Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Bernard Herrmann at 100

Composer Bernard Herrmann emerged from the Golden Age of cinema and contributed a signature sound to some of history’s most significant films. While his name may not be known to most of today’s filmgoers – he died, after all, a full generation or two ago in 1975 – Bernard Herrmann’s music is undoubtedly some of the best and best known the cinema has ever produced.

Chances are, if you care about film or film music, you know who Bernard Herrmann is and you either know or appreciate his importance. If, on the other hand, you just like movies or certain kinds of movies, then you may not know Herrmann’s name but you will undoubtedly know his mighty influence.

Born in New York City on June 29, 1911, Bernard Herrmann scored only 49 films from his first, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), to his last, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). But those two films alone should register the validity of the composer’s enduring significance.

Even deeming Herrmann’s filmic output to “only 49” features is like saying Beethoven wrote “only nine” symphonies. Herrmann’s output was so spectacular and dazzling from one score to the next – romance to thriller and fantasy to drama (very few comedies, to the composer’s own chagrin, but all in the realm of human irrationality that Herrmann himself experienced so mightily) – and each score so densely textured that it’s hardly considered background music or film music. It’s music of the highest order written for film.

Almost everything Herrmann touched or reflected upon was new and unique, with scarcely a lazy regurgitation of repeated themes, recycled riffs or pop-ified cover to be heard. Herrmann created visual symphonies with all the drama and action of a concert work for the pure benefit of not only aiding but enhancing a purely visual medium. Herrmann’s music greatly contributed to making film an aural medium as well.

Despite his training and musical pedigree (he founded the New Chamber Orchestra of New York when he was only 20), Bernard Herrmann brought something very different to the film medium than many of his peers at the time. While so many other composers working in film at the time were frustrated writers who took on lowly film work to earn a living and, resultantly, imprinted their own ideas on top of the story on the screen, however inappropriate that might have been (or writers who overstated emotion with overly emotional statements), Bernard Herrmann wrote music for film and only sought to enhance the action or the psychology of what was happening on screen.

Herrmann contributed a great body of work to radio and later to television during his long career. The composer’s radio career was launched in 1934 when he was appointed staff conductor of the Columbia Broadcasting System. He contributed music to many radio programs during these years, notably composing scores for many of Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre on the Air productions, including the historic “War of the Worlds” (1938 – which recycled older music) and the riveting Campbell Playhouse production of “The Hitch-Hiker” (1941 – a radio play written by Lucille Fletcher, Herrmann’s wife at the time and librettist for his opera Wuthering Heights and writer of the great Sorry Wrong Number).

Welles took Herrmann to Hollywood in 1940 to score his first film, Citizen Kane, the same year Herrmann was appointed chief conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra, where the conductor helped reversed the fortunes of many little-known works and little-known composers. Herrmann scored Welles’s second film The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), but the studio cut as much of Herrmann’s score from the final film as they cut much of Welles’s original story.

Between those two movies, Herrmann wrote the score for William Dieterle's The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), for which he won his only Oscar. In 1947, Herrmann scored the atmospheric and highly celebrated music for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

Herrmann is best known for his work on Alfred Hitchcock films made between 1955 and 1964 and five of Ray Harryhusen’s fantasy films made between 1958 and 1963 – all of which he was perfectly suited to score.

While I haven’t heard or had the opportunity to appreciate everything Bernard Herrmann has ever done, I am especially thankful for the following works, which I continue to enjoy over and over and over again. My point is not to make a completist’s guide to Bernard Herrmann, nor a definitive guide to the composer’s allegedly “greatest hits.”

These are the Bernard Herrmann pieces that I have discovered and those that continue to give me the greatest joy. I’m sure there are others. Feel free to share yours if I haven’t covered them here. I would love to hear more Bernard Herrmann and I hope to help others continue to hear the composer’s fantastic and ageless work.

Citizen Kane: For all the sound and fury of Orson Welles’s first film, undoubtedly one of the greatest films ever made, it is amazing how little composer Bernard Herrmann’s contribution (in his first film score) is acknowledged or even considered as part of the film’s success. That is perhaps the point. Nothing about Citizen Kane was ordinary and Bernard Herrrmann knew that going into it. His music is far more suggestive than persuasive (as it might later be). Today, filmmakers are routinely celebrated for constructing fictional documentaries that owe a huge debt to Citizen Kane. This was never intended to be a film, as so many were in 1941, to knock you over the head with overstated drama or emotion. Orson Welles wanted you to believe that Charles Foster Kane was a real man. Phony movie music would never have accomplished this mission. That leaves viewers with scarcely little enough music to recall outside the film except the song Welles’s Kane sings with a chorus line of showgirls at his paper’s party and the horrific aria from the fictitious opera Salammbo. Herrmann’s underscore is so understated as to be practically silent, like the lonely winds whispering through the spacious eaves of a large, empty house like Xanadu. These are the cues that I like best, especially notable during the dramatic opening sequence (“Prelude/Xanadu/Snow Picture”) and the captivating closing (“Rosebud and Finale”). Herrmann later strung a few of the Citizen Kane themes into a medley called “Welles Raises Kane,” mostly fitted out with the more pronounced music Herrmann provided to Welles’s next film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). The medley contains only a minimal amount of music from Citizen Kane. A 1970 Phase 4 album titled Music From Great Film Classics (and subsequent reissues on various labels over the years) credits this music solely to Citizen Kane, which is unfair. Quite a number of variations of the Citizen Kane music have been made available over the years, but I would suggest the 14 minutes of the score Charles Gerhardt recorded, under Bernard Herrmann’s supervision, in 1974 and reissued several times since. I don’t think Herrmann’s score was intended to be enjoyed away from the film. But the most important pieces from the score are included in Gerhardt’s recording and offer enough of a glimpse into Herrmann’s method to satisfy most listeners (and Kiri Te Kanawa’s handling of the aria here suggests how nicely Herrmann’s impossible piece could have sounded).

Hangover Square: John Brahm’s tremendously atmospheric thriller starred Laird Cregar in a stunning performance (his last) as a talented composer who suffers bouts of murderous amnesia. Throughout the film, Cregar’s character, George Harvey Bone, is developing his concert-hall concerto, called here Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, while a scheming chanteuse provokes him to write melodies for her to sing in her nightclub act. His personality splits even further as he wrestles with being a composer and a tunesmith for his beloved. These anomalies present themselves in the final concerto, a remarkable piece by Bernard Herrmann, combining grandiloquent statements of Lisztian fury with slightly off sweet bites of melodic tunefulness (gleaned from Bone’s songs for the singer). Herrmann’s “Concerto Macabre” is indeed macabre and an achievement of longing and anger as much is revelation of sensitivity and despair. Its unrelenting and nearly unendurable crescendo leads to a (literally) fiery outcome, something for which Herrmann’s superb sense of drama and signature musical vocabulary is absolutely perfect. Herrmann personally selected this concerto for inclusion on a 1974 recording by Charles Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic Orchestra. Herrmann was also present when the recording, titled Citizen Kane – The Classic Film Scores of Bernard Herrmann was made. Pianist Joaquin Achucarro delivers a truly fine performance, but it lacks some of the voltage of the original performance (which has been available, notably on an out-of-print Japanese CD).Gerhardt’s orchestra makes the effort worthwhile though.

The Man Who Knew Too Much: One of Bernard Herrmann’s most notable turns in film is, remarkably as himself, conducting – even more remarkably – another composer’s work. Herrmann can be seen conducting Arthur Benjamin’s (1893-1960) astonishingly Herrmann-esque “Storm Cloud Cantata” in the classic 1955 Alfred Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much, best known probably for the corny Ray Evans/Jay Livingston song “Que Sera Sera,” a huge hit in its day for the film’s star, Doris Day (not the only time the film’s composer was forced to work around a tune derived for the popular market). The conductor surprisingly declined the opportunity to record a composition of his own for the climatic sequence, favoring the idea of re-orchestrating Australian composer Arthur Benjamin’s concert piece from Hitchcock’s 1934 original – a piece Hitchcock especially commissioned (it derived its title later on). Herrmann felt the piece was ideal to the 12-minute dénouement and favored the idea of conducting the London Symphony Orchestra with a huge choir and a single pair of cymbals at the Royal Albert Hall. Such an inspired filmic climax so heavily dependent on the presentation of music inspired other directors to allow composers such as John Barry (Deadfall, License to Kill) and Lalo Schifrin (Red Dragon) to take turns in front of the camera at the podium doing what they did so often behind the scenes. Herrmann’s fierce seriousness with the baton shows that he knew and understood each and every sound of an orchestra, no matter how large, and how important each sound and silence was to the overall drama. Little wonder how he and Hitchcock were so perfectly paired and, miraculously, how they could accomplish all they did together. The Man Who Knew Too Much is a perfect display of mutual admiration between one of cinema’s few strong director-composer alliances. All this said, Herrmann’s main theme for the film is sumptuous and, remarkably, not nearly as celebrated as it ought to be.

A Hatful of Rain: Movies about drug usage weren’t only disdained and more or less prohibited in the 1950s by social watchdogs that sought (or claimed) to protect American interests, but it was believed that respectable audiences would never want to see such things. Don Murray’s excellent performance in Fred Zinnemann’s terrific film proved otherwise. Contributing to the film’s success was Bernard Herrmann’s mercurial music, which pulses with emotional highs and lows to a thoroughly riveting climax that suggests the physiological and emotional sturm and drang of drugs’ effects long before loud hippie-rock clichés were ever even considered. A 16-minute suite of the film’s original themes is included in the 1999 Varese Sarabande CD Bernard Herrmann at Fox Vol. 1. The Varese Sarabande CD also includes the scores for The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956) and Tender is the Night (1962), both of which are worth a listen or two. The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, in particular, supports Nunnally Johnson’s popular and topical (for the time) film. But for a talky two and a half hour film that resonates with a generation at least three times removed from today’s current viewership, it offers very little music and certainly not enough of Bernard Herrmann’s signature flair. A notable exception, though, is the absolutely stunning “Maria,” named for Marisa Pavan’s character, a war-time lover of Gregory Peck’s Tom Rath.

Vertigo: As film soundtracks go, perhaps none are finer than Bernard Herrmann’s sublime Vertigo, a haunting reverie on love and a romantic reflection on loss. Anyone who has ever known the intersectional subterfuge of these paralyzing handicaps of emotion will certainly understand, appreciate and celebrate Bernard Herrmann’s supreme musical achievement here. The film, like the music that accompanies it, is a timeless masterpiece of odd, though hardly inhuman, emotion that will resonate long after box-office receipts are counted and critical diatribes are debated. The film is perfect. So is the music. Like so much in Bernard Herrmann’s repertoire, one could scarcely improve in any way on what is presented. This is a magnificent achievement that resounds with the timelessness of any great classic. Only the Orson Welles-directed Citizen Kane, also scored by Bernard Herrmann, could be said to best Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo as an American cinematic triumph. But Herrmann’s music here is so much stronger and more persistent than that which he presented in Citizen Kane - mostly to accompany long passages of exposition without any dialogue at all – that the music can be said to contribute significantly to the success of the final piece of art (an argument against the contrived “auteur” theory of filmmaking). Like so many of the best Bernard Herrmann scores, nothing in Vertigo should be isolated apart from the rest of the score. Vertigo is intended, like a symphony or concerto, as an entire performance; not a string of themes where something cute and clever or pulpy or popular can be pulled to “say it all” or say anything that can make a radio audience immediately happy (although the main title theme, “Prelude” was sampled beautifully in a perfectly sci-fi way for Lady Gaga’s recent “Born This Way” and “The Nightmare” can still freak out just about anyone still to this day). Varese Sarabande producer Robert Townson indicated in his notes to the 1996 CD release of the Vertigo soundtrack (the most complete version of the original soundtrack available) that “Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo, like the film, continually reveals new aspects of itself on each hearing.” This is absolutely true and appropriate to point out. Vertigo remains impressive, revealing and new some half century after its initial release. Its themes are used to this day in many contemporary film and TV scores, most recently in Tom Ford’s beautiful A Single Man (2009), to reflect on the tragic poetry of love and loss.

North by Northwest: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 film is one of cinema’s most enduringly entertaining pleasures. From the beautifully-worded script, the pitch-perfect acting, the glorious cinematography and the elegant production design, to say nothing about Hitchcock’s assured delivery of it all, this is a film that weaves action, adventure, comedy and romance together with unerring precision and clever fortitude. It is, as Hitchcock always said, “pure cinema.” Almost everything about this bravura film is perfect and it continues to entertain over half a century later. Add to this Bernard Herrmann’s sensationally varied score and the film is hard to better in any way. Just like Vertigo, Bernard Herrmann’s music is probably the sine qua non of Alfred Hitchcock’s film and certainly among both masters’ highest achievements. The music is as much of a rollercoaster ride (sans clichés) as the film (clichés turned somehow to coinage), which wrests Madison Avenue man Roger Thornhill out of his comfortable if not meaningless existence and throws him into a Josef K. like morass where he finds himself a suspected spy/double agent/murderer. From Herrmann’s striking all-over-the-map (get it?) main theme, “Overture,” scored brilliantly to Saul Bass’s dazzling titles sequence, to the very last note, this score – like the film itself – excites attention and lures listeners with its dazzlingly differences. Action and chase themes abound (“Overture,” “Cheers,” “The Station,” “The House,” “The Knife,” “The Stone Faces,” “The Cliff”), peppered by those that suggest the mystery of Thornhill’s conundrum (the great “Kidnapped,” “The Return,” “The Airport,” the brilliant “The Cafeteria”) and relieved by the blossoming love themes (“Interlude,” “The Forest,” “Finale,” which of course hints at what triumphs?) that hint at Roger Thornhill’s emerging humanity. Unlike many other Herrmann scores, several cues here are repeated in slightly altered form, including the main titles theme (loveliest with added harp glissandos in “On the Rocks”) and the obligatory love theme that unites Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill with Eva Marie Saint’s Eve Kendall. There’s also more a fair bit more source music here than usual for a Bernard Herrmann score too (“It’s A Most Unusual Day,” “Rosalie,” “In The Still of the Night,” “Fashion Show”) but it works perfectly well in the film as well as on the soundtrack, which was issued in full on CD on the occasion of the film’s 40th anniversary in 1999.

The Twilight Zone: In the 1950s, composer Bernard Herrmann was no stranger to the increasingly popular medium of television. He had scored several TV shows during the ‘50s and wrote a popular and memorable theme for the Richard Boone starrer Have Gun – Will Travel (1957-1963). Herrmann also scored seven episodes of Rod Serling’s influential and still much loved TV show, The Twilight Zone, between 1959 and 1963. His most notable achievement here, though, was for the exceedingly memorably pilot episode, “Where Is Everybody?” (1959), where the composer provided over 11 minutes of highly distinctive music that beautifully underscored the panic and dread of total isolation and the pervasive horror of “being watched.” Herrmann’s original 11-minute score is included on the 1985 Varese Sarabande disc The Best of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone along with Marius Constant’s immortal theme, several of the series’ more memorable scores (by Jerry Goldsmith and Nathan Van Cleave) as well as Herrmann’s 12 and half minute score to “Walking Distance,” the show’s fifth episode and Herrmann’s second TZ offering, a beautiful reflection on the haunting visions of Vertigo and a first consideration of the poetic unreality of Marnie.

Pyscho: Without a doubt, Psycho is Bernard Herrmann’s best known score, even if the only piece that is widely known is “The Murder,” which accompanies the film’s notorious and justifiably celebrated shower scene. This one piece of music alone is instantly recognizable to generations of film goers, even those that don’t pay attention to film music, and says as much economically as do such themes from “The Twilight Zone,” “Mission: Impossible” or “Jaws.” But each and every note of this remarkable symphony set to filmic images is magnificent, noteworthy and memorable. Even without one clear melody or tuneful piece, Herrmann’s music more than succeeds in aiding the film’s influence and continued popularity. The psychologically colorful score is as much a high point in composer Bernard Herrmann’s career as the provocative black-and-white film was for director Alfred Hitchcock. From the startling main title sequence (“Prelude”) – which shocks viewers into submission as dramatically as Herrmann’s main title sequence for On Dangerous Ground (1951) – and the hauntingly soothing “The City” (and other such gently foreboding cues heard early on) to the adrenaline rush of “Temptation” and the mysterious strain of “The Search” and other later cues such as the strikingly disturbing “Finale” – this is music that evokes fear and provokes tension better than just about anything that ever came before or since, with the possible exception of the darker cues from Ennio Morricone’s giallo scores. Psycho is nothing less than the ideal symphony of terror and dread and the single most perfect musical statement in the thriller/horror film genre. That’s why it’s been lifted (as in Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake of the film) or copied countless times for other such productions and the reason such young up-and-comers of the ‘70s like Brian De Palma and Larry Cohen wanted Herrmann’s music to ramp up their own significantly slighter horror-film projects. While Herrmann’s originally recorded score for Psycho has yet to appear on record or disc in an official capacity, the composer recorded a suite of the Psycho themes (“A Narrative For Orchestra”) for a Phase 4 LP that has been reissued under quite a few different titles, including the misleading appellation Psycho: Great Hitchcock Movie Thrillers (Decca, 1992). The composer was finally afforded the opportunity to record his score to Psycho on October 2, 1975, for the British Unicorn label, right before leaving London to work on Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Fronting the National Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernard Herrmann presents his Psycho music in all its glory. It is a magnificent recording and as close to an original soundtrack as we’re likely to get.

Cape Fear: The breathtaking music Bernard Herrmann composed for the 1962 J. Lee Thompson film of Cape Fear never found its way onto a soundtrack album during Herrmann’s lifetime, which certainly must have convinced the composer that Hollywood didn’t take him seriously. Trouble was the tawdry thriller probably wasn’t the equal of Herrmann’s masterly music. Indeed, following this film Thompson continued to attract top-shelf composers to his increasingly trashy thrillers while Herrmann’s scores at this point start outclassing the films they accompany. When Martin Scorsese was slated to direct a remake of Cape Fear some three decades later, the great film composer Elmer Bernstein wanted the job; not to insert his own Herrmann-influenced score, but to re-score Herrmann’s original work for the new film. Bernstein found in Herrmann, whose final score was for Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver, both an inspiration and a friend. But he also strived to ensure that Herrmann’s musical statements stayed with this film and, more importantly, were better suited to Scorsese’s dynamic presentation than Thompson’s original.

As Scorsese’s film was denser, more layered and considerably longer than the original, Bernstein sought to insert some of Herrmann’s music from Herrmann’s previously unused score to Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966). Bernstein was a champion of Herrmann’s Torn Curtain score, having recorded it in 1977 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for his Film Music Club label in 1977 (the album was reissued with greater distribution in 1978 on the Warner Bros. label and in 2006 on the FSM CD box set Elmer Bernstein’s Filmmusic Collection). Of course, the pairing makes perfect sense. Bernstein’s flawlessly realized score, presented on a still readily available CD, does his mentor proud. He derives a symphony of menace the composer himself would have done and, despite Bernstein’s claim to the contrary, would have been very proud of. A lot of this music, especially the second part of the main theme “Max,” was used in The Simpsons spoof episode “Cape Feare” (1993) as well as later episodes of the popular animated show where the Sideshow Bob character recurs. Highlights from Torn Curtain are many and include the lovely source cue “Valse Lente,” the stirring “The Farmhouse“ and “The Killing” (a scene that is scored without music in the original film). The Torn Curtain score has since been recorded – apparently more fully than under Bernstein’s direction (even though the score was never fully completed) – under the supervision of Joel McNeely.

The Alfred Hitchcock Hour Composer Bernard Herrmann scored a whopping 17 episodes of the hour-long The Alfred Hitchcock Hour shows between 1963 and 1965 (his music for the series was tracked in other episodes too). Surprisingly, none of these episodes was directed by Hitchcock himself and, even more remarkably, Herrmann never worked on any of the better-known Alfred Hitchcock Presents shows that aired between 1955 and 1962, many of the best of which were directed by Hitchcock. But the music Herrmann provided to The Alfred Hitchcock Hour really ranks among some of the greatest work the composer ever did in the televisual medium and certainly stands mightily alongside his best film work. The shows themselves are strong enough to warrant Herrmann’s magnificent musical counterpoint. Perhaps it was due to the show’s hour-long length, affording the composer, as Varese Sarabande producer Robert Townson puts it, the opportunity to create “mini-film scores unto themselves.” During Herrmann’s centennial year, Varese Sarabande issued – for the first time ever – eight of the 17 scores Bernard Herrmann composed for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour series. Apparently the music from only 14 of these episodes survives and the excellent 2011 Varese set - the only Herrmann release thus far in this centennial celebration - is said to be the first in a series of what can only be two volumes. The best music here also corresponds to the series’ best shows (from its second and third seasons), including “A Home Away From Home” (starring Ray Milland), the excellent “Behind The Lock Door” (starring James MacArthur and Gloria Swanson), the riveting “Body in the Barn” (starring Lillian Gish) and the terrific “Change of Address” (starring Arthur Kennedy). No worthy collection of Bernard Herrmann’s music should be without this tremendous disc, filled with “action, romance, macabre humor and lots of classic, chilling Herrmann suspense.”

Marnie: Although this 1964 Alfred Hitchcock film has never received the respect or appreciation it deserves, many consider Bernard Herrmann’s score for the film, his last for Hitchcock, to be among his very best. It truly is. From the powerful, attention-grabbing opening, this elegant orchestral music courses through a variety of jagged emotions in a way that tells a compelling story without any need of visual accompaniment at all. I’ve seen this film so many times, I know exactly where every note of this score belongs. Herrmann’s Marnie is a masterpiece of form and content, with such a strong signatory flair as to rank among one of the three or four greatest film scores Herrmann ever did (my vote for the others would be from Hitchcock films too). The music tells of substantial psychological trauma and the subsequent delusional mindset that results with such strength and conviction that Hitchcock could have presented a real half-assed story (as many believe he did) and Herrmann’s music would tell you all you need to know. A 45 of the theme was issued in 1964 and then the score was issued on vinyl in 1975. The Japanese Tsunami label issued a CD of the 48 and a half minute score in 1994 (pictured above). Herrmann recorded a suite of the film’s themes for his 1969 album Music from the Great Movie Thrillers (aka The Great Hitchcock Movie Thrillers). Several other conductors have recorded suites from Herrmann’s “Marnie,” including Lalo Schifrin, Paul Bateman, Nic Raine and Esa-Pekka Salonen, but Joel McNeely conducted the full score for a 2000 Varese Sarabande CD. For a less doomed spin on Marnie’s more romantic passages, consider Herrmann’s Joy in the Morning, the composer’s next film assignment and last American studio film, issued on CD in 2002 by Film Score Monthly.

Endless Night: In 1966, Bernard Herrmann left the United States and relocated to London, where he lived until the end of his life. Divorced from his second wife and disenchanted with Hollywood, Herrmann was occasionally sought out by European directors like Francois Truffaut for Fahrenheit 451 (1967) and The Bride Wore Black (1968) until his American rediscovery came in 1972 with Brian De Palma’s Sisters. Unlike the big-budget Hollywood dramas and fantasies of yore and those starry Truffaut efforts, Herrmann was often contracted (at his regular “elder statesman” working rate) to work on low-budget films that often never even played in the United States. For his thriller/horror films of this period, he would introduce an unusual solo instrument into his orchestrations that had significance to the story at hand: a whistler in Twisted Nerve (1968 – a theme later used as is by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill Vol. 1) and a harmonica in The Night Digger (1971). For 1972’s Endless Night, Herrmann used a Moog synthesizer to underscore the perplexingly haunted nature of the lead character. Although based on a terrific Agatha Christie whodunit – a genre Alfred Hitchcock despised and repudiated throughout his career – the film of Endless Night was directed by former Hitchcock associate Sidney Gilliat (Jamaica Inn, The Lady Vanishes) in a Hitchcockian style that recalls Suspicion and Dial M For Murder, peppered with a bit too much psychology and further seasoned with too much suspicious sexuality. Herrmann’s music here is masterful, despite a regrettable song bizarrely voiced by Shirley Jones - known at the time as Mrs. Partridge on The Partridge Family and whose voice doesn’t come close to suggesting the film’s pictured singer, Hayley Mills - with lyrics from a poem by William Blake (also used in a song by The Doors). The film’s terrible reviews and utter lack of success prevented it from ever opening properly in the United States or attaining a soundtrack release in any form. Still, it is a grand piece of work from Bernard Herrmann that deserves better than it ever got – not unlike the film, which is a jolly good mystery of pleasurably rousing though campy delights. Herrmann’s music helps you take it seriously. But just about everybody could have probably done a little better here. Curiously, while the film offers up former Hitchcock actor George Sanders (who killed himself a few months before the film’s release), the film’s two lead actors, Hywel Bennet and Hayley Mills, had previously appeared together in Twisted Nerve, also scored by Bernard Herrmann.

Sisters: Composer Bernard Herrmann hadn’t scored an American motion picture since 1965’s little-known film Joy in the Morning (a nice score issued on CD recently by FSM) when director Brian De Palma convinced the composer to score his 1973 horror/thriller Sisters, starring Margot Kidder. Indeed, De Palma laid in previously-recorded cues by Herrmann from films like Vertigo and Marnie as “temp tracks” to the movie to indicate what he wanted the score to be like. The director has said that some composers appreciate this musical guidance a director provides while also indicating that composers such as Ennio Morricone are deeply opposed to such suggestion. One guesses that Bernard Herrmann, too, was opposed to De Palma’s use of temp tracks, stating – as IMDb suggests – that while De Palma was showing the film to Herrmann, the composer stopped him with, "Young man, I cannot watch your film while I'm listening to Marnie ." Ironically, Herrmann was probably more influenced by the past accomplishments De Palma reminded him of than he thought as Sisters is much more of a reflection on Herrmann’s achievements than he might have liked to admit. Still, Bernard Herrmann recycling his past glories (and truthfully, few composers aren’t susceptible to such temptation) still makes for a first-rate soundtrack of classic proportions. Without any doubt, Bernard Herrmann’s classy score for Sisters far outranks and outflanks the cheap, nearly sleazy quality of Brian De Palma’s concept thriller, a bit of ‘70s psychological mumbo jumbo mixed with the pure grind-house horror churned out then for the drive-in crowd. “Main Title,” “Phillip’s Murder” (the equivalent of Pyscho’s shower scene), “Siamese Twins” and “Separation Nightmare” mostly recall Cape Fear mixed with the Moog-y overtones of Endless Night. “The Dressing Room” and “The Ferry, The Apartment, Breton” all reflect upon Vertigo with a touch of Marnie thrown in for good measure. And so on and so on. As Bernard Herrmann had undoubtedly developed a truly signature musical vocabulary by this point in his storied career, it was inevitable that his previous work in the thriller genre would influence his work here. But this is not to undermine the validity or originality of this truly great music, filled with as much that is new and interesting (in cues such as “Apartment House: The Windows” “The Couch,” “The Solution, The Clinic, Hypnotic Trance,” “The Syringe” as well as instrumentation, which always allows Herrmann to differentiate ideas for specific films) as that which hints at earlier glories. Sisters is another of Herrmann’s exciting and enticing macabre dances, perfectly complementing the emotion and action on screen and one that stands frighteningly well on its own. The soundtrack, presumably recorded in London in 1973, was issued on an Entr’acte LP in 1975 and has been reissued on CD in Japan in 1996 and by the Australian Southern Cross label in 2001.

Taxi Driver: While Bernard Herrmann’s final film score is among his greatest achievements, it is neither the prototypical Herrmann soundscape nor is it the most obviously Herrmannesque in what it accomplishes. But Bernard Herrmann as much as ever creates the perfect musical equivalent for the story a film is telling. The presence of a steamy saxophone (played by Ronny Lang, for the most part) causes many to consider this a “jazz” score when it really is anything but. The saxophone suggests a jazzy respite from the composer’s orchestral flourishes, which provides a perfect counterpoint to the teeming underbelly of an urban nightmare right out of Dante. But the little jazz that is present here (usually the painful wail of the saxophone) is only suggestive in the way that Jerry Goldsmith’s use of a mournful trumpet suggests a stilted romanticism of a corrupt L.A. in Chinatown. Herrmann’s use of a saxophone here isn’t unlike the use of the predominant solo instruments in his later scores (whistle, harmonica, synthesizer, etc.) to carry a certain thematic mood across his otherwise dominating themes. Like the expressive considerations of jazz, the saxophone here represents a soul crying for release. Even Herrmann’s atypically melodic main theme hints at jazz. But I don’t think jazz was ever on Bernard Herrmann’s mind, either before or during the writing of this score. I liken the sound of the saxophone to a romantic ideal of something that doesn’t really exist. It is the inner world of Travis Bickle – a sad, lonely place that’s even dirtier than the world he feels at home in. Bernard Herrmann died the night he finished this score for Martin Scorsese’s brilliantly conceived film. One senses that the great composer said all he had to say and accomplished all he wanted (my favorites are the most Herrmann-like: “Main Title,” “Phone Call,” “Sport and Iris,” “God’s Lonely Man”). Written by Paul Schrader in a poetic language all his own and starring Robert De Niro in an unforgettable performance (not to mention beautiful turns from Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks and Harvey Keitel), Taxi Driver represents an apogee for all concerned, even though some of its participants went on to other great work. It certainly was one of Bernard Herrmann’s greatest of many great achievements.

A very special thanks here to Jon Burlingame and Paul Conway, for the information, affection and insight that allowed me to write whatever I did here. I can never claim to have their knowledge or understanding of Bernard Herrmann’s music. But I hope my appreciation is evident. Any inaccuracies or offences are my own fault and I apologize to anyone who might be offended by any comment I’ve provided. I especially thank the erudite Christopher Palmer and Royal S. Brown for their glorious writings and incredible scholarship and the expressions of deep and abiding appreciation they have dedicated so lovingly to Bernard Herrmann.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Impulse! 2-on-1 - Celebrating 50 Years of Impulse Records!

Impulse! 2-on-1: More Than Just A Label. An Identity. A Statement.

Impulse Records was more than just a label. It was an identity. It was a statement. Impulse Records was a musical brand of artistry that provided some of jazz’s greatest creators with a platform for making some of their very best music. The new wave of jazz was indeed on Impulse!

With its distinctive logo and unique packaging, Impulse stood out in the crowd. But it was the music that made Impulse impressive. Impulse captured not only such traditionalists as Duke Ellington and Art Blakey but also cataloged many of the fiery voices of the emerging free-jazz movement, notably led and inspired by John Coltrane, who made his most memorable music for Impulse.

The label also caught everything in between, from traditional jazz combos with a special affinity for jazz’s best drummers to psychedelic jazz-rock and orchestral outings, while later specializing in spiritual jazz and musical fusions.


Ahmad Jamal: Even though the great pianist Ahmad Jamal had “retired” from performing in the late 1960s, he waxed a number of recordings for the Impulse label, including these two live sets from 1969 and 1971, that proved he was not only at the top of his game but at the height of his musical prowess.

Albert Ayler: The searing and searching saxophone of Albert Ayler (1936-70) explored the roots of jazz as much as its outer reaches. John Coltrane brought Ayler to the Impulse label, where he recorded a dizzying display of his iconoclastic lore, including these two scorchers, Love Cry and The Last Album.

Alice Coltrane: Pianist, harpist, organist and composer Alice Coltrane (1937-2007) turned her attention toward orchestral endeavors on these great Impulse albums from the early 1970s, producing a rich musical palette without ever sacrificing the spiritual jazz she had long championed.

Archie Shepp: Swept up in the “new thing” of the 1960s, Archie Shepp quickly began to discover how more traditional forms of music, like African polyrhythms and R&B, could appropriately inform the jazz he was delivering, as evidenced on these two terrific albums recorded between 1968 and 1969.

Art Blakey: The revered leader of the Jazz Messengers, one of jazz’s greatest musical proving grounds, drummer Art Blakey (1919-90) recorded only these two dates for Impulse, 1961’s Jazz Messengers!!!! (with the superb “Alamode”) and 1963’s unconventional, yet sterling, quartet outing A Jazz Message.

Coleman Hawkins: Coleman Hawkins (1904-69) was not only one of jazz’s greatest tenor players, but probably its loveliest ballads performer. The Hawk recorded several Impulse records, including these two from 1962: Today and Now (with “Love Theme from ‘Apache’”) and the unusual Bossa Nova.

Curtis Fuller: Bebop trombone great Curtis Fuller had already led dates for Prestige, Blue Note, Savoy and Epic and joined the Jazz Messengers when he waxed his only two leader dates for Impulse in the early 1960s, Soul Trombone (with fellow Messengers) and Cabin in the Sky (arranged by Manny Albam).

Duke Ellington: It was producer Bob Thiele’s idea to feature legendary orchestra leader Duke Ellington (1899-1974) in small-group settings with former Ellingtonian Coleman Hawkins (1905-69) and the fiery saxophonist John Coltrane (1926-67). Both 1962 sets are inspired, historic and featured here.

Elvin Jones: At the time propulsive drummer Elvin Jones (1997-2004) manned the beat in John Coltrane’s 1960-1965 quartet, he also found time to lead these great Impulse gems, Illumination (co-led with Coltrane bassist Jimmy Garrison and featuring Coltrane pianist McCoy Tyner) and Dear John C.

Gabor Szabo: While the late, great guitarist Gabor Szabo (1936-82) recorded many studio albums during his brief career, he was always best served by his few live recordings. These two live Impulse albums brilliantly catch Szabo’s working group, featuring the stunning guitarist Jimmy Stewart, in 1967.

McCoy Tyner: Legendary pianist McCoy Tyner launched his mercurial solo career with these two exciting trio sides, a mix of well-known standards and effective originals (including the now standard “Effendi”) recorded in 1962 while he was still part of John Coltrane’s historic quartet.

Milt Jackson: Vibraphonist Milt Jackson (1923-99) led a double life, co-fronting the Modern Jazz Quartet, while also charting a significant course of his own on records such as 1962’s bracing Statements and 1964’s light-hearted Jazz ‘n’ Samba – two of his earliest and best Impulse endeavors.

Pharoah Sanders: Saxophonist Pharoah Sanders was initially part of John Coltrane’s group before scoring his own hit with 1969’s “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” The saxophonist went on to become a world-class leader, waxing the East-meets-West-meets-Africa of these two great albums from 1973.

Shirley Scott: Hammond B-3 great Shirley Scott (1934-2002) often played with John Coltrane in the 1950s but rose to fame as part of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis’s group. Her long string of Impulse albums included these two, among her best, alternating her trio with a big band arranged by Oliver Nelson.

Sonny Rollins: Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins was already one of jazz’s greatest players and composers when he recorded 1965’s On Impulse. Thirteen years later that album’s template, There Will Never Be Another You, caught live several weeks earlier, finally appeared. Here, they’re together at last.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Say what you will about her music - and Lord knows I have said some unpleasant things in my time about the Material Girl (except for my long-standing defense of Who’s That Girl) - Madonna’s influence is unparalleled.

Over the years I have occasionally fallen under Madonna’s spell, though I don’t often care to admit it. I am usually much happier watching her videos than listening to her music – though Ray of Light stands as something on its own and somewhat meaningful for the ages.

Still, watching her videos makes for something that’s intoxicating. Here’s why watching Madonna is often better than just listening to Madonna. Maybe I like to watch. This is why.

“Open Your Heart” (1986) - The video was originally set to be directed by Madonna's then-husband Sean Penn, but in the end the final honors went to Jean-Baptiste Mondino, who went on to work with Madonna on other videos including the Visconti-inspired "Justify My Love" (1990). Shot in Echo Park, California, the video features a beautiful boy named Felix Howard.

“Like A Prayer” (1989) – I know this better from the notorious and briefly aired Pepsi commercial (a big deal in its day), directed by Pittsburgh born Joe Pytka, who also directed several Michael Jackson videos. This wonderfully conceived video, though, is directed by Mary Lambert, who initially made a name for herself directing Madonna videos (“”Like A Virgin,” “La Ilsa Bonita” etc.), and is probably best known as the director of the Pet Semetary films (the second of which features Edward Furlong). The song features the Andraé Crouch Choir and Madonna's longtime backing vocalist Niki Haris and the video spotlights actor Leon Robinson as the Jesus character.

“Express Yourself” (1989) – Despite accolades to the contrary, this song (which is hardly revolutionary) certainly inspired Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” The incredible video was directed by David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network and the forthcoming The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and obviously inspired by Fritz Lang’s magnificent Metropolis. Madonna herself claims to have had a hand in every part of the creation of this video and mentioned jokingly in a 1990 BBC interview that the main theme of the video and the cat metaphor represents that "Pussy rules the world."

“Ray of Light” (1998) – No words need apply, except maybe “beautiful.” The Koyaanisqatsi-like video is directed by videographer Jonas Åkerlund (Spun, Horsemen).

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Lalo Schifrin

A very happy 79th birthday to Lalo Schifrin, one of the greatest composers jazz and film has ever known, a damned fine pianist and truly one of the nicest people you could ever want to meet.

Born June 21, 1932, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Lalo Schifrin’s resume would be impossible to list here (check out my discography for that). But there are so many high points, including Dizzy Gillespie’s historic Gillespiana, Jimmy Smith’s award-winning The Cat and Paul Horn’s award-winning Jazz Suite on the Mass TextsCool Hand Luke, Bullitt, Dirty Harry and Enter the Dragon and iconic themes to TV’s “Mission: Impossible” and “Mannix.”

Lalo Schifrin continues a tireless pace of composing, recording, touring and conducting, having recently released Invocations , the seventh in his remarkable series of “Jazz Meets the Symphony” recordings and the 45th release on his own Aleph label, scoring the hit Rush Hour films, video games such as Splinter Cell and composing the score for the upcoming James Caan film Sweetwater (interestingly, one of Schifrin’s earliest assignments was scoring the 1964 “Memo From Purgatory” episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour starring Caan in one of his first roles).

By way of a tribute, here are some of my favorite Lalo Schifrin moments, gleaned from what I could find on YouTube (YT). Happy birthday, Lalo Schifrin!

“Theme From Joy House” – Jimmy Smith from The Cat (Verve, 1964):

“Egg Eating Contest” from Cool Hand Luke (Dot, 1967):

“Jim on the Move” from Mission: Impossible (1968):

Bullitt (1968) main titles sequence:

“Look Up” from The President’s Analyst (1968):

“La Columna” from Che! (1969):

“Dirty Harry” from Dirty Harry (Aleph, 1971) – I would have preferred to find the main titles sequence on YT, but this gets most of the good stuff:

“Latin Slide” from La Clave (Verve, 1972) – also featured in a different recording as a source cue from the 1971 film Pretty Maids All In A Row:

“Sampans” from Enter the Dragon (Warner Bros., 1973):

“Black Widow” from Black Widow (CTI, 1976):

Monday, June 20, 2011

Nicola Conte "Love & Revolution"

For more than a decade now Nicola Conte has scored brilliantly as a DJ, promoter, producer, compiler and recording artist. From his earliest recording, 2000’s still remarkable Jet Sounds (also issued in the US as Bossa Per Due), Conte has also displayed a retro appreciation for the lounge appeal of bossa nova combined with a soulful groove informed by his love of all things jazz. He even waxed a record for the vaunted Blue Note label in between regular forays on the Italian Schema imprint where he made his name.

That love has deepened over the years to prominently spotlight things in the spiritual realm of what some folks call improvised creative music. Indeed, the Japanese branch of Universal Music commissioned Conte to compile Spiritual Swingers (EmArcy, 2010 – also issued in Europe), focusing on the “deep, afrocentric, modal jazz from Universal Music Archives.” That set is a terrific mix of diverse features from Abbey Lincoln, Ahmad Jamal, Dorothy Ashby, Yusef Lateef, Roy Haynes, Mark Murphy, Klaus Weiss and others that lives up to its grandstanding title and Conte’s abiding love for this sort of thing.

Conte’s Rituals (Schema, 2008) unveiled this nearly heavenly sound kaleidoscope in shades that were a little too primary and sounds that were frankly just a bit too obvious and ultimately annoying. So expectations for Nicola Conte’s Impulse (!) debut were on the low side.

But while Universal Music seemed to repay Conte for Spiritual Swingers, the result, Love & Revolution, returns the favor by giving the label – celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and releasing an average of one new record a year these days – with an album that lives up to Impulse’s storied heritage.

With Love & Revolution, it’s fair to say that Conte, a guitarist who almost never dominates and a musician that often doesn’t even participate, comes into his own as a composer and conceptualist. It’s a mature work that is more cohesive, satisfying and unique than just about anything Conte has attempted before. A hippy dippy vibe prevails here, as suggested by the retro cover graphics, recalling some of the Impulse work of Dave Mackay and Vicky Hamilton, whose “Here” is heard here. But that’s more a superficial catch-all than what this music is all about.

As before, the tendency toward songs with singers prevails here and, as usual, Conte surrounds himself with a variety of young singers who give his music just the right touch of silky soul including José James (“Love From The Sun,” “Here,” Mal Waldron’s “Temple of Far East” set to Conte’s words), Gregory Porter (“Do You Feel Like I Do,” Jackie McLean’s “Ghana” set to Conte’s words), Melanie Charles (“Mystery of Love,” “Love and Revolution,” Cal Massey’s “Quiet Dawn,”) and Hungarian vocalist Veronika Harcsa (“I’m the Air”).

The vocalists soak up the ambient nightclub-y vibe of the rhythm section – driven with loving perfection by drummer Teppo Makynen throughout – and several prominent soloists enhance the jazzy groove of the whole thing like tenor saxist Tim Warfield (“Love From The Sun”), trumpeter Till Brönner (gorgeous on “Here,” “Temple of Far East”) and even Conte himself (briefly on “Mystery of You,” “Shiva”).

Swedish reed player/arranger Magnus Lindgren, who solos nicely on “Do You Feel Like I Do,” “Scarborough Fair” and “Love and Revolution,” provides the subtle sketches that punctuate each track with a warm glow of northern soul and a white heat of those orchestras of yore.

Conte doesn’t play on every track. But when he does, his guitar compatibly fuels the fluidity of the rhythm section and provides an appropriate undertone to propel the other players to some notable work as evidenced particularly on “Scarborough Fair,” “Quiet Dawn” and “I’m the Air.” Like Quincy Jones, Nicola Conte is particularly adept at attracting and assembling a worldly group of musicians from a variety of different backgrounds to pontificate perfectly in their own manner in the leader’s given medium.

Of especial note here are Conte’s “Black Spirits,” with Nailah Porter on vocals and Logan Richardson on alto sax; “Shiva,” with Melanie Charles on vocals and Logan Richardson on alto sax; the dancefloor-ready instrumental “Bantu,” featuring Magnus Lindgren on flute; the sadly too-short “All Praises to Allah,” featuring on Magnus Lindgren on reeds and Logan Richardson on alto sax; and “Ra In Egypt,” with Gaetano Partifilo on alto sax and Flavio Boltro on trumpet.

Apparently, while Love & Revolution has not had an official US release (and one doesn’t appear to be scheduled), several versions of the disc are available. There is the single-disc European version with the white-sky cover featuring 15 tracks. The Japanese version of the CD adds two bonus tracks, Max Roach and Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Freedom Day,” featuring Tim Warfield, Fabrizio Bosso and Pietro Lussu, and Horace Tapscott’s excellent “The Black Apostles,” featuring Logan Richardson, Nicholas Folmer and Pietro Lussu.

There is also a European version of Love & Revolution with the pink-sky cover (pictured above) that features a second disc with the Japanese bonus tracks plus Dave Brubeck’s “Autumn in our Town,” with Veronika Harcsa and Fabrizio Bosso; “Here (alt. version),” with Alice Ricciardi on vocals in place of José James; “The Happiness Tree,” with Veronika Harcsa on vocals and Pietro Lussu lustrous on piano; and Charles Lloyd’s semi-standard “Forest Flower,” with Tim Warfield on tenor sax and Flavio Boltro, a song first heard on a 1964 Chico Hamilton album released on Impulse.

Needless to say, this is the one to get. The added tracks only enhance what is already a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

A vinyl copy of Love & Revolution is supposedly forthcoming too.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Celebrating CTI Records 40th Anniversary – Part 4

Masterworks Jazz continues the 40th anniversary celebration of the great CTI Records with another four newly re-mastered discs including George Benson’s Body Talk, Hubert Laws’s In the Beginning, Freddie Hubbard’s Straight Life, and Stanley Turrentine’s Don’t Mess with Mister T.

Originally produced by Creed Taylor and in most cases recorded by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder, the Masterworks Jazz series is supervised beautifully by Richard Seidel and masterfully re-engineered by Mark Wilder and Maria Triana.

As before, the reissues are packaged in thin flat matte gatefold sleeves that replicate the original LP gatefolds CTI is known for. Unfortunately, though, the flat finish of the covers doesn’t do justice to Pete Turner’s phenomenal cover photos and the sleeves will got lost on many CD shelves and hold up poorly to repeated usage.

Still, it’s the music that matters and CTI represents some of the best jazz recorded during the early half of the 1970s.

Straight Life - Freddie Hubbard: Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s second CTI album is one of his very best. Coming on the heels of the classic Red Clay, a tough act to follow, no doubt, Straight Life more than compensates with two long blowing tunes and a sublime ballad performance that ranks as one of the best in the trumpeter’s entire discography. It is a landmark of 70’s jazz and one that Billboard aptly enthused perfectly “bridges the gap of modern and traditional styles,” adding that “Hubbard’s trumpet is exquisite and all of the other musicians complement each other to great extremes.”

Few better – or more – words can explain what makes a great jazz album great.

Originally released in January 1971, Straight Life confirms not only that CTI was on the right track (Hubbard’s record was the label’s 12th LP release) but, more importantly, that Creed Taylor was a force to be reckoned with in shaping the ideal of what jazz could achieve during the 1970s. But good as the music and the musicianship might be, the record was hard to program into bite-size radio formats and, in the end, it probably didn’t perform as well for Hubbard or the label as it ought to have.

Straight Life reunites much of the team responsible for the solid music of Red Clay, including saxophonist Joe Henderson (first heard with Hubbard on the trumpeter’s 1965 album Blue Spirits), keyboard player Herbie Hancock (who featured Hubbard on many of his early solo records, including his 1963 debut Takin’ Off) and ubiquitous bassist extraordinaire Ron Carter, adding guitarist George Benson and percussionist Richard “Pablo” (Richie) Landrum to the mix. Jack DeJohnette replaces Red Clay’s Lenny White.

It’s a dream-team of heavy-hitting modern players to be sure. But it’s interesting to note that Hubbard, Henderson, Hancock, Carter and DeJohnette had earlier contributed to Hancock’s 1966 Blow Up soundtrack and Hubbard would later re-group with Henderson, Benson, Carter, DeJohnette and fellow CTI alum Hubert Laws for the trumpeter’s lovely “To Her Ladyship” from 1978’s Super Blue.

Up first is Freddie Hubbard’s 17-minute jam tune “Straight Life,” with Hancock comping gloriously on Fender Rhodes and Jack DeJohnette firing rapidly on all pistons, more like a rock drummer than a jazz drummer, but definitely a part of the song’s frenetic action. Landrum must have had to work overtime to keep up. The song is almost like a funked-up bossa. Henderson solos magnificently in a trademark style that mixes the power and fury with the passion and fire of his unappreciated and undervalued Milestone albums of the period. Henderson’s solo nearly decimates Hubbard’s own solo – nothing shabby, but hardly matching the intensity of the song’s other performers. Hancock then solos in the funky melodic style he established on Fat Albert’s Rotunda (no spacey interludes here), followed by Benson providing an almost intellectual interjection that still has the warm soulful passion that seems to suggest the composer wanted to alternate Henderson and Hancock’s jazzier interludes with Hubbard’s and Benson’s soulful passages. A percussion workout ensues to bring it all back home.

Weldon Irvine (1943-2002) joins the cast on tambourine (!) and contributes the memorable “Mr. Clean,” a perfect vehicle for Hubbard’s fiery horn antics – which are at their very best here – and the band, which crafts a singularly sample-worthy and Hubbard-esque groove, rock this thing out. Hubbard, Henderson, Hancock and Benson all solo beautifully. Irvine would wax the tune again several months later with Richard “Groove” Holmes on the B-3 great’s Comin’ On Home and later on his own 1972 solo debut Liberated Brother. Each version of the tune sounds considerably different than Hubbard’s take, suggesting that Creed Taylor knew precisely how to keep everybody on target and in line. It’s worth noting that one of Irvine’s earliest recordings outside of his stint as Nina Simone’s musical director, is “Can’t Let Her Go” from Freddie Hubbard’s 1968 album High Blues Pressure.

(Given the strength of Weldon Irvine’s additional contributions to the CTI legacy, namely “Sister Sanctified” – later renamed “Funkfathers” without proper credit – and “Introspective,” both from Stanley Turrentine’s 1972 CTI classic, Cherry, it’s surprising the pianist/composer/arranger was never provided an opportunity to work more extensively with CTI, a label that even recorded Nina Simone in the years after Irvine left her employ.)

Straight Life closes out with an extraordinarily lovely performance of “Here’s That Rainy Day,” the 1953 song by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen from the forgotten Broadway musical Carnival in Flanders. Even by 1970, when this version was recorded, the song had become a jazz standard and a favorite among pop singers, particularly Frank Sinatra, who first recorded the song in 1959 and performed it often in concert on his many TV specials. Producer Creed Taylor had also recorded the song on productions for Stan Getz, Kai Winding, Wes Montgomery, Astrud Gilberto and Walter Wanderley, so it’s fair to assume that he too liked the song just as much. In this reading, Hubbard, on flugelhorn, is paired with only guitarist George Benson and bassist Ron Carter for a truly inspired take that warrants classic status. While it’s probably no surprise that “Here’s That Rainy Day” was issued as the album’s single, it’s probably less surprising that this lovely jazz instrumental didn’t turn into a hit when Elton John’s “Your Song” and Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” ruled the airwaves.

For whatever reason, Straight Life is graced by not one but two Pete Turner photographs, a rarity in the CTI discography, as was the trumpeter’s follow-up album First Light. The photographer has no idea why designer Bob Ciano juxtaposed these two photographs. But he clearly approves. The front cover is called “Liberty” (1962), a double exposure. “I went to the Battery and shot [the Statue of Liberty] with a long lens for the small image,” explains Turner. “Then I took the boat to Liberty Island and kept shooting as we got closer and closer. The airplane flying by was just luck.” The back cover, “Parthenon” (1964), was from a series the photographer produced cataloging various wonders of the world, but “not picture-postcard style, more interpretative.” The abstract take on monuments honoring the Roman goddess of freedom (Libertas) and the Greek goddess of wisdom (Athena) has a curiously perfect relationship to the music of Straight Life.

Body Talk - George Benson: This is one of the more unusual and subsequently less predictable albums in guitarist George Benson’s entire catalog, maybe even in the whole of the CTI discography as well. Like the guitarist’s earlier Tell It Like It Is, a one-off coupling of Benson with Mongo Santamaria’s arranger, Marty Sheller, this staged studio presentation pairs the guitarist with the J.B.’s Pee Wee Ellis, one of the more significant architects of the James Brown sound.

Released in September 1973, Body Talk was not only Benson’s third CTI album but also, more interestingly, the first album the guitarist waxed for the label after signing a notoriously “exclusive agreement” with CTI in June of 1973. While the album never allows Benson to sing, as he wanted to do all along (suggesting that he still wasn’t in control of his own career), it is clearly designed to be different, pointing Benson down the instrumental R&B road that the J.B.’s helped forge - though never with the hit success of so many of the era’s one-hit wonders in the pop instrumental field. It’s sort of like Creed Taylor was only willing to let George Benson go so far down the road he wanted to travel.

Pee Wee Ellis is a little-known part of the CTI legacy, having contributed to such Kudu albums by Hank Crawford (Help Me Make It through the Night), Esther Phillips (From A Whisper To A Scream, Alone Again, Naturally, Black-Eyed Blues, Performance, Capricorn Princess) and Johnny Hammond (The Prophet).

Body Talk proved to be Ellis’ only appearance on CTI proper. And while it’s hard to gauge just how much he contributes to Body Talk, it is apparent that there is a headier quotient of soul present here that was nearly absent on so many previous Benson albums. Ellis may have been more inspiring than inspired, but Benson delivers a true jazz guitar classic with Body Talk.

Regardless of how you feel about this album or its material or its significance in the CTI legacy, it really is chock full of Benson’s terrific guitar playing. There is absolutely no adherence to standards-based formulae or overblown arrangements. Benson plays his ass off. The mood is mostly funky. But it swings like crazy from the very beginning.

From the opening “Dance” and Donny Hathaway’s “When Love Has Grown” (originally heard on the 1972 album Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, an album that also featured CTI covers in Grover Washington, Jr.’s “Where Is The Love” and Hubert Laws’ “Come Ye Disconsolate”) to “Top of the World,” Benson’s fantastic original that closes out the original LP, Body Talk is a superb showcase for Benson’s beautiful guitarisms.

A recent addition to the band is second guitarist Earl Klugh, who had a brief appearance as a teenager on Benson’s previous White Rabbit and gets a solo here on “When Love Has Grown.” Klugh left Benson’s band shortly hereafter to start his own solo career and was replaced by Phil Upchurch. Benson and Klugh’s next recording together didn’t come until their 1987 duo disc Collaboration.

Bassist Ron Carter returns, of course, alternating duties with the truly underrated electric bassist Gary King (1947-2003) – in one of his earliest recorded outings – while Benson and Carter’s fellow CTI all-star Jack DeJohnette again mans the drums for the last time on a CTI date with the guitarist (the two would reunite for the last time together on Freddie Hubbard’s 1978 album Super Blue).

A horn section featuring Jon Faddis, (former J.B.’s) Waymon Reed, Dick Griffin and Frank Foster (all rather surprising for a CTI session and most of whom were drawn from the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band of the time) is sporadically added for the Benson originals “Plum,” “Body Talk” (a faster and funkier take on “Tequila” – a song producer Creed Taylor scored a hit with in Wes Montgomery’s 1966 cover, also featuring bassist Ron Carter) and the superb “Top of The World,” without a doubt this album’s finest moment and surely one of CTI’s hidden jewels.

Pianist Harold Mabern makes his second of two CTI appearances on Body Talk (his only other appearance is on Stanley Turrentine’s Don’t Mess With Mister T., recorded the month before) to almost no fanfare whatsoever. Surprisingly, it’s also the only time Benson and Mabern have been recorded together. Surely there must be a story there.

Mabern, who now mans the chair in tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander’s elegant quartet, deserved better than he got here. He’s never afforded any solos and on Fender Rhodes, he sounds nearly anonymous in the background, lacking any of the bluesy ambition he displays otherwise with signature force on the acoustic piano. My guess is he was probably chosen here for his presence in Wes Montgomery’s mid-sixties band that went scandalously unrecorded by Creed Taylor when the late guitarist was recording his hit albums for Verve.

Body Talk isn’t one of CTI’s most memorable outings. But it offers some of guitarist George Benson’s best “guitar magic” and most inspired playing on record and a chance to hear him strut his stuff on the especially inspired “Top of the World.”

Pete Turner’s striking cover photo led Billboard to proclaim that “(t)he cover in red and black will stop customers. If you like windows and walls, this jacket is for you.” It is a marvelously presented image, a photograph Turner calls “Barn Door,” originally taken in 1966. “It was shot in Scandinavia and it was just as red as this. The hook on the back cover is actually right near the door, but Bob Ciano decided to extend the wall forever and the hook ended up left of the fold.”

Don’t Mess With Mister T. – Stanley Turrentine: Don’t Mess With Mister T. is the last of the studio albums tenor sax great Stanley Turrentine recorded for CTI Records between 1970 and 1973 and unquestionably one of the saxophonist’s - and the label’s - most satisfying outings. Indeed this album and Turrentine’s first CTI album, Sugar, rank not only among Stanley Turrentine’s best recordings in his multi-faceted career, but also among his most popular and the two that lent him the nicknames that stuck with him throughout the remainder of his career (“The Sugar Man” and “Mister T”).

Helmed with beautiful fortitude by arranger/pianist Bob James, Don’t Mess With Mister T. is a joy from start to finish, offering Stanley Turrentine’s sensual horn playing on some bluesy, after-hours grooves that showcase his sound and style to, ah, a “T.”

Originally released in September 1973, Don’t Mess With Mister T. was a success from the very start. This may have been the label’s greatest crossover success, gaining black audiences that Miles Davis was trying (but not succeeding) to court at the time.

No doubt it had something to do with Alen MacWeeney’s memorable mack daddy cover shot of Turrentine in Black Godfather mode peering over his shoulder in what appears to be a Cadillac Eldorado (the pimpmobile of choice back in the day) and the saxophonist’s flawless performance of the title tune, best known from its appearance in a popular Blaxploitation film of the time.

Marvin Gaye’s tremendous “Don’t Mess With Mister T.” comes, of course, from the first-rate soundtrack to the now forgotten film Trouble Man, which yielded another superb CTI cover (also arranged by Bob James) by Grover Washington, Jr. on Soul Box. Turrentine takes charge of the song, playing it with the heart and soul that suggests it was written just for him.

Bob James gives the song a relaxed feel that is perfect for Turrentine’s easy-going but unquestionable command of things. Buffered by James on piano and electric piano, Richard Tee on organ, Ron Carter on bass, Idris Muhammad (who replaced Billy Cobham) on drums and an absolutely perfectly deployed horn and string section, Turrentine offers up a sumptuous celebration of jazz and soul, melding it together with a heated precision that could melt butter or warm honey to overflowing. James takes a terrific solo on piano here that ranks among his best on record to this point, but everybody coalesces into a terrific climax of musical ecstasy that made it the signature theme it ultimately became (Turrentine recorded the song again for his 1995 album T Time).

Turrentine offers up two of his own originals, the spunky “Two For T,” adding Harold Mabern on electric piano and Eric Gale on guitar, and “Too Blue,” with Mabern, Gale and percussionist Rubens Bassini. In addition to showcasing Turrentine in his element, “Two For T” features spots for Mabern, Carter and Muhammad while “Too Blue” offers solos for Gale and James, again on piano. James wisely does away with the horn and string accoutrements on these numbers (though “Too Blue” finds the horns making a quick appearance) and just lets Turrentine and company take care of business.

“I Could Never Repay Your Love” offers up one of the saxophonist’s signature gospel performances, something too few of his records ever did (check out “I Told Jesus” for Turrentine’s previous bow to the church). The song was originally one of the few from the Spinners’ eponymous 1973 album that didn’t turn into a hit. That album yielded hits out of “I’ll Be Around,” “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love,” “One of a Kind (Love Affair)” and “Ghetto Child.” Turrentine is impassioned and beautiful here, set alight by James’ lovely strings and horns, and touching, yet fiery solos from Eric Gale and Richard Tee.

The original program totals only about 30 minutes. But even though more music from these sessions was left off the record, it’s worth pointing out that while vinyl in those days could accommodate considerably more music, Creed Taylor consciously kept CTI albums around a half hour long, or fifteen minutes a side, to maintain the big, clear sound he developed in the studio with engineer Rudy Van Gelder. Like digital files of today, the more you compressed music on vinyl, the less aural clarity it had. That’s why CTI records sounded better than so many jazz records of the day.

The first time that Don’t Mess With Mister T. was issued domestically on CD in 1988, it included Stanley Turrentine’s first recording of the Michel Legrand song “Pieces of Dreams” from these sessions as a bonus track. The memorable song from the not-so-memorable 1971 film had already been covered by such singers as Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan and Rita Reys, but this was one of the first jazz recordings of the tune. It was obviously a song that the saxophonist felt strongly about. But producer Creed Taylor didn’t quite agree, so the song was left off the original album. This decision probably prompted Turrentine to seek more autonomy (and considerably more money) at Fantasy Records when his CTI contract expired.

Stanley Turrentine recorded the song anew in a silkier, smoother (and ultimately less satisfying) arrangement by Barry White’s arranger, Gene Page, as the title track to his Fantasy debut album, issued in October 1974.

The song became a radio hit and Creed Taylor hurriedly released the 1973 recording of the tune on The Sugar Man, a hodge-podge compilation of outtakes and unreleased tunes, in February 1975. Even though the Bob James arrangement of the song is the stronger of the two performances, the Fantasy version had already become a hit and it was that version that most people listened to and, more importantly, bought. The CTI version was pretty much ignored.

The song found its way onto CD as part of the first domestic digital issue of Don’t Mess With Mister T. in 1988 (as well as several compilations and the 2003 European edition of the CD, which matches the 2011 CD’s programming), but in an altered mix that differed from The Sugar Man version by adding Richard Tee’s organ pronouncements throughout. Producer Richard Seidel was not aware of The Sugar Man mix of “Pieces of Dreams” until it was too late – so the “other” mix of the song is heard here again.

Still, back on Don’t Mess With Mister T., where it belongs, “Pieces of Dreams” reveals one of the few misjudgments Creed Taylor made in his lengthy career and, in hindsight, one of the first cracks in the mighty wall that CTI had built in only a few short years.

While Taylor’s instincts may have evaded him for “Pieces of Dreams,” it was clear that his instincts had been right on for the recording of Don’t Mess With Mister T.. That’s because, as it turns out, the album we’ve known for nearly four decades was not the first recording Turrentine made of the album.

Several months earlier, Turrentine got together with Bob James, Eric Gale, Ron Carter, (the strangely uncredited) Johnny Hammond on organ, who miraculously orchestrates from his particular position, and Billy Cobham (drummer on Turrentine’s previous Salt Song and Cherry) to lay down tracks for the album. Even though this group more or less made up the CTI All Stars of the time, producer Creed Taylor felt the recording just wasn’t working.

Despite the expense involved, Taylor opted to do nothing with the recordings until a more suitable recording situation presented itself. Three of the tracks recorded at these sessions finally showed up on the 2003 European CD release of Don’t Mess With Mister T., including a completely inferior take of the title song (thoroughly justifying Taylor’s initial decision), Billy Cobham’s “Mississippi City Strut” and Bob James’ “Harlem Dawn.”

Each track in itself is spectacular, especially given the fact that its leader is no longer with us and every note he blew is worth savoring. But given the terrific nature of the final album that was Don’t Mess With Mister T., it’s audibly obvious why the producer thought the music, while perfectly serviceable and exceeding the qualities of most jazz fusion being made elsewhere at the time, was certainly not up to the CTI standard, a bar that was raised with each successive album at this point in the label’s history.

Indeed, Don’t Mess With Mister T. raised the bar for Stanley Turrentine, and provided a measure that the saxophonist probably didn’t equal or better at any point after this in his career. It’s a classic that sits high among the classics Stanley Turrentine waxed and one of the great CTI titles of all time.

In The Beginning –Hubert Laws: The title to flautist Hubert Laws’s 1974 CTI album, In The Beginning references one of the very few overtly biblical titles in the CTI canon (the title of Joe Farrell’s Upon This Rock, recorded shortly hereafter, references Matthew 16:18). This particular title derives from Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament. Indeed, Genesis is the Hebrew word for “in the beginning.”

As Genesis 1:1 goes, “(i)n the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Curiously, several years later – after the flautist left CTI for the more prosperous climes of Columbia – CTI reissued this double album as two individual sets, both bearing the title Then There Was Light, a title alluding to another chapter of Genesis, ( 1:3): “(a)nd God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And then there was light.”

On the other hand, all this bible talk is little more than speculative and may just be nothing more than a case of wrong-headed thinking. After all, the album’s title derives from the little-known Clare Fischer composition that kicks off what was originally one of CTI’s very few double albums. It’s unlikely that Fischer came to the session with an unnamed tune or any religious intentions, therefore allowing the producer to fit it into some unlikely biblical schema he may have had.

The West Coast-based Fischer had never before – or since – had anything to do with CTI, which makes his appearance on two tracks here unusual, to say the least. Producer Creed Taylor had worked with Fischer on some of Cal Tjader’s earliest Verve recordings from the early 1960s, when Fischer was part of Tjader’s working group, and Hubert Laws had only ever worked with the keyboardist / composer / arranger as part of the flautist’s childhood chums, The Jazz Crusaders’ great 1965 album Chile Con Soul.

But, in all fairness, In the Beginning is a slightly odd album all the way around. It’s the flautist’s sixth of eight albums as a leader for CTI and while it continues Morning Star’s near perfect blend of jazz, classics and gospel – with an emphasis more on the swinging side of jazz than previously heard on Laws’s earlier CTI efforts - something substantial is amiss here.

Surely, the musicianship is of the highest caliber.

But is it the double-album length which provides more of the leader than we want to hear? The double album format was certainly extravagant at the time, and probably more than the label should have attempted. But Creed Taylor probably wanted to reward the flautist, one of the original CTI all-stars, for staying with the label when other stars like Freddie Hubbard and Stanley Turrentine had left and at a time when another CTI all-star, guitarist George Benson – who earned Taylor’s wrath with the left-handed nickname of George “Bad” Benson – was striving to do things more his own way.

Is it the audibly weird sound design, particularly notable on the muffled drums and stifled acoustic piano heard throughout, that engineer Rudy Van Gelder came up with for the CTI label during this time? Despite some magnificent playing over a questionably aesthetic program of tunes, In The Beginning audibly reveals its studio origins and sounds as if it was concocted in separate rooms at separate times.

The sound is simply incompatible with the performances, featuring CTI regulars Bob James on keyboards, Gene Bertoncini on guitar, Ron Carter (who fares best of all) on bass, Steve Gadd (in one of his earliest CTI appearances) on drums, Airto on percussion, Dave Friedman on vibes and a minimal use of only a few strings and horn players.

Is it the fact that Hubert Laws took over arranging duties from Don Sebesky on the majority of proceedings heard here (Bob James arranges “Gymnopedie #1” and Clare Fischer arranges his own “In the Beginning”) and the overall effect becomes far less noteworthy than before?

Is it Hubert Laws plying his considerable talent on an occasionally electrified flute overtop some otherwise straight jazz numbers that make it sound more forced or phony? He still plays magnificently. It’s just that an electric flute just doesn’t sound that good when you’re trying to play jazz straight.

Is it the awkward programming? Hubert Laws has previously shown how easily he can adapt his playing style to jazz, souped-up classics, composed works, R&B, even funk – without any disparity in his delivery. Not so here.

Who knows. It may be a little bit of all of the above. My guess is that as ambitious as it is, In the Beginning is neither any listener’s first, second or third favorite choice of Hubert Laws on CTI nor would many consider this album to rank among the top five or ten of the flautist’s all-time best recordings.

In the Beginning is probably best appreciated in small doses.

Things get off to a rousing enough start with Clare Fischer’s interesting, though not interesting enough title track. As presented, it sort of reminds me of the sort of synthesized jazz-fusion composer/keyboardist Kendall Schmidt dialed in over top of the 1970 AIP horror film Scream and Scream Again in the 1980s for the video market.

That’s a compliment, actually. But even though neither Laws nor Fischer had much more use for the tune (Fischer recorded the tune again in 1980 for Bill Perkins’s Many Ways To Go) there are quite a few nicely-hued moments present here, even if it sounds as if it does not belong on a CTI record.

Composer and pianist Harold Blanchard (1930-2010) contributes the album’s lovely “Restoration,” a perfectly complimentary mix of jazz ideas with vaguely classical structures. It is one of the album’s highlights and a gem that features strikingly superb solos from Bob James on piano, Gene Bertoncini on guitar and an especially inspired (electrified) flute solo by Laws himself.

Dave Friedman, Ron Carter and Steve Gadd add their special individuality here too, making the song something of a treasure. A deeply religious man, Blanchard later provided Laws with his neo-classical composition “New Earth Sonata,” recorded in 1983 with Quincy Jones for the CBS Masterworks label, though it’s probably worth pointing out that this “Restoration” is not the same “Restoration” Bob James composed later for his own 1990 album Grand Piano Canyon.

“Come Ye Disconsolate” is a traditional gospel hymn that finds the leader overdubbing flute parts to make an especially nice performance, aided by Richard Tee’s rather backgrounded organ embellishments. The song probably derives from the version heard on Robert Flack and Donny Hathaway’s 1972 eponymous album, an album Laws himself appears on (not this song though). It’s another one of the album’s better moments.

Another of the album’s highlights is Rodgers Grant’s “Reconciliation,” an effective feature for the flautist, the composer (on electric piano) and bassist Ron Carter. Grant and Laws met while both were part of Mongo Santamaria’s band. The two worked often together throughout the ‘60s, even working together on guitarist George Benson’s CTI album Tell It Like It Is, arranged by Mongo Santamaria’s musical director, Marty Sheller. Grant also provided Laws with the title track to the flautist’s previous CTI studio album, Morning Star.

This listener can do without the album’s better-known tunes, including the unbelievably over-considered Satie number, “Gymnopedie #1,” Sonny Rollins’s “Airegin” (originally from a 1954 Miles Davis recording featuring the composer), delivered here as a duet here for drums and piccolo, and the surprisingly perfect progression into John Coltrane’s 1957 classic “Moment’s Notice,” featuring brother Ronnie Laws’s brief tenor solo and James’s electric piano statement.

The album’s closer, Laws’s own Latinate “Mean Lene” (first heard on the flautist’s second album Flute By-Laws from 1966), features Laws, brother Ronnie and Bob James, with a feature for the bassist, drummer and Airto on percussion. But, again, it sounds out of place in this context and another victim of unusually poor programming for a CTI release.

Even when the albums were separated into two individual discs, this music didn’t work particularly well. While all of it sounds good on its own, the songs deserved more of a unified style or theme and less of the K-Tel jazz approach. Maybe producer Creed Taylor was too busy at this point with his other duties at CTI.

But In the Beginning, despite the preponderance of good, nee very good, music present here – and I hope my text makes it plain there is quite a bit of nice music to be heard – is one of the most laxly programmed CTI sets in the label’s entire history. It may not hold up as one of CTI’s best. But it is a worthy display of Hubert Laws’s many prodigious talents.

Pete Turner’s stunning cover photograph is called “Twins,” a photo shot in 1967 for Look magazine during the annual agricultural fair in Mount Hagen in New Guinea. Lit by daylight against a dark background, the photo was shot so that only the remarkable colors on the faces stand out and appear to float. “Twins” is also used as the cover image on Pete Turner’s 1987 book Photographs.