Tuesday, September 15, 2009

L'âge d'or de la musique de film (1965-1975)

Peter Preuss, one of my good web friends and a contributor to my Lalo Schifrin discography, recently alerted me to a fascinating television documentary film focusing on the “golden age” of film composers and their music.

“On Sept 3rd, says Peter, “we had an interesting 50-minute documentary feature with interview segments with Lalo Schifrin on the German/French TV channel ARTE. The documentary is called L'âge d'or de la musique de film (1965-1975) (aka Swinging Soundtracks – Das Goldene Zeitalter Der Filmmusic (1965-1975) and The Golden Age of Film Music (1965-1975)).”

The documentary features interview segments with such "Golden Age" composers as Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones (pictured), John Barry, Michel Legrand and Peter Thomas. The participants discuss composing music for films in general and some of their more well-known themes in particular.

Peter says that the documentary focuses on the following Lalo Schifrin titles:

a. Shifting Gears (Bullitt)
b. Mission: Impossible
c. Dirty Harry's Creed
d. Mannix Theme
e. Scorpio's Theme
f. Bullitt Main Title

Given the brevity of the film and the number of composers covered, these specific clips must be extremely brief as the (translated) hopblog page indicates. But the large number of fans for this heretofore unheralded music will certainly appreciate the attention the filmmakers give to the genre’s composers and their memorable music.

While prevailing wisdom generally acknowledges the “golden age” of film music as the period directly before the filmmakers' consideration of the “golden age,” featuring such composers as Bernard Herrmann, Bronislau Kaper, Alfred Newman, Alex North, David Raksin, Miklos Rozsa and Franz Waxman, such attention devoted to the “silver age” where jazz played a great part of the melody and tempo of the music is indeed warranted and welcome, no matter what you call it.

Thanks to Peter Preuss for making me aware of this documentary. Let’s hope those of us in the United States who are huge fans of this music are able to see it some time soon.

Produced by ARTE France/NOVAPROD OWL/BIZIBI in collaboration with Turner Classic Movies. Directed by Thierry Jousse and Nicolas Saada.

2009 / 50 Minutes (PAL) / Color / AR 1:1:85 / Stereo
First airing: 09/03/2009 ARTE (France/Germany)

The IMDb listing is here.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

First Gravy: Journeys of the Hammond Organ

While the whole “acid jazz” movement of the 1990s helped to revive or, at least, spark some sort of interest in the Hammond B-3 organ and its practioners, very little has been done to give these folks (with one major exception) the place they deserve in the canon of creative music known as jazz.

Outside of Jimmy Smith, who is undoubtedly the best known and best loved of all jazz organists, too few of the folks who practice their art on the amazingly complicated Hammond B-3 organ are given their due.

After the revival, several keyboardists staked their claim and breathed new life into the once moribund B-3. But while most of the clubs on the chitlin circuit which used to keep the music alive were long gone, these new players developed small cults in the jam band world. And still the organ still remains a kind of bastard step child, kind of a miscellaneous oddity in the jazz world; not entirely embraced and not entirely acceptable.

One notable exception to the rule is the gregarious Bay Area producer and promoter Pete Fallico, who among other things keeps the organ jazz tradition alive with his Doodlin’ Records label. Fallico’s label, devoted exclusively to organ jazz, has showcased some of the surviving greats of the art like Rhoda Scott, Trudy Pitts and Gloria Coleman and some of the newer Hammond heroes like Joey DeFrancesco and Bill Heid.

Another exception is filmmaker Jesse Fankushen, who has lovingly completed a 38-minute documentary film titled First Gravy: Journeys of the Hammond Organ, a labor of love to honor the jazz practioners of the Hammond B-3 organ. The California native and UC Santa Cruz professor harbors an abiding love for jazz organ that borders on perverse fascination, something he explores beautifully in the film.

“The film came about as a labor of love,” says Fankushen. “I knew about the Hammond from an interest in Blue Note Records, particularly Grant Green, where I found out about some of the older Hammond players. I then began attending Hammond shows put together by Pete Fallico and the San Francisco Jazz Festival.

He saw legends of the art like Jimmy McGriff, Big John Patton, Brother Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott, and Dr. Lonnie Smith in the late 1990s. “The music was great,” he says, “but I was just as interested in how the audience dressed up and seemed to revere the experience of hearing this music.”

Then along came Ken Burns’ sprawling Jazz documentary and Fankushen discovered there was next to nothing in it about soul jazz. Surprised and dumbfounded, he wanted to know more.

He heard about a newly launched master’s degree program at the University of California – Santa Cruz called Social Documentation. The whole idea was to catalog people whose stories had never been told before. Putting two and two together, Fankushen realized this was the perfect opportunity to document his love of jazz organ and learn more about the music he loved.

He lurched forward in late 2006, interviewing Bay area practioners like gospel player Steven Roberts. Over the next year he amassed hours of interview and performance footage and weaved it into First Gravy, which derives its too-obscure title from a song about, you guessed it, making one’s “first gravy,” by Houston-based organist Leon Spencer, who is also featured in the film.

During a breezy 38 minutes, Fankushen covers a lot of ground, interspersing interviews of Pete Fallico and organists Jackie Ivory, Linda Dachtyl, Leon Spencer, Nick Rossi, Reuben Wilson, Tony Monaco (who also plays accordion), Gene Ludwig, Wil Blades, Dr. Lonnie Smith, guitarist Calvin Keys (Ahmad Jamal, etc.) and producer Joe Fields with too-brief performance footage of Bob Birch (formerly of The New Mastersounds), Dr. Lonnie Smith, Wil Blades and Asian B-3 wunderkind Atsuko Hashimoto.

It’s a terrific round-up of surviving organists, with Linda Dachtyl, Tony Monaco and Gene Ludwig providing some of the most insightful commentary in the film. Dachtyl in particular beautifully demonstrates how some of the organ greats derived their wildly differing sounds on the B-3 behemoth. It’s a crash course in organomics that could have easily extended the film another ten to 15 minutes. It could have even made an enticing documentary all its own.

While this viewer was pleased that Pittsburgh hometown great Gene Ludwig was featured in the mix (interestingly discussing organ jazz audiences then and now), it seemed like the film didn’t properly honor the Philadelphia contingent of organists.

Philadelphia is the cradle of organ jazz, launching any number of the art’s greatest warriors, from Jimmy Smith, Bill Doggett and Don Patterson to Jimmy McGriff, Charles Earland and Shirley Scott, among many, many others. Surely Fankushen could have represented Trudy Pitts, Joey DeFrancesco or Chester Smith here.

Also, I would have preferred to have heard from producer Bob Porter, who has prominently documented many of the great organists over time on the Prestige, Eastbound/Westbound, JAM and Milestone labels. He’s also a great spokesperson for the art. But maybe that could make for a good Second Gravy.

Fankushen spices the proceedings here with remarkable footage that includes Ethel Smith from the 1944 film Bathing Beauty, performing an utterly amazing “Tico Tico” and Jimmy Smith, of course, from an early -1960s TV appearance on Jazz Scene USA.

But, in the background, he also provides some great organ music that includes Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz,” Jimmy Smith’s “Root Down,” Jimmy McGriff’s “Miss Poopie,” Charles Kynard’s “Sweetheart,” (and terrifically interesting participant) Reuben Wilson’s “Orange Peel” and “Inner City Blues.”

The film’s style is remarkably well assured, clearly providing a great reverence to its subjects without ever dipping into fawning adulation or false grandiosity. Fankushen puts it all together very nicely in a lively style that has a great rhythmic quality, yet never becomes overly arty - just like organ jazz should be. It’s got its appreciation in all the right places and will be a joy for anyone who loves organ jazz to see.

Contact Jesse Fankushen at jfankushen at yahoo dot com for more detail.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Quincy Jones "The Split"

Here is one of those lost treasures that surfaced to prove – again – just how brilliant Quincy Jones has always been. The Split is a 1968 film directed by Gordon Flemyng (1934-95), who never rose to much prominence beyond his British TV credits on The Avengers and The Saint or his early Dr. Who movies.

The long-forgotten film is based on a Donald Westlake novel where Westlake was writing as Richard Stark and the novel was called “The Seventh” and it all features a terrific B-list cast including Jim Brown, Diahann Carroll, Jack Klugman, Warren Oates, James Whitmore and Ernest Borgnine. Even Gene Hackman, Donald Sutherland and the great stage actress Julie Harris were on board for something that probably promised a whole lot more.

The producers meant for the film to follow in the footsteps of John Boorman’s near-brilliant Point Blank (1967), which was also based on a Richard Stark novel called “The Hunter.” While it tries, though, it just never succeeds. Think of it. You’ve probably heard of the oft-revered Point Blank, with its cutting-edge direction, its white-hot cool acting, gripping action sequences, Johnny Mandel score and a great cast of character actors.

But what about The Split? About all that’s memorable about it is that it was the first film to earn the “R” rating under what was then the MPAA’s newly created rating system.

They tried to replicate all that was good about Point Blank with The Split - and all they got right was the music. In fact, Quincy Jones’ score here more than surpasses Mandel’s and ranks among some of the best film music Q has done. The great critic Pauline Kael even remarked in her dismissive review of the film that “(f)or long stretches during The Split, I mostly listened to the Quincy Jones music.” It was her way of disparaging the film. But there was much to listen to here.

Jones, who really had only been in Hollywood for a few years at this point, scoring only a handful of films, was developing what, in essence, was his own language for the cinema. Not only was it informed by the popular and jazz idioms he previously had much success with, his music was beginning to proudly exhibit much of his own African American heritage. This enveloped everything from rhythm and blues to doo wop, blues to gospel and funk to rock. The man put mojo into the music.

The first signs of Jones’ musical fusion became apparent on the Sidney Poitier starrer, In The Heat Of The Night (United Artists, 1967), and more explicitly on two later Poitier films scored by Quincy Jones, For The Love Of Ivy (ABC, 1968) and The Lost Man ( UNI, 1969), the latter of which is a sumptuously superb soundtrack album well deserving of rediscovery.

There never was a soundtrack album issued for The Split, despite MGM’s earlier intentions to release a record of it. The film must have seemed like a dog before it was even out of the gate and then its poor performance convinced MGM not to bother. But even Q thought there wasn’t enough music to make a commercially viable record out of it all. Only $ (Reprise, 1970) and They Call Me Mister Tibbs (United Artists, 1971) gave album buyers evidence of Jones’ unique and utterly hypnotic fusion of black music forms until this CD release.

Despite the fact that the film has long been forgotten, Film Score Monthly (FSM) has made a convincing case that Quincy Jones’ music did not deserve the same fate. This first-ever issue of the complete score includes some of Q’s best film music writing as well as fairly memorable themes sung by Billy Preston, Arthur Prysock and an odd country source cue by Sheb Wooley.

From the first strains of “Funny Money,” it is quite apparent that The Split is something different, something special. It is, quite simply, a brilliant film cue that can be repeatedly enjoyed on its own. With (undoubtedly Carol Kaye’s) electric bass grinding provocatively to an organ and electric piano countermelody, and a brilliant mélange of contrasting horns and sinewy percussion, it is a performance to be savored among some of the best of the jazzy action cues that are often credited solely to Jerry Goldsmith and Lalo Schifrin.

The funky jazz continues on “Kika Car Caper” (prefiguring some of the work Q would further explore in The Lost Man), “Hot Meter,” “Frantic Fans,” “Shook Up Fuzz/Mac Let’s Talk” and "End Title Card." In true jazz fashion, there is a fair bit of improvisation interspersed between the obviously written stuff that makes for engaging, even entrancing, listening, particularly for those who appreciate Q’s jazz work throughout the years.

Elsewhere, Q’s wondrous ways with an orchestra prevail. There is very little of the relentless repetition that drags so many soundtrack recordings down. Predictably, all the music that was laid down, was not used in the film but the good folks at FSM have included pretty much every note here that was recorded for the soundtrack – and much of it will surprise anybody who knows the film (that’s the joy of so many of FSM’s soundtracks).

The vocal pieces are negligible and often intrusive – especially Sheb Wooley’s “A Good Woman’s Love” – though the pop theme (“It’s Just A Game, Love”) and, most notably, the main theme have exceptionally good melodies. It’s clear no one knew what to do with these songs and they just seem to get in the way of Q’s otherwise marvelous score. But they are instructive as parts of the whole, so it’s hard to argue against cutting them for the sake of a more pleasant listen.

A word of praise for Scott Bettencourt and Alexander Kaplan’s fine, extensive and enlightening liner notes is due here too. In great and loving detail, the writers examine Westlake’s writing career, the translation of his books onto screen, the genesis of The Split itself, Quincy Jones’ involvement in the project and a detailed discussion of each and every one of the soundtrack’s songs. It’s as much an entertaining education to read the notes as to hear the music Quincy Jones created for it all.

Quincy Jones went on to score a few more action films, notably Peter Yates’ The Hot Rock (1972), coincidentally another Donald Westlake adaptation, and Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (after replacing Jerry Fielding, Peckinpah’s regular man for the job) before getting out of the film music business pretty much altogether.

Sadly, very few of Quincy Jones’ very few action scores are in circulation, which is enough to make The Split a valuable chronicle. But the music presented here is enough to make it a worthy addition to any film music collection where jazz and funk have a place. It’s also a must for fans of Quincy Jones’ music.

Available for sale from the good folks at Screen Archives.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Gato Barbieri "Tropico"

Universal Music continues its amazing reissue campaign with a rather surprising amount of the 1970s-era releases of Argentine saxophonist Gato Barbieri (b. 1934). Tropico (1978), the third of five A&M albums the saxophonist made, is the sixth and most recent of the Barbieri reissues Universal has put out in just the last two years.

No other Universal contract player has gotten that sort of concrete attention in these, CD’s waning years, so this one might be worth some sort of mention. And, indeed, upon reflection, it is.

The saxophonist is best known as being the second most famous export from Argentina after Lalo Schifrin, in whose orchestra Barbieri played during the 1950s, and as composer of the aching score to the 1972 Marlon Brando film, Last Tango In Paris.

Barbieri has also had a storied career in jazz, where he exploded in the 1960s as one of the firebrands of “the new thing,” alternating progressive and aggressive recordings with haunting Dollar Brand duets.

Upon moving to Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Records, Barbieri began exploring music’s fire within melodic confines. Shortly thereafter he launched a series of records on the Impulse label surveying his jazz sensibilities from within his native heritage.

When he moved over to Herb Alpert’s A&M Records in 1976, Barbieri was aiming for the hit status that also took fellow former firebrand John Klemmer to new heights of AM radio friendliness. There seemed no shame in it. Barbieri wanted a hit. But while the hits never came, Barbieri took many hits from critics and former fans appalled to affront by his blatantly commercial direction. In other words, Barbieri didn’t make new friends; he lost old friends.

Still, his A&M albums make for some of Barbieri’s most enjoyable listening and Tropico is probably the best of the bunch. Produced by David Rubinson, who at the time (1971-82) was handling everything by Herbie Hancock, it is as close to pure disco as just about anything else in jazz was at the time. The electric bass, the swirling strings, the layered keyboards and percussion all scream for something other than the music Barbieri was making only ten years before. We’re meant to feel this and react appropriately, not think about it.

Things get off to a rocky start with a thumping dance version of “Poinciana” that goes on far longer than its seven minutes and 48 seconds justify, particularly the chorus chanting “we love it when you can dance to it” repeatedly, and a fairly unimaginative cover of the 1972 Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway hit “Where is the Love,” featuring a guitar solo by what sounds like Eric Gale.

But the rest of the 46-minute disc is fairly entertaining and, well, rather remarkable. Barbieri’s own “Latin Lady” opens with what is obviously Carlos Santana’s patented guitar wail (Rubinson was also producing the guitarist’s jazz album The Swing of Delight at the time) and the guitarist caresses the melody throughout its eight-minute entirety with an emotional energy that perfectly matches the depth and breadth of Barbieri’s own. Santana is very appropriately matched to the blistering melancholy that runs through much of Barbieri’s playing and certainly in many of the saxophonist’s compositions. Musically, the guitarist and the saxophonist spar particularly well, forming a bond not unlike potential suitors for the same beloved woman who has rejected them both out of hand. It is surprising that Santana and Barbieri have not worked more together.

The album’s finest tracks are Barbieri’s “Evil Eyes” and the saxophonist’s cover of Caetano Veloso’s mesmerizing “Odara.” “Evil Eyes,” in particular sounds like a movie theme of the time, in fact, one very much like Lalo Schifrin would have done – and for that alone, Tropico is worthwhile. Coincidentally, Schifin too did a disco version of Ravel’s Bolero, as Barbieri does here, in a Rubinson arrangement that is not too dissimilar from Schifrin’s of a few years before.

Tropico is odd in some ways too. Considering the high profile David Rubinson brings to any of his productions, there are no musician credits listed here. Very strange, considering the high caliber of talent that’s probably involved. There must have been contract disputes.

Who wouldn’t – and didn’t – want to brag about the presence of Carlos Santana? Considering Herbie Hancock appears on almost every other Rubinson production at the time, it’s a good guess he’s probably playing on Tropico too. There is some evidence, though, that something was amiss here. Barbieri’s A&M albums bookending Tropico were both produced by Jay Chattaway, who at the time was Tappan Zee’s in-house musical director. So Rubinson, for whatever reason, wasn’t invited back.

Maybe someone didn’t get along with somebody. Who knows. The result, Tropicos, speaks for itself. It’s a fine piece of work of what can be called disco jazz and it ranks among some of the best of Barbieri’s popularly oriented music, something he’s still at and which he’s been doing since at least 1976.

Addendum: The redoubtably knowledgable Kirkatron has provided musician credits for Tropico below from the inside sleeve of the original LP. Thanks, Pete!

Eddie Watkins - Bass
Leon "Ndugu" Chancler - Drums
Eddie Martinez and John Barnes - Keyboards
Greg Porée and Melvin "Wah Wah" Watson - Guitars
Carlos Santana - Guitar on "Latin Lady"
Bill Summers - Percussion and Congas
Armando Peraza - Bongos
Jose " Chepito" Areas - Timbales
The Waters (Oren Waters, Luther Waters, Julia Tillman, Maxine Willard ) - Background Vocals
Lani Hall - Vocals on "Odara"