Thursday, September 30, 2010

Patrick Williams “Aurora”

Composer and long-time band leader Patrick Williams (b. 1939) has finally issued his first big band album since 1998’s Grammy Award-nominated Sinatraland (nominated for his sterling arrangement on “In The Still Of The Night”).

Aurora is meant to follow in the tradition of the composer’s Grammy-winning Threshold (1973). But it’s different in many, many ways. First, while Threshold successfully married jazz and classical tropes with then-in rock rhythms and instrumentation, Aurora is straight-ahead big-band jazz in the Basie/Ellington tradition of the fifties – a period very few traditionalists even revisit anymore.

Sure, there are some bows to popularity such as the occasionally electrified instrument and the sporadically groovy rhythm. But like the great leaders of the bands of yore, Williams simply concedes to appeal to contemporary listeners. He’s probably never done a better of job of doing just that than he has here.

Additionally, Threshold was recorded, much in the style of the time, by layering parts in different recording studios in California and New York over time: solos over sections over rhythm, etc. Aurora was recorded live in Capitol’s famed Studio A in single takes over two days in August 2010 with a group of West Coast studio players (all in the same room) that know each other – and Patrick Williams’ music – very, very well.

Strike me down if Aurora doesn’t finally win the composer the long deserved accolades and multiple awards he has so deservingly earned over his half century as a significant contributor to jazz, pop and film music.

Aurora is a musical masterpiece that shows big-band jazz can still say interesting things – some half century after Downbeat asked if the big bands were dead – and sits exceptionally well alongside (if not above) such other great big-band works the composer has launched with Dreams and Themes (1983), 10th Avenue (1987), Sinatraland (1998), the soundtrack to Blonde (2001) and, of course, Threshold (1973), surely one of the greatest orchestral jazz albums of the seventies.

While far too many critics often dismiss jazz music made by folks in the film and TV music business – even if the composers, like Patrick Williams, come out of jazz – it’s hard to slight the jazz credibility present here. This is not only imaginative jazz – and, really, how many people are making imaginative jazz these days? – it is top-shelf jazz: fun, swinging (helmed by the great Peter Erskine, who is the absolute go-to guy for good swinging jazz big band music these days), melodic and filled with good improvisation from great players and some truly fabulous writing.

The great Aurora has been issued by the innovative cooperative label ArtistShare, which has also reissued CDs of Patrick Williams’ landmark Threshold and Sinatraland. I love every note of this music but my favorite moments here are “Song for a Pretty Girl,” “Mandeville,” “Heat,” “Fanfare for a New Day” and “Aurora.”

While my purchase of Threshold from ArtistShare allowed me to download Aurora in its entirety for free, I have already purchased Aurora on CD. It’s that good. It’s that great. Songs:

1. "There You Go Again" (featuring Tamir Hendelman)
2. "The Sun Will Shine Today" (featuring Eddie Daniels)
3. "Song for a Pretty Girl" (a gorgeously chosen electric piano highlighting Arturo Sandoval)
4. "One More Dream" (featuring Tom Scott?)
5. "Mandeville"
6. "Heat" (terrific mix of tabla, sax section work, Arturo Sandoval & Tom Scott)
7. "Fanfare for a New Day" (featuring Hubert Laws)
8. "Aurora"

Special Guests: Arturo Sandoval, Hubert Laws, & Eddie Daniels. Saxophones / Woodwinds: Tom Scott, Dan Higgins, Bob Sheppard, Jeff Driskill & Gene Cipriano. Trumpets / Flugelhorns: Wayne Bergeron, Gary Grant, Warren Luening & Chuck Findley. Trombones: Bob McChesney, Andy Martin, Charlie Morillas, & Craig Gosnell. French Horns: Rick Todd, Steve Becknell, Paul Klintworth & Justin Hageman. Rhythm sction: Peter Erskine (drums), Chuck Berghofer (bass), Tamir Hendelman (piano),
Dean Parks (guitar), Brad Dutz (percussion), Dan Greco (percussion) and Paulinho DaCosta (percussion).

Monday, September 27, 2010

Charles Lloyd “Discovery! & Nirvana”

Superbird, a subsidiary label of the mighty British concern, Cherry Red, unleashes the great saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s very first album, Discovery! (Columbia, 1964), on a CD coupled with the incredibly obscure – and oddly important – compilation Nirvana (Columbia, released 1968).

The two-disc set represents some extraordinarily fine music, and certainly some superior music in the development of one of jazz’s greatest living saxists. Born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1938, Lloyd acquired his first sax around 1948 and after several lessons ended up gigging around town with classmates such as Frank Strozier, Booker Little and George Coleman.

Lloyd went to college in California, where he switched from dentistry to composition, eventually hooking up with Gerald Wilson and others before Chico Hamilton recruited the saxist, who took up flute as late as 1958, to be his musical director. Lloyd stayed with Hamilton through 1964, waxing such classics as Drumfusion (Columbia, 1962), Passin’ Thru (Impulse, 1963) and A Different Journey (Reprise, 1963).

Surprisingly, Lloyd left his star position in Hamilton’s band – where he developed a lot of positive notice – in 1964 to replace Yusef Lateef in Cannonball Adderley’s sextet, where he added significantly towards the marvelous Fiddler on the Roof (Capitol, 1965).

It just seemed extremely odd that a saxophonist already on the way to successfully integrating his distinct individuality into the jazz idiom would choose to be second banana in the band of one of jazz’s most distinctive (alto) saxophonists. And, even more conspicuously, Adderley never showcased Lloyd’s characteristic compositions the way Hamilton did.

Still, Lloyd launched his own solo career during his tenure in the Adderley band with Discovery, a mostly quartet affair that resulted from two sessions recorded in New York City at the end of May 1964 (and has only been issued on CD once in Japan only), then left Adderely in 1965 to form his own quartet.

On both of Discovery’s sessions, Lloyd is partnered with the great pianist Don Friedman (b. 1935), a free-thinking traditionalist who also left Los Angeles for New York City at about the same time Lloyd did. One rhythm section features Lloyd and Friedman with bassist Eddie Kahn (who worked with Eric Dolphy) and drummer Roy Haynes (b. 1925). The other group features bassist Richard Davis (b. 1930) and drummer J.C. Moses (1936-77).

While Charles Lloyd was wrongly dismissed by many critics at the time as a Coltrane clone, his already well-developed tone on tenor was steadfast and pure, if perhaps only influenced somewhat by Impulse-era Coltrane. Lloyd is simply magnificent here. Few debut albums in jazz – before or since – have ever had this much personality.

Producer and annotator George Avakian indicates that the “music of Charles Lloyd does not always make for easy listening.” This is not only one of the highest compliments anyone can pay a jazz man, but it also suggests that there is as much creativity as communication in Charles Lloyd’s playing. Only rarely does Lloyd ever go outside (briefly on both “Forest Flower” and “Ol’ Five Spot”). And even then it’s not too far out. He’s more interested in staying within his music – and he clearly wants to keep the listener there too.

What Discovery reveals especially is Lloyd’s remarkable compositional ability. Surely, a number of the tunes here had been heard before: “Forest Flower” was originally heard on Chico Hamilton’s Man From Two Worlds (Impulse, 1964) and the two flute features, “Little Peace” (originally known as “A Rose For Booker” from Hamilton’s Drumfusion and something Lloyd would later resuscitate on his 1994 All My Relations and 2004’s Sangam) and “Love Song To A Baby” (heard on Hamilton’s A Different Journey and Man From Two Worlds and heard again on the 1967 album Charles Lloyd in the Soviet Union) were familiar. “Sweet Georgia Bright” is probably better known from its appearance on Cannonball Adderley Live! (Capitol, 1964) and many appearances on later Lloyd records up to Rabo de Nube (ECM, 2007).

Lloyd balances his other originals (“How Can I Tell You,” “Bizarre” and the piano-less “Ol’ Five Spot”) with a pleasing cover of Henry Mancini’s “Days of Wine and Roses” for a tremendously cogent program that’s a little more than 45 minutes in length – a surprising playing time for the period. Discovery is simply packed with great music that’s not only worth hearing over and over again but, for once, makes the typically hyperbolic title of the time worthy of its name.

Nirvana is an unusual compilation that was rush-released in 1968 after Lloyd’s quartet with pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette transcended typical jazz popularity with emerging rock audiences to become one of the single most popular jazz groups of its day. Aside from producing a plethora of excellent music for the Atlantic label in the late 1960s, this quartet remarkably never condescended to demean their creativity with any sort of crossover appeal like electrics, boogaloo rhythms or mind-numbing 4/4 ostinati.

Strange as it is, Nirvana is pretty darned good and more guitar driven than anything else Lloyd would later become known for doing. Columbia took eight unreleased tunes Lloyd had recorded for the label – many of which were outtakes from the brilliant Of Course, Of Course (Columbia, 1965) album with Lloyd, guitarist Gabor Szabo, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams – and combined them with “One For Joan” and “Freedom Traveler,” the first two Lloyd compositions from the Chico Hamilton album Drumfusion (Columbia, 1962).

It wasn’t exactly what the group’s fans wanted to hear and the album was soon forgotten and deleted. Many years later, the spectacularly perfect Of Course, Of Course was reissued on CD (Mosaic, 2006), with three of the most obvious Lloyd-Szabo-Carter-Williams titles from Nirvana included as bonus cuts (“East of the Sun,” “Island Blues” and “Sun Dance”).

The two Drumfusion cuts have not previously been heard on CD and the other four titles from Nirvana (“Carcara,” “Long Time, Baby,” “Love Theme from ‘In Harm’s Way’,” and “You Know (From ‘Ecco’)”) are making their first-ever appearances on CD here. It is interesting to note that the flip side to a 45-release of “You Know,” a groovy, non-LP cover of The Beatles’ “She’s A Woman,” still remains unknown and will probably remain forever unreleased on CD (lord knows who the guitarists, bassist and drummer are here).

To read Malcolm Dome’s absurdly misinformed notes to the CD portion of Nirvana (there were no notes nor much information at all on the original LP) would lead listeners to believe that Nirvana represents “the finest album from the Charles Lloyd Quartet” – an allusion, perhaps to the Jarrett/DeJohnette group that this music doesn’t even remotely resemble. But this is just rubbish.

First of all, it was not even a real album; certainly not one that Lloyd ever intended releasing. Secondly, it’s hard to argue that any of the Lloyd-led music on Nirvana - good as it is - stacks up successfully to anything on the first Lloyd quartet album, Of Course, Of Course, or any of the many classic Lloyd quartet records with Keith Jarrett (in place of any guitarist) laid down on Atlantic Records during the late 1960s.

Still, Discovery!/Nirvana is a joy to have and a very necessary item in Charles Lloyd’s now vast discography.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Patrick Williams

Patrick Williams has lived several lives. He’s also waxed enough music for several lifetimes of spare time to take in.

He is a consummate bandleader who has arranged and composed a variety of recordings that wed jazz with pop and the classics, from the hip and collectable Verve records of the late sixties and his Grammy Award winning magnum opus Threshold in 1973 to the series of records issued on his own Soundwings label in the 1980s and the Grammy nominated Sinatraland in 1998.

He also avidly pursues a career in music education, having held posts as Visiting Professor and Composer in Residence at the University of Utah and The University of Colorado. He’s led many college bands and provided arrangements to a number them and has lectured at many universities including Berklee College of Music, Duke University, Indiana University, Texas Christian University, UCLA, USC and Yale University.

He has composed a number of concert works especially suited to such distinctive jazz soloists as Gerry Mulligan, Dave Grusin, Tom Scott and Eddie Daniels.

He has also worked with practically every singer of the past 50 years. During his early days in the 1960s, he did albums for Steve Lawrence, Edyie Gorme, Dionne Warwick and Diahann Carroll. He went on to work with Phoebe Snow, Billy Joel (The Stranger), Gladys Knight, Ray Charles, Sinead O’Connor, Linda Ronstadt, George Strait and has recently been heard on discs by Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Michael Feinstein, Matt Dusk, Brian Setzer, Barry Manilow, Monica Mancini, Paul Anka, Erin Boheme and Traincha.

In addition to providing arrangements to Frank Sinatra’s Duets, Duets II and Sinatras 80th: Live In Concert Williams has also worked with jazz singers Chris Connor, Mel Torme, Astrud Gilberto, The Singers Unlimited, Diana Schuur and, most recently, Patti Austin (For Ella) and has plied the Christmas trade in a plethora of recordings by Dean Martin, Amy Grant, Barry Manilow, Vince Gill, Gloria Estefan, Martina McBrice, John Pizzarelli and Clay Aiken.

Patrcik Williams is, though, perhaps best known for the many TV shows he’s scored, notably Mary Tyler Moore, Cannon, The Streets of San Francisco (and the riveting main theme), The Bob Newhart Show, Lou Grant (and the main theme), Columbo, Monk and After M.A.S.H. (and the main theme).

But he’s also scored dozens of theatrical films such as The Cheap Detective (1978), Cuba (1979), Used Cars (1980), Some Kind of Hero (1982), The Slugger’s Wife (1985), Cry-Baby (1990) and many television films as well (Jesus, Blonde and We Were The Mulvaneys).

Unfortunately, despite all his many accomplishments and awards, Patrick Williams remains something of an insider’s secret, what folks call a “musician’s musician.”

Patrick Williams, for all he’s done and he’s done a lot, seems stuck in the background; someone who’s never made that one key record (though Threshold comes mighty close), scored that one timeless hit (“The Street of San Francisco” is a near miss), or roused any of the cult following that such contemporaries as Lalo Schifrin, Dave Grusin, Quincy Jones or even John Williams (no relation) have (some of PW’s best music has been attached to films that no one’s ever seen and movies whose only artistry was its music).

Regardless, there are quite a number of recordings that reveal a great deal of evidence proving Patrick Williams’ dynamic virtuosity and crafty compositional skill. I’ll try to list a handful of them here. Almost everything under review here is heard on vinyl, with sadly too little of this music deemed worthy to be reissued on CD . In some cases, once available CDs of the material listed here are already long out of print and highly collectable (read: pricey).

Shades of Today (Verve, 1968): Recorded in New York City in late 1967, Shades of Today is the first album under the name of “Pat Williams.” The album falls a little outside of instrumental jazz into that category of adult orchestral music that the Columbia label was profiting with at the time by the likes of Percy Faith and Ray Conniff. Verve never really aimed for this market. But after Creed Taylor’s 1967 departure, the label found it much more difficult to maintain an identity – particularly as rock was threatening to overtake sales of almost every jazz artist recording at the time. Additionally, nearly all of Verve’s orchestral leaders had either gone on to other types of music or other labels. Pat Williams, who was 27 at the time of these Pete Spargo-produced recordings, must have seemed like a cooler avatar of the bachelor- pad style: someone young enough to dig rock and educated enough to respect the jazz heritage. From this perspective, Shades of Today is especially enjoyable. The leader contributes two glitzy pop-ish originals (“Shades,” “Bubbles Was A Cheerleader”) to a program that mixes some slick jazz standards (“Li’l Darlin’,” “King Porter Stomp”) with radio hits (“The Look of Love,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “A World Without Love”) and particularly un-Brazilian takes on then-in bossa novas given especially odd titles, “Laia Ladaia (Reza)” and “For Me! (Arrastao).” The sleeve credits none of the orchestra’s players except several of the well-known soloists: Hank Jones on calliope for “Shades” and piano for “King Porter Stomp,” trombonist Bill Watrous (who sounds a lot like Dick Nash here) on Johnny Mandel’s beautiful “Cinnamon and Clove” (from The Americanization of Emily), Marvin Stamm on flugelhorn for “(Can’t Live In) A World Without Love” and piccolo trumpet for “Bubbles Was A Cheerleader” and little-known session trumpeter Ray Crisara on “For Me! (Arrastao).” While it usually comes off sounding like little more than showy Vegas-styled music, Shades of Today has nuggets of beauty (particularly “Cinnamon and Clove”) to be heard and is an often lovely snapshot of a particular time and a specific musical style.

How Sweet It Is! (RCA, 1968): This is the very first feature film Patrick Williams scored and the first of his soundtrack albums to be issued. It is also a particularly excellent example of the lively and inventive music Williams often brings to film. As liner notes writer Mort Goode says about this James Garner-Debbie Reynolds comedy (written and produced by Garry Marshall), “How Sweet It Is! is a honey of a romping, saucy, uninhibited motion picture.” Williams comes to the fore with a rather delightful orchestral score that mixes much of his clever melodic sensibilities with a great panache for sparkling orchestration. The mood is light to be sure. But every note Williams scores here is well worth hearing. There are the inevitable nods to the light/comedic work of Jerry Goldsmith, Lalo Schifrin and, most especially, Henry Mancini (check out “Sun on the Beach” or the gorgeous “Jenny”). But there is something that Williams – particularly in a light mood – makes and establishes as all his own. Goode continues “Pat writes with strong melodic flourish and a fresh, frothy feel. His arrangements have a rakish, seductive quality that adds spice to the film’s laugh lines and appeals to the ear, as well.” Jim Webb contributes two utterly forgettable pieces (“How Sweet It Is” and “Montage from How Sweet It Is” featuring the unknown Picardy Singers). But everything worth hearing here is from Patrick Williams. And it’s worth hearing, indeed. How Sweet It Is! is a total joy! Many highlights, but my favorites include “A Pair of Booby-Traps,” “Lonely Afternoon,” “Sun of the Beach” (featuring Bill Watrous in Dick Nash mode again?), “Bugged” (could that be Zoot Sims?), “Face Up To It Baby,” “Jenny” and the groovy “Beach Ball.”

Think (Verve, 1969): Pat Williams displays much more personality and far less showy glitz here than on the previous Shades of Today. Despite a program that more or less replicates the former Verve album, Pat Williams reveals much more of a personified definition here and comes up with a record that has much verve and originality to offer, even though its innate of a pop-ified (though mostly ignored) end. It’s all still brassy, but much more imaginatively so. Williams is developing an orchestral personality here that was lacking somewhat significantly on Shades of Today. The program repeats the structure of Williams’ previous Verve album: Williams originals (“Chicken Feathers,” “What’ve You Got To Lose”), another piece by Johnny Mandel (“Mexican Breakfast” from Harper), another Neal Hefti number (“Girl Talk”), radio hits (“Like Always,” “Think,” “Little Green Apples,” “Hey Jude,” “I Say A Little Prayer”) and some refined bossa nova (“Recado Bossa Nova”). And the entire orchestra is named here in addition to the soloists: Bill Watrous (“Like Always,” “Recado Bossa Nova”), Dick Hyman (“Girl Talk,” “Mexican Breakfast”) and Marvin Stamm (“Think,” notably “Little Green Apples,” “What’ve You Got To Lose?) and the only reed player listed here at all, Zoot Sims (“Think,” “Chicken Feathers,” “Hey Jude”). It’s all still a little too light-footed for jazz. But here Williams chooses some rather perfectly-crafted melodies to express his clever ideas, notably “Like Always,” “Think,” “Recado Bossa Nova,” “Little Green Apples” (!), “Chicken Feathers,” “Hey Jude” and “Mexican Breakfast.”

Carry On (A&R, 1970): Billed for the first time here as “Patrick Moody Williams,” the bandleader’s Carry On is virtually unknown and the first (and only?) record on the A&R label – no doubt named for the NYC recording studio where part of the album was recorded (parts were also recorded in L.A., where Williams had relocated to by this point). It’s a fairly well-programmed and well-tailored effort that features three more cutting-edge pop covers (James Taylor’s “Country Road,” Stephen Stills’s “Carry On” and, surprisingly, Paul McCartney’s “Junk,” which was the album’s single release), a Williams original “(“Silent Spring”), a riveting cover of “Long Black Veil” (notable at the time due to The Band and Johnny Cash’s covers), two of Williams’ film themes (“Jennifer” from Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker and the “Love Theme” from the David Janssen/Jean Seberg film Macho Callahan) and a fairly straight rendering of Bach’s Adagio. Williams continues to refine his approach to music, coming up with a particularly clever blend of jazz and pop (”Long Black Veil,” “Silent Spring,” a gorgeous orchestral piece which was used recently in the Bryan Reynolds play Woof Daddy, “Love Theme from ‘Macho Callahan’” and “Carry On” particularly), concocting some persuasive musical combinations and again highlighting some genuinely interesting instrumental talent: Marvin Stamm (“Country Road,” “Long Black Veil,” “Carry On,” and “Adagio”), tenor saxist Pete Christlieb (“Country Road”), keyboardist Mike Melvoin (“Carry On”), guitarist Al Hendrickson and alto saxist Bud Shank on “Love Theme” and drummers Paul Humphreys and Larry Bunker and bassists Max Bennett and Chuck Berghofer on “Long Black Veil.” Sadly, none of the musical contributors outside of the soloists are listed. But Carry On testifies to Patrick Williams’s way with a tune, particularly his imaginatively interesting way with well-known work. Carry On, which seems though it was probably recorded for Verve, was way too cool for Verve.

Threshold (Capitol, 1973): While many record buyers weren’t seeing Pat Williams music in the record stores in 1973, they were however hearing a heaping helping of his music on such weekly TV shows as Mary Tyler Moore, The Bob Newhart Show and The Streets of San Francisco. That all changed with Threshold, one of the very best and best-known of bandleader Patrick Williams’ records. This is the first album under the leader’s name that is made up entirely of his own compositions. And a magnificent bunch it is. The five tracks heard here are all on the long-ish side and represent a stunning orchestral jazz feat that is peopled by (mostly) West coast musicians conversing with some of Patrick Williams’ (up until then) most dynamic writing. Truly, Williams had never written material prior to Threshold that could best this level of invention and excitement. And he’s got some extraordinarily fine jazz talent to bring it on home: reed player Tom Scott (“And on the Sixth Day,” “Threshold” – which has a “Streets of San Francisco” groove to it – and “Mr. Smoke”), trumpeter Marvin Stamm (“And On The Sixth Day,” the riveting “The Witch,” “Threshold,” “Mr. Smoke”), percussionist Larry Bunker (marimba on “The Witch”) and such soloists as violinist Jerry Vinci and flugelhorn player Buddy Childers (“The Witch”), cellist Gloria Strassner (“A Lady Beside Me”) and harmonica great Tommy Morgan (“Mr. Smoke”). Adding tremendously subtle horns and a string section and a sterling rhythm section featuring Mike Melvoin on keyboards, Larry Carlton and Dennis Budimer on guitars, Jim Hughart on bass and – most notably – John Guerin on drums, Williams comes up with a truly dazzling program here that, believe it or not, beautifully mixes jazz with rock and classical in a way that never sounds like a forced fusion and something that Patrick Williams can pretty much claim as his own. Threshold, which won the Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement at the 17th Annual Grammy Awards presentation in 1975, is without question one of the very best examples of orchestral jazz produced during the seventies. The 1973 Capitol album has since been reissued on CD by the composer himself on his own Soundwings label in the 1980s and, more recently, as part of the ArtistShare cooperative. “A Lady Beside Me” was belatedly issued as a single in 1974.

Capitol also issued two Pat Williams records on 45-only releases that covered some of the pretty groovy, then-in TV sounds of the day: A happening cover of Jerry Goldsmith’s “Police Story” b/w Williams’ own theme to the Bill Bixby TV show “The Magician” (Capitol P-3940, 1974) and “Theme of ‘Streets of San Francisco’” b/w ”California Love Story” (Capitol P-4036, 1975). Only the brilliant “Streets of San Francisco” has found life on CD in various TV and movie compilations such as The Mad, Mad World of Soundtracks Volume 2. It would have been nice to have this music included on subsequent CD releases of Threshold. But, alas, these songs languish in rarefied world of hard-to-get 45s.

Harrad Summer (Capitol, 1974): The long-forgotten and unnecessary sequel to the long forgotten and unnecessary The Harrad Experiment (1973) loses the original’s stars (James Whitmore, Tippi Hedren, Don Johnson, Bruno Kirby – even Melanie Griffith, Hedren’s daughter, in an early and uncredited role) but replaces Experiment composer Artie Butler (who did a great job on the cheesy score for 1972’s What’s Up Doc) with Pat Williams for a fun little score, on the surprising light side, that must have seemed pretty darned uncool to anyone on the south side of 40. Williams’ score here seems a little anachronistic for 1974, sort of in the Burt Bacharach-circa 1967 mode (“Let the Love Begin” reminds me of “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”). Little-known singer Gene Redding, who issued one album on Capitol under his own name in 1974, sings three songs here and while his vocals are mildly appealing, the songs he sings barely register. But there are several worthy moments which register slightly above the (way too) easy-listening fluff that Williams seems forced to conspire to here: the great “Tonight We Swing,” featuring what sounds very much like Tom Scott on tenor sax, is probably the soundtrack’s sole highlight. But it’s a gem. “Double Wedding” offers something of a preface to the light melodic charms Williams provides on How To Beat The High Cost Of Living and according to IMDb, the film’s producer said that the musician playing the Fender Rhodes on the fairly engaging “Welcome Home Harry” is Doovid Barskin, at the time one of Capitol Records' A&R men. "We had to give him a part in the picture," producer Dennis F. Stevens quipped (there’s another nice Rhodes solo in “The Eyes Have It,” but it’s impossible to say whether Barskin performed this). "Otherwise he wouldn't release the soundtrack album.” Harrad Summer offers some of the lightest Patrick Williams on record. It’s a shame he could do this sort of thing so well – which shows that anyone with even a mild interest in Patrick Williams won’t be hugely disappointed by this record. But he’s capable of so much more.

The One And Only (ABC, 1978): Carl Reiner directed this obscure comedy starring Henry “The Fonz” Winkler between his better known films Oh, God! (1977) and The Jerk (1979). This is one of the first feature films Patrick Williams had scored for some years, as he was tied up in scoring a great deal of episodic television and serving as Composer in Residence at the University of Colorado. Here he comes up with a particularly lovely theme, given lyrics by the estimable Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and voiced by the renowned jingle singer Kacey (Kvitka) Cisyk (1953-98). The song, which is repeated often on the soundtrack album and often voiced by the great Chuck Findley on flugelhorn, is something of a forerunner to “The Rose” (and even the previous year’s “You Light Up My Life,” which Cisyk also sang in the original film). Sadly, outside of a great many variations of the theme featuring Findley’s lovely horn (not to mention the extremely dated use of electric drums!) and several dreadful marches, there is little to recommend The One And Only soundtrack except the often lovely and subtle Bill Byers arrangements (on all except the two vocal pieces).

Casey’s Shadow (Columbia, 1978): Martin Ritt’s deliberately out-of-fashion oat drama featured Walter Matthau as a horse trainer and single father to several boys including the adorably cute Casey (Michael Hershewe), who loves horses and inspires the name for the racing horse of the title, Casey’s Shadow. It’s an unusual picture that inspires a particularly unusual score, particularly for late 70s Hollywood. Sure, it’s melodic and sensitive as something like this story would suggest. But it seems to be trafficking in a sort of country-and-western melodrama that would neither have appealed to the mass populous of the time nor provide a score that would appeal to many looking for a stirring musical experience. Patrick Williams provides a suitable enough musical setting with a soundtrack that only kicks into gear, such as it is, on side two. The “Theme” is enjoyable. “Getting Ready” is pure Allman Brothers kitsch (“Ramblin’ Man” apparently features in the film too). Laurindo Almeida provides the brief and beautiful guitar spots (“Shadow Grows,” “A Time For Tenderness”), Dobie Gray performs the Patrick Williams/Will Jennings song “Let Me Go Till I’m Gone” and Dr. John provides two markedly regrettable pieces, “Jolie Blonde” and “Coon-Ass Song” (the latter, obviously featuring Tom Scott, who would feature Mac on his later solo album Apple Juice). The album’s final tracks, “The Blow Out” and “The Big Race,” offer the only musical glimpses here of Patrick Williams’ musical integrity and compositional virtuosity. For the record, the album cover is one of the strangest – and worst – concepts conceived during this period, especially considering it was a major-label release - but it matched the film poster art too.

Cuba (Kritzerland, 1979): Patrick Williams’ score to Richard Lester’s 1979 Sean Connery-starrer Cuba received one of the composer’s more unusual scores, featuring “a lot of driving percussion and some great dynamic, dramatic cues.” It is also one of the composer’s finest achievements, a serious score brimming over with well-conceived ideas and some of Williams’ most beautiful music. Williams’ creates the proper atmosphere by alternating location-appropriate percussion cues teeming with tense strings or low-end horns, all minimally deployed (“Cuba,” “Truck Drive/Julio Runs For It,” “I Don’t Want To Leave Cuba,” “The Ambush,” “The Preparation / No Explanation,” “Skinner’s Escape,” “Air Rescue”) with gorgeous, reflective balladry (a love theme whose variations can be heard in “First Sight,” “Alex Remembers,” “The Reunion,” “I Adored It / Beach Talk / I Knew You Would,” “The Parting”). Williams also jiggers the percussion enough from cue to cue not only to diversify the potential monotony of it all but to suggest moreover – quite beautifully - changes in mood and the film’s varying mise en scène. The bonus track, an easy-listening big band arrangement of the Fain/Webster standard “A Certain Smile,” is a magical Mancini-esque moment worth savoring. It would be a dream to hear a whole album of Patrick Williams in this mode! Apparently, Patrick Williams prepared his music for Cuba for a soundtrack album release that never happened. Bruce Kimmel produced the music’s first-ever release on the Kritzerland label in May 2010 and writes an enthusiastic and informed liner note for the CD promising more of Patrick Williams’ in the future. Here’s hoping! Cuba is a bravura musical achievement.

An American Concerto (Columbia, 1980): Patrick Williams began “An American Concerto” in 1976, when he was composer-in-residence at the music school of the University of Colorado at Denver. It was performed there by an orchestra made up mostly of students, with other musicians drawn from the Denver symphony. The piece received a Pulitzer Prize nomination that year. For this 1979 recording of “An American Concerto,” composer and conductor Patrick Williams assembled Phil Woods (who featured prominently on a Clark Terry album Williams arranged in 1963) on alto sax, Dave Grusin (who featured on Williams’ 1977 album Come On And Shine) on keyboards, Chuck Domanico on bass and Grady Tate on drums to interact with 78 members of the London Symphony Orchestra on the three movements of this 37-and-a-half minute concerto. While the concerto has its moments, particularly during the improvisational sections, and the orchestral passages are often magisterial, there is a never the aural marriage of the two streams there ought to be in such a concoction. The ostinato funk break in “Out of the Darkness (First Movement)” seems to barge into a Stravinsky section right out of the blue (or the darkness!) and when both Grusin and Woods have finished their solos, the piece tries to bring it all together right about the time it seems to end. “Until The End of Time (Second Movement)” seems like a reasonable effort to jazz up Rachmaninoff a bit, with Grusin’s graceful and lovely piano leading Williams’ charge, until the gears shift two thirds of the way through into some sort of a fusion ballad that traipses off into filmic flourishes of tension and the odd relief of Rachmaninoff again. By the concerto’s third movement, “With The Messengers of Joy,” things seem to approach the sound collages Williams has been known to put together. But even this feels like five or six separate and distinctly different pieces edited together. None of this is meant to minimize the musical contributions of any one of the participants. Fans of either Phil Woods or Dave Grusin will not be entirely disappointed. The trouble is that as beautifully executed as it may be, “An American Concerto” feels unfocused and unstructured and never as compelling as its composer or its participants would suggest that it can be. It simply lacks the drama and conviction that Williams has been known to provide to many film scores (where there is a story that simply needs music to be expressed) and any of his shorter musical pieces.

How To Beat The High Cost of Living (Columbia, 1980): Patrick Williams' score to the 1980 comedy How to Beat the High Cost of Living is a witty, engaging piece of jazz fusion that surely ranks its composer as the Mancini of the fusion generation. Here, Williams puts flautist Hubert Laws, who is the perfect choice to perform Williams' sprite and effervescent little numbers, and guitarist Earl Klugh, who would go on to helm Williams' other soundtracks to Marvin & Tige (Capitol, 1983) and Just Between Friends (Warner Bros., 1986), in the front line. Laws and Klugh are perfect together and backed here by a small group of L.A. session musicians including the ubiquitous Mike Lang on keyboards, Tim May and Mitch Holder on guitar, Neil Stubenhaus (who plays the distinctive slap bass which gives the main theme its drive) on bass, Steve Schaeffer on drums and Paulinho Da Costa on percussion. Great music abounds here, from "Down River," the film's main theme, and the slow funk of "Night Moves" (good solos from Laws and Klugh) to the swinging and jazzy "The Edge" and the soundtrack-sounding "The Caper," which briefly cops a lick from "Rise," Herb Alpert's hit of the previous year that also featured Lang's keyboards. Williams expertly crafts themes that not only work well in the film, but play to the strengths and the advantages of his soloists, notably on "Piccolo Boogie" for Laws and "Dream Something" and "It's So Easy Loving You" for Klugh. Laws, who is at his best here, garners more of the playing time than Klugh gets permitted. But the guitarist makes his parts count for something special each and every time he gets the chance. Read more about this album here.

It’s My Turn (Motown, 1980): Diana Ross scored a big hit in 1980 out of this film’s main theme, written by Michael Masser and Carol Bayer Sager. Predictably the Motown soundtrack album the song comes from contains several variations of the theme, an instrumental of the Ross song and four(!) variations by the composer of the film’s score, Patrick Williams. In the typical fashion of soundtracks of the time, two pop songs are also included, “This Is My Love” by Tony Travalini and “Walk On” by Ozone, neither of which have much to do with anything here. As a result, there’s very little of Patrick Williams’ score to hear. There is the beautiful Grusin-like ballad “An Honest Talk” and some of Patrick Williams’ most enthralling string writing on the brief “Main Title” and “Love Begins” (could that be Phil Woods on sax here?). None of the musicians are listed but “It’s My Turn (Jazz Version)” is worth hearing, particularly as one of the two saxes heard here is possibly Tom Scott, who is heading up a rhythm section that I think includes Eric Gale on guitar and Richard Tee on piano (Steve Gadd on drums?).

Dreams and Themes (Allegiance, 1983): Patrick Williams hadn’t made a record under his own name for some years by the time Dreams and Themes came along in 1983. By this point, jazz was going through an uncomfortable period where fusion jazz was either molting into smooth jazz or turning away from the electric eclectics and dance-floors of recent years to what became known then as “neo-traditional.” And there was absolutely no market for the orchestral jazz that Patrick Williams had mastered on 1973’s Threshold. None of this was to deter Williams, who pares down considerably from his previous effort, An American Concerto (1980), to come up with this engaging and often inspiring orchestral fusion, Dreams and Themes. The program is made up mostly of Williams’ originals, including his TV themes for Lou Grant and The Devlin Connection, and a rather inspired take on Johnny Mandel’s “Theme From M.A.S.H.,” a TV show which memorably aired its last episode in early 1983 and begat After M.A.S.H., a show that got its theme and several scores from Williams. As always, Williams assembles a crack team of soloists to bring his wonderfully charming compositions to life: reed player Tom Scott and trombonist Bill Watrous (“Lou’s Blues,” “Agave,” “Times” – which was co-written with famed lyricist Norman Gimbel, who also composed songs with Williams for the films Seniors (1978) and Used Cars (1980) - and the Grammy nominated “Too Hip For The Room”), trumpeter Chuck Findley (“Agave”) and, refreshingly, an arsenal of keyboardists including Robbie Buchanan (“Lou’s Blues”), Don Grusin and Richard Tee (“Theme from The Devlin Connection”) and Randy Kerber (“Theme From M.A.S.H.”). Grusin’s presence in the rhythm section for all but “M.A.S.H.” gives the album an overall feeling of one of brother Dave’s GRP productions of the era. But Patrick Williams gives Dreams and Themes something more significant than many of those radio-friendly records. Nice to hear that music this good was still being made during some of jazz’s darkest days. Dreams and Themes was also issued on the little-known PCM label, which also issued this album’s singles “Lou’s Blues” (PCM 201) and “Theme From M.A.S.H.” (45 on PCM 204 = 45 and 12 inch on PCM 801).

Marvin & Tige (Capitol, 1983): Patrick Williams reunited with Earl Klugh, who was also heard to excellent effect on Williams’ How To Beat The High Cost of Living(1980), for this little-seen yet sensitive drama of a down-on-his-luck white man, Marvin (John Cassavetes), who befriends a young orphan, a black boy named Tige (Gibran Brown), that develops pneumonia. Williams constructs a typically sensitive score for a fusion group and a delicately deployed string section that perfectly resembles much of Klugh’s own music of the time. Klugh is accompanied by keyboardist Ralph Grierson, guitarist Carlos Rios, bassist Neil Stubenhaus and drummer Harvey Mason and provides enough tasteful intrigue to perfectly aid the film and stand alone as a beautiful musical testament. The lovely “Main Title” theme stands out and while it is recycled several times in various iterations (“Out...Then Back,” “Skating” and “End Credits”) it is a strong and gorgeous fusion melody that sounds like something Klugh’s mentor, George Benson, might well have done himself in the mid 1970s. The Mozart Divertimento (“Romance”) is especially well chosen – as any Mozart piece often is – and also gets woven through the musical text (“Searching”) quite nicely, particularly in its solemn delivery by pianist Ralph Grierson, also a frequent soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the time. Grierson, who probably deserves as much credit for the music here as Earl Klugh, practically owns the second side of the record, magnificently soloing on Williams’ startling “Very Sick,” “A Kiss,” “A Painful Goodbye” and “A Swan,” the last several in quiet conversation with Klugh and Williams’ orchestra. The music from Marvin & Tige deserves to be much better known than it is.

Just Between Friends (Warner Bros., 1986): Patrick Williams reunites with guitarist Earl Klugh, writer/director Allen Burns (writer and producer of the Mary Tyler Moore and Lou Grant shows) and the film’s star Mary Tyler Moore for a horrific 80s chick flick that I’ll wager not too many women even bothered to see – if this film ever showed in any cinema. This is another of Williams’ fusion jazz efforts which sounds, not surprisingly, very similar to guitarist Earl Klugh’s own albums of the time. Klugh is backed by the usual suspects: Don Grusin or Randy Kerber on keyboards, Ralph Grierson on piano, Carlos Rios or Tim May on guitar, Neil Stubenhaus on bass, Harvey Mason on drums, Paulinho da Costa and Steve Foreman on percussion and, on several tracks, a string section. The film centers a lot on horribly dated (and now seemingly meaningless) women’s “issues” of the day and the suspect role of aerobics in all of it. So it seems inevitable the pattern the music will follow. But the whole affair is really quite attractive, if not a little dated, even for 1986. Williams covered pretty much the same territory on How to Beat the High Cost Of Living, with a little bit more wit and certainly a bit more verve, though “Reconciliation” comes close. Still, this really is an appealing set of fusion-y pieces that while practically screaming out “MID 80s!” (I’d call it a mix of Tootsie and Flashdance) also finds the resourcefully melodic Williams coming up with some thoroughly appealing melodies throughout. Sure beats just about everything coming out of GRP at the time. Too appealing? Maybe. But anybody who likes Earl Klugh will no doubt ignore all the period trappings and just enjoy the music, which was probably the point of all concerned. The title song is quite nice – performed once with the ensemble and once with “Just Earl” – and the album really does sound better on repeated listens. Surprisingly, Just Between Friends showed up on CD in August 2009 on the Wounded Bird label.

Someplace Else - Bill Watrous with Patrick Williams and his Orchestra (Soundwings, 1986): Trombonist Bill Watrous appeared on some of Patrick Williams’ earliest recordings in New York City. Williams moved West in 1968 but Watrous didn’t relocate there until the late 1970s. The two rekindled their relationship on such recordings as Williams’ 1983 album Dreams and Themes and Williams, who has long favored Watrous’ dexterous and sonorous abilities on the seemingly unwieldy trombone, gave Watrous the opportunity to record an album on the composer/arranger’s own Soundwings label. Here Watrous’ gloriously expressive trombone is paired with Randy Kerber’s keyboards, Tim May’s guitar, Neil Stubenhaus’ bass, Harvey Mason’s drums and Patrick Williams’ magnificent orchestra for a jazzy take on several off-beat classics and a classical approach to some gorgeous jazz charts. Watrous proves he can man such a monumental undertaking. Williams himself provides the grand opening but far too brief “La Fuerza” as well as “Suite Memories,” an orchestral coupling of the standards “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” and “Yesterdays,” and the arrangement for “Come Rain Or Come Shine.” Williams collaborates with Robert Farnon for the adaptation of “Shenandoah” and (presumably, the conductor) Michael Moores provides adaptations of Massenet’s “Adieu Mon Petite Table” and “A Tribute to Debussy.” The trombonist gets down to business with “There Is No Greater Love” (and “No More Blues” on the CD only) with just the rhythm section, showing he’s no slouch at proving his swinging improvisational chops. It’s all quite stirring and makes one wonder why Williams hasn’t utilized Watrous’ voice on more of his soundtracks. Bill Watrous also waxed a sequel to Someplace Else on Soundwings in 1987 called Reflections, arranged, conducted and produced by Patrick Williams.

One Day/One Night - Tom Scott (Soundwings, 1986): Tom Scott has a long history as a jazz and pop session player, a musical director, a featured soloist on many television and film soundtracks, many TV and film scores of his own (few of which he ever plays on) and as a prolific recording artist for the Impulse, Ode, Epic, Columbia, Atlantic and GRP labels. He’s also been a featured soloist on many of Patrick Williams’ albums and soundtracks. Surprisingly, Scott had never really done an orchestral album prior to his 1986 album with Williams, One Night/One Day, which was recorded between Scott’s 1983 Atlantic LP Target and the first of his GRP albums, 1987’s Streamlines. One Night/One Day is, however, only partially orchestral, with such typical Scott fare as “Nite Bloom,” “La La Land,” the standard “Star Eyes” and Williams’ belabored “New Orleans Knows” (featuring a Ronnee Martin vocal) getting the rhythm+soloist with occasional string flourishes routine. The more orchestral music here includes the Patrick Williams/Will Jennings ballad ”One Day” (from the unbilled 1986 film Violets Are Blue, originally sung by Laura Branigan, and covered again by singer Ronnee Martin on her own 1987 Soundwings album), a rather too-ponderous take on Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” that devolves into a seemingly anachronistic 4/4 fusion romp, heavy on the thumping electric bass, and Williams’ own elegant and eloquently fascinating “Romances For A Jazz Soloist And Orchestra.” While One Day/One Night is meant to display Tom Scott’s musical diversity, the program is a little too eclectic to be appreciated in its entirety. But surely the fusion-y “La La Land” and the ethereal orchestral work of “Romances” stand out here.

10th Avenue (Soundwings, 1987): In one of his all too infrequent orchestral jazz records, Patrick Williams returns to first-rate form for this sterling collection of originals and swinging covers. He also returns to New York to form the “Patrick Williams’ New York Band” featuring pianist Richard Tee, guitarist Chuck Loeb, bassist Nathan East, drummer Steve Gadd, percussionist Ralph MacDonald and a terrific orchestra peopled with such soloists as Marvin Stamm and Randy Brecker (trumpet), Bill Watrous (trombone) and Michael Brecker (tenor sax). Surprisingly, Williams offers only two originals here. His title track is one of those classically rousing, infectious and witty concoctions he does so well, a neat little study in how a particularly well-chosen rhythm section (notably Tee, East and Gadd) can hold its own with a charged and horned-up orchestra. The ballad “Her Song,” a feature for Michael Brecker’s passionately endearing tenor sax, reflects Williams’ mastery of the ballad form, no doubt honed from years of providing subtle orchestral palettes for scores of singers. The pop covers here are chosen with a great deal of care and given Williams’ ever affectionate treatment. Pianist Richard Tee is magnificently featured on Paul Simon’s terrific “Still Crazy After All These Years,” a tune he played just like this for years behind Paul Simon himself (this album’s co-producer, Phil Ramone engineered and co-produced Simon’s original). Michael Brecker positively sings on a “New York, New York” styled take on Billy Joel’s now-standard “New York State of Mind,” a song that originally appeared on the 1976 Joel album that proceeded his breakout The Stranger, which was orchestrated by Williams and produced by Ramone (Williams, who arranged Joel’s album the Bridge around the same time, infuses “New York State of Mind” with a particularly great “bridge” here, very much worth hearing). Williams, who covered Paul McCartney’s off-beat “Junk” in 1970, here reflects on the equally off-beat 1977 Wings single “Mull of Kintyre,” gussying up the simple folk lines with Randy Brecker’s terrifically resonant trumpet (in patriotic mode) and those charming orchestra tones that were present on so many of those old Mary Tyler Moore episodes. Williams also covers some refreshingly off-beat jazz material here including Victor Feldman’s “The Chant” (which dates back to 1960’s Cannonball Adderley and the Poll-Winners), Nat Adderley’s familiar “Jive Samba” (also written for brother Cannonball’s group about the same time) and Quincy Jones’ “The Witching Hour,” a superb revival that goes back to an obscure 1965 Quincy Jones album, Golden Boy, that also featured trombonist Bill Watrous, who solos here. Surely, the Grammy nominated 10th Avenue ranks among Patrick Williams’ very best jazz recordings.

Sinatraland (EMI-Capitol, 1998): Patrick Williams insists that Frank Sinatra is a magnet for some of the finest music written during the 20th century and, even more significantly, responsible for collaborating with some of the best arrangers who helped the legendary crooner advance these tunes beyond the ordinary standard covered repeatedly by other singers or jazz players. Indeed. He’s absolutely correct. Aside from the bracing entertainment value of an orchestral jazz celebration of Frank Sinatra, Sinatraland proves Williams’ assertion with some particularly fine (and brassy) arrangements of Sinatra tunes, a beautifully-peopled big band and some of jazz’s greatest contemporary improvisers. Patrick Williams was chosen by the late singer to helm the arrangements on both sets of his highly popular late-period entries, Duets.In preparing for this task, Williams actually went back to many of the tunes’ original arrangements and even their subsequent re-arrangements and probably learned more about Sinatra’s magic than just about any scholar could get by studying the albums. He conceived this wonderful tribute – one of the earliest and most authentic Sinatra tributes ever waxed – assembled a tip-top orchestra and peopled it with soloists who really made the project come alive: flugelhorn player Warren Lustig (“All Or Nothing At All”), clarinetist Eddie Daniels (“I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Just One of Those Things”), tenor saxist Tom Scott (“I’ve Got You Under My Skin”), flautist Hubert Laws (“You Make Me Feel So Young”), alto saxist Phil Woods (“The Song Is You,” “Where of When”), trombonist Bill Watrous (“All The Way”), pianist Mitch Forman (“I’ve Got The World On A String”), alto saxist David Sanborn (“I Hadn’t Anyone ‘Til You”), trombonist Phil Teele and bassist Chuck Berghofer (“Saturday Night”) and drummer Peter Erskine (“In The Still of The Night”). The program sticks to Sinatra’s “great” period – before music’s trendier glitzes pulled the singer unfairly out of the limelight. Even so, Patrick Williams clearly loves Sinatra and his music and responds with a loving tribute that swings in a way that would not only make the man himself proud but honors much of the joy, energy, verve and wit that Sinatra gave to music that he ended up making his own. Few people outside of Patrick Williams would ever get this or get it right because Patrick Williams himself has always done this in his own music, giving variety and spice to tunes that is appropriate to its particular performance. A highly commendable achievement that is as easy to appreciate for what it accomplishes as it is to enjoy for what it is, Sinatraland is one of the nicest big-band jazz recordings waxed in some decades. Added bonus: Patrick Williams writes out his appreciation of Frank Sinatra in his liner notes and makes informed and enlightened commentary on each and every track he presents on his Sinatra tribute program.

Blonde (Playboy Jazz, 2001): Playboy launched its short-lived jazz label, Playboy Jazz, a subsidiary of Concord Records, in the same way it launched its longer-lasting magazine in 1953, with Marilyn Monroe. Patrick Williams was brought in to provide this “jazz-noir soundtrack” to the CBS miniseries, Blonde, written by Joyce Carol Oates (who authored We Were The Mulvaneys, another TV film Williams scored the following year) and directed by Joyce Chopra (Williams had scored three of her previous TV films), and comes up not only with a fine musical portrait of the famed American icon but a remarkably astute and energetic program peopled with some of the greatest jazz players and Hollywood musicians of all time. There’s a horn section, a string section, all eloquently deployed, a rhythm section featuring pianist Mike Lang, guitarist Mundell Lowe, bassist Chick Berghofer, drummer Gregg Field and the vibes of Larry Bunker (who appeared on Williams’ 1973 classic Threshold). The featured soloists are positively dreamy and include trumpeters Roy Hargrove (“Theme from Blonde”), Warren Luening (“Cool Pads,” “The Big Time Bounce,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Easy Street”) and Snooky Young (“The Blues For Norma Jean”), trombonist Bill Watrous (“One Sunny Day,” “Three Little Words”), saxophonists Scott Hamilton (“Party Time”), Dan Higgins (“The Blues for Norma Jean,” “The Road To My Heart”), Plas Johnson (“Cool Pads,” “One Sunny Day,” “Firelight,” “You’re My Dream”) and James Moody (“Me and My Baby”), bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Kenny Burrell (“Heat (The Slow Burn)”). The program is made up mostly of Williams’ wondrous originals but nicely adds Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” as well as the standards “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Three Little Words.” The moody jazz atmosphere is sustained beautifully without repeating melodies or motifs as so many neo-noir soundtrack authors too frequently do. Blonde is a masterpiece of retro jazz that honors its period without cliché and manages to sound as comfortably fresh as a new musical work ought to. Patrick Williams has been particularly gifted in this “tradition-in-transition” style of music since his very earliest recordings, knowing in his conceptions and crafty in choosing the right soloists to bring it all to life. A bravura performance.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Bill Conti

I’ve always enjoyed the sounds composer Bill Conti has provided to films, television and even advertising. He’s one of the most prolific composers Hollywood’s ever known and has managed to create some of the best-known music ever heard. What I like specifically about Bill Conti’s music is the signature orchestral style he’s fashioned. You can hear it as far back as “Gonna Fly Now” from the 1976 film Rocky and in everything he’s ever done since.

Not only does Conti score with an ear to the drama and emotion of a particular setting, he is able to combine a strong sense of jazz with an uncanny ear for popular music. Very few composers have ever done that successfully. And his instrumental combinations are always as imaginative as they are perfectly well-suited to the emotion of what his music attempts to achieve. And what he does with horns is simply magical.

Born in Providence, Rhode Island on April 13, 1942, Conti began studying piano at age seven under the tutelage of his father, an accomplished pianist, sculptor and painter. At the age of 15, he organized a band and began to play for high school dances in Miami, Florida. Conti received a bassoon scholarship from Louisiana State University where he majored in composition and played jazz piano at many of the local night spots to help defray the costs of his education.

After Conti received his Bachelor of Music degree from LSU, he auditioned and was accepted at the Juilliard School of Music in New York where he studied with such musical greats as Hugo Weisgall, Vincent Persichetti, Roger Sessions, Luciano Berio, and Jorge Mester. In 1965 Conti won the Marion Feschl Prize for having composed the best song of the year. He received a Bachelor of Music degree from Juilliard, followed by a Master's Degree.

Bill Conti went on to compose memorable scores for dozens of hit films including Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky films - including Rocky Balboa (2006), the original Rocky (1976) and four of the five sequels - all four of the original The Karate Kid films (1984-94), The Scout (1994), 8 Seconds (1994), Lean on Me (1989), Betrayed (1988), Broadcast News (1987), Baby Boom (1987), F/X (1986), The Right Stuff (1983), Private Benjamin (1980) and the original Gloria (1980).

His TV work includes themes to Dynasty, Falcon Crest, Cagney & Lacey, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Good Morning America, World News Tonight, Prime Time Live, Nightline, ABC Sports, Inside Edition and, of course, American Gladiators.

What follows are some of the albums featuring Bill Conti’s music that were mostly made available after the success of Rocky, when record companies clamored to put out anything by Bill Conti. Not many of these were huge hits. But even though Conti scored a huge hit with 1981’s “For Your Eyes Only,” Conti’s soundtrack releases got fewer and far between – often sacrificed to song collections that may have featured one or none of Bill Conti’s actual music for a film.

It should be said, too, that in the last decade or so, several film-music labels have taken up the mantle of issuing Bill Conti’s soundtracks. Labels such as Varese Sarabande and Intrada have come to the fore to make much of Bill Conti’s music available. Sadly, many of these extremely limited-quantity releases are already out of print, very hard to come by and ridiculously expensive to acquire on eBay and other collector sites.

Harry & Tonto (Casablanca, 1974): Alternating bits of dialogue with Bill Conti’s melancholy piano-based score, the Harry & Tonto soundtrack is as sensitive and touching as the film it accompanies. It’s reasonable to assume that Conti himself is manning the piano, which throughout gives the sense of recalling the good ‘ol days without ever getting sappy or unnecessarily sentimental. Things turn in that direction with brief snippets of good ‘ol tunes like “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Roaming in the Gloaming,” “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing.” Harry & Tonto is due for rediscovery. Highlights: “Harry & Tonto,” the easy “Annie’s Song,” the gentle “The First Time” and the lovely yet brief “Fugue for Tomorrow.”

Rocky (United Artists, 1976): Musically, Bill Conti’s breakthrough score is everything an underdog story needs, brimming with passion, determination, courage, love and heroism. The memorable hit “Gonna Fly Now,” originally scored for Rocky Balboa’s training sequence and which boasts a surprisingly clunky disco beat, has come to stand as the iconic anthem for all sports achievements – from the high school level to even professional gaming, still nearly half a century later. While “Gonna Fly Now” is a perennial the one highlight here is the beautiful jazz exotica of “Reflections” (which is also featured - as is! - on the 1982 Rocky III soundtrack). Another nice, though less significant, piece is “Butkus,” a decent orchestral disco version of the main theme.

An Unmarried Woman (20th Century Fox, 1978):Bill Conti had already scored director Paul Mazursky’s films Blume In Love (1973), Harry & Tonto (1974) and Next Stop, Greenwich Village before Rocky made him famous. Mazursky tapped Conti’s talents one last time for his 1978 feature An Unmarried Woman, a curious mélange of Broadway-styled sentimentality of the sort similar to Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You” (also 1978) and an anachronistically blazing jazz saxophone. The highlight here is surely “Packing Up,” featuring the bracing sax of Anthony Ortega, who also plays on Conti’s Uncle Joe Shannon, Gloria and I, The Jury and, to a lesser extent, the delightful orchestral jazz waltz “Loft Party,” again featuring Ortega and possibly Conti himself on piano.

F.I.S.T. (United Artists, 1978): Bill Conti reunited with Sylvester Stallone on Norman Jewison’s 1978 film F.I.S.T., an account of the rise of a Cleveland warehouse worker who helps form a labor union and rises to great power. Conti’s score is a sweeping orchestral affair that defers to its 1930s timeframe with a “Golden Age” score that could have come right out of any drama of the 1950s. The dazzling “The Big Strike” has a sound that Conti can pretty much claim as his own.

Paradise Alley (MCA, 1978): Sylvester Stallone’s directorial debut and Tom Waits’ acting debut, this 1978 film is about three brothers struggling to make it in or out of 1940s Hell’s Kitchen. The soundtrack features two Tom Waits songs, Sylvester Stallone warbling out Bill Conti and Carole Bayer Sager’s maudlin theme “Too Close To Paradise” (twice!) and Sly’s brother, Frank, singing two of his own songs in something of another Frank’s style. Typically, Conti’s score has its moments, most notably during the swing jazz of “Wrestling Montage” (which reminds me of some of Michael Small’s work on Nero Wolfe), a much needed breath of fresh air on an otherwise stifling set of tunes.

Slow Dancing In The Big City (United Artists, 1978): Director John G. Avildsen’s follow-up to Rocky is this 1978 romance starring Paul Sorvino , who falls in love with the “divine ballerina” Anne Ditchburn. Appropriately, Conti’s score provides enough of the classically oriented music to live up to the film’s title, its balletic needs and the improbable romance that ensues. The symphonic “Balletto” stands out while “The Ovation” weaves in shades of Pachabel’s Canon for orchestral melancholy.

Uncle Joe Shannon (United Artists, 1978): After Maynard Ferguson had a huge hit in 1977 with Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now,” the composer invited the mercurial trumpet player to participate in Burt Young’s little-known feature. The actor plays a trumpeter in the film and it is Maynard Ferguson’s stratospheric sound that comes out of his horn. Ferguson, who can be heard on all of the first side of the record (issued on CD by Intrada in 2008) and the disco-y “Uncle Joe,” has said that this was some of the best work he ever did. But Conti gave him a lot of good stuff to work with. The “Goose’s Club” music is the best, though – with the LP even crediting the musicians, Al Aarons on trumpet, Anthony Ortega on tenor sax, Mike Melvoin on keyboards, Dan Ferguson on guitar, Chuck Berghoffer on bass and Steve Schaffer on drums – and includes “Hot Nights” (a jazz take on “Disco Inferno”) and the jazzy “The Goose.” Conti’s “Seascape,” “Evening Concert” and the moderately restrained “Fire Tragedy” also provide Maynard Ferguson with his finest moments here.

Five Days From Home (MCA, 1978): George Peppard produced, directed and starred in this sentimental drama about a man who breaks out of prison to be with his injured son. Bill Conti provided a typically above average score to this low-budget potboiler that shares much with the simple genius he provided to another low-budget hopeful, Rocky. Conti’s magnificent main theme here is one of his best and is nothing if not “Conti-esque;” a soaring orchestral piece with great horn charts set out over a smoldering disco groove that takes “Gonna Fly Now” to its logical musical conclusion. Perhaps few people know that the lovely “Come with Me Now (Love Theme)” from this soundtrack is now better known as the theme to Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. The rest of the soundtrack is typically melodic and lyrical, but only the main theme and its variations (“The Bridge”) stand out in any meaningful way. It’s a shame this one isn’t better known.

Rocky II (Liberty, 1979): The Rocky films have never been something that have ever appealed to me. Subsequently I have missed out on most of the music Bill Conti provided to most of this film series, up to and including the most recent entry, Rocky Balboa (2006), which I understand didn’t get too much new Bill Conti music anyway. So I’m probably not the best person to speak on the music for Rocky (the music for the third installment did nothing for me and I haven’t bothered with others thereafter). But Rocky II is an exception. If possible, it outdoes its musical predecessor in spades. Certainly the great and notable “Gonna Fly Now” remains prominent throughout, particularly in a nicely disco-fied version featuring a children’s choir that aids the specific scene this piece was intended for. The sequel’s main theme, “Redemption,” maintains enough of the original theme to be familiar, but surpasses its melancholy melody with the aid of the composer’s own pianistic touches. The true joys here, though, are the long and bracing orchestral suites: “Conquest,” “Vigil” and “Overture.” These transcend any number of emotions and some shades of disco. But the depth of emotional intensity Conti provides to these suites elevate them to the level of concertos. I can’t say that I’m familiar enough with the film to know whether these pieces are fully-developed recordings which ended up as brief cues in the film or, more likely, series of cues strung together to form a sort of filmic concerti. But however it happened, the music is often grand, elegant and certainly among the most worthy of the whole Rocky series. One can certainly hear not only how Bill Conti improves upon his own originals for a sequel – a feat he would repeat in The Karate Kid films – but also provides a neat suggestion of some of the motifs the composer would employ even more effectively in the For Your Eyes Only score several years later. Truly a triumph.

The Formula (Varese Sarabande, 1980): A dark and mysterious orchestral score that perfectly suits John G. Avildsen’s 1980 conspiracy thriller starring George C. Scott and Marlon Brando. Bill Conti offers much of his tremendous talent for the darker shades of the symphonic palette, doing away with the need for the rhythm necessary of his action writing or even the camp heard in his comic writing. This is serious and beautiful stuff and one of Conti’s earliest classics. The ballad “Please Stay” reflects Conti’s highly melodic gifts and introduces the Eastern European cymbalum, an instrument film composers such as John Barry and Lalo Schifrin effectively used in scores that include some sort of war-related Euro intrigue. Thankfully, Conti employs the cymbalum sparingly, using it to frost only several bars of several cues (“Main Title,” “That’s True,” “The Chocolate Shop”). Highlights: the ominous “Main Title” – which reminds me of the Ingram Marshall piece Martin Scorcese chose to open Shutter Island - “Lisa And Barney” and “Please Stay.” Varese Sarabande has just announced a limited run of 1200 copies of The Formula on CD to become available in early October.

For Your Eyes Only (Liberty, 1981): This is the music which first pricked up my ears to the great sounds Bill Conti was capable of providing for a film. John Barry, who’d scored all but three of the prior James Bond films, apparently refused to come back to England to score this film for tax reasons. So he recommended Conti, who provided this score to the twelfth official Bond film, one that replaced the comic (Jaws) and ridiculous space operas (Moonraker) of before with a meaner, leaner, more action-oriented and believable, less farcical secret agent (the producers also wanted Blondie to perform the title song, but their song was declined and the producers had Conti provide his Academy Award nominated pop classic to Sheena Easton, who is the only singer of a Bond song to ever appear in the main titles sequence). For Your Eyes Only, which I assert is among the greatest of all the Bond films, gets one of its finest post-Goldfinger /Thunderball scores here with Conti’s very much of its moment scores. Mistakenly condemned by many for its proliferation of “disco,” Conti’s score is an action-packed classic of scoring magnificence. Every note fits absolutely perfectly into Roger Moore’s John Glen-directed epic adventure. There’s little doubt that almost every note on the album, issued by Liberty in 1981, and the superb CD – with bonus cues, issued by Ryko in 2000 – is necessary for the full effect. While I love every second of this music, highlights include “A Drive In The Country,” “Take Me Home” (which recalls the Harry & Tonto theme a bit), “Melina’s Revenge,” “Gonzales Takes A Drive,” “St. Cyril’s Monastery,” “Runaway” (!), and “Submarine” (even the extras on the CD are worth hearing/having).

The Thomas Crown Affair (1999): I had neither thought of nor heard Bill Conti for many years prior to this fantastic Pierce Brosnan film, directed by John McTiernan. All three previously worked together on McTiernan’s directorial debut, Nomads (1985). McTiernan went on to become a big shot Hollywood director after Predator and Die Hard and Brosnan, of course, went off to become world famous as James Bond (1995-2002). Bill Conti, however, went off into the background, scoring many more small films, TV movies and the annual Academy Awards presentations. He roared back to the top with one of his strongest and most popular scores ever here. “I scored the film with two thoughts,” the composer told Film Score Monthly at the time. “One came from the opening titles. As a wink to the original, Faye Dunaway plays Pierce's psychiatrist. These lyrical title cards are going on during their conversation. There was a flow, and lyricism to them that I heard. That's my job. It's not a miracle or a mystery. I do that, because I know the language of music. Those things affect me musically, and I told John 'Wow, I really like this. As a matter of fact, I heard the whole thing. I'll let you hear it tomorrow morning.' And that's what I did. I went home, and started messing around with pianos, and ended up with five of them. I brought the music to John, and he liked it. I also have a string orchestra and a percussion section to reflect the slick nature of Thomas Crown. He's like a tap dancer, so you hear tap dancers on the percussion tracks. Those two ideas brought me the entire score.” A soundtrack was released on the Pangaea label, featuring four songs which greatly inform the mood of the film, including Sting’s lovely take on Michel Legrand’s “Windmills of Your Mind” (the hit song from the original caper film of 1968 starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway) and “Sinnerman” by Nina Simone, and only eight of Conti’s many cues for the film, totaling about 14 and a half minutes. Several “private label” discs of Conti’s score were issued at the time. One that calls itself the “Extended Motion Picture Soundtrack” looks and feels like a bootleg (there’s no label or catalog number) and contains 67 minutes of music. No “Everything (Is Never Quite Enough)” or “Caban La Ka Kratchie” – neither of which have anything to do with Bill Conti – are here, but Sting’s song and Chico O’Farrill’s otherwise unissued “Windmills of Your Mind” are here. A somewhat more official version of Bill Conti’s magnificent score turned up on “Crown Records” a little later on. It’s possible that Conti himself issued this music in limited quantities privately. Here, there is a whopping 80 minutes of music including the tremendous cues “The Break-In,” “Cleaning Service,” “Burning A Renoir in Martinique” and “Pillow Talk” and every little piece of music written for the film (plus an alternate take) except the songs (the uncredited Chico O’Farrill number here is simply called “A Black And White Ball” and Sting and Nina Simone are both here as secret tracks). Again, Conti scores perfectly to the film at hand. While the “Crown Records” issue of this score (pictured above) is the way to hear this fantastic music (much of which is incredibly jazz-inflected) – and it may be all but impossible to find – however one hears any of this music, it is all good. The Thomas Crown Affair represents Bill Conti at his very finest.