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.


flo1102 said...

Nice OST-Review sample for Grusin. I'm also a great Grusin fan for his solo-works and soundtracks. My favourites are "Condor", "Tootsie" and "The Cure".

Last year (2009) I had the chance to see Dave Grusin twice on a short tour of Germany (together with his brother Don, Lee Ritenour and some guest musicians). On the first show he played "Memphis Stomp" from "The Firm" on solo piano. What a great moment.

He also told an amusing anecdote about the "Firm" recording.
When he was told by Pollack to do the soundtrack, he only did piano demos on two stereo tracks on a 48-track tape, to have space for a classical orchestration later. But Pollack liked the light piano tunes so much, that this music finally reached the movie. Grusin told with a smile, that this was his biggest technical waste, only to record a piano stereo track on a full 48-track tape/machine/studio, without using all technical options.

Robert Cass said...

It's great to find an overview of Grusin's soundtrack work. In many ways "The Firm" is where I discovered both Pollack and Grusin, and I've enjoyed tracking back through each of their collaborations, with "The Firm," "Tootsie," and "Three Days of the Condor" being the strongest, in my opinion.

I do like the main theme of "The Bonfire of the Vanities" quite a bit -- it's better than the movie that contains it -- but I see what you mean about its "heroic" feel.

hari said...

How about Fallin in love again?

hari said...

How about Fallin in love again?