grusin’s score, prominently helmed by frequent collaborator Tom Scott on the EWI (electric sax) and “sax.” There is definitely a country feel to Grusin’s score, a sound he has perfected so well over the years that almost no one else could have possibly have conceived. As a resident of New Mexico and Montana, Grusin – one senses – truly feels this music. It is pretty for the most part. Unfortunately, though, it’s just not that memorable. Grusin’s piano is much in abundance here, which is good news. But the majority of the soundtrack is a little too ‘country-lite’ fusion to be of much interest (although “Snappy Snaps” will remind many of Randy Newman’s New Orleans-styled Monk theme). Grusin’s excellent and fusion-y “Getting Up Again” (which is first heard as the very brief “Time To Get Up”) makes this disc very much worth the effort, though.

Random Hearts (Sony Classical, 1999): Random Hearts is the last of director Sydney Pollack’s nine collaborations with composer Dave Grusin and, surprisingly, the first to employ a jazz foundation (Pollack died in May 2008). “For me, Pollack describes in his notes, “[jazz] has the pain and grief – the delicacy of early hope – and the joy of getting past it and going on that the film is trying to dramatize.” To effect this, Grusin’s score for the film is based around a quartet of consummate jazz artists including trumpeter Terence Blanchard, also a distinguished film composer, bassist John Patitucci, drummer and frequent Grusin associate Harvey Mason and, of course, the composer himself on piano. The quartet sets the moody pace early on in “Looking For Peyton” and “Random Hearts (Love Theme),” and is employed sporadically throughout to keep the near-noir mood alight. Elsewhere, Grusin’s score, particularly on “Dutch,” “Phone Call Soliloquy” and “Keys,” pits the light touch of his now-familiar piano against the lovely and evocative backdrop of a sensitively employed orchestral backdrop – a Grusin strength and musical trademark evident in so much of his work in and out of film. For the most part, it’s beautiful stuff, mostly due to the talents the musicians each bring to it. But the lack of strong compositions (also evident in Grusin’s neo-noir score for Mulholland Falls) makes it fare little better than high-class background music. Whatever spell Grusin’s lush, lovely and evocatively haunting ambiance weaves, however, is broken by such inserts as the lively Latinate “Playa Del Soul” (led by flautist Nestor Torres) and Arturo Sandoval’s salsa “Aqui en Miami” – both presumably meaningful in the film – and the obligatory yet unnecessary vocal performances of Diana Krall (“The Folks Who Live On The Hill”) and Patty Larkin (“Good Thing”). Very pretty, just not very memorable.