CD Review: Various Artists – Jazz on Film…Film Noir

Various Artists Jazz on Film… Film Noir 5 CD set
(MOOCHIN01. CD Review by Andrew Cartmel- Note: Volume 2 is already available for pre-order, see below)

I love jazz, I love film soundtracks, and I love film noir. So when a new label Moochin’ About released a lavish five-CD set entitled Jazz on Film: Film Noir, it didn’t take too much arm-twisting to get me to have a listen. It also helped that this collection came heralded by some of the most universally favourable reviews and comments I’ve read in a long time. Not to mention awards. But despite all that, when I sat down to listen I was taken by surprise. And completely knocked out.

Assembled by Jazzwise writer Selwyn Harris and CD compilation producer Jason Lee Lazell, this set is a treasure trove. The first score, on Disc 1 is A Streetcar Named Desire composed by Alex North. Perhaps most famous for writing the melody for Unchained (that’s right, the ‘Unchained Melody’) Alex North has some serious jazz connections. Streetcar is often spoken of as the first film score to make real use of jazz, while Yusef Lateef’s rapturous version of his ‘Love Theme from Spartacus’ is a classic, as is Paul Horn’s album of North’s music from Cleopatra.

We could argue over whether A Streetcar Named Desire is a film noir —but Selwyn Harris makes a strong case for it in the booklet notes. And, personally, I’d rather get on with listening to the music. And the music here is spectacular. What’s more, the quality of the recording is dazzling. For 60 year old recordings which have been taken from vinyl sources, the sound quality is unbelievable. Stunningly good. Perhaps because it’s 60 years old and has been taken from vinyl sources. They knew how to make records in those days.

In any case, the pizzicato urgency of the plucked strings on Alex North’s Mania is palpable and gripping, while on the poignant Soliloquy the trumpet player wrings enormous emotion from the music. There isn’t a great deal of information surviving about the musicians on Streetcar, but the meticulous booklet provides what is available. So we know that the trumpet player on Soliloquy might be Ziggy Elman and that Ray Heindorf conducted the orchestra. Heindorf, an Art Tatum devotee and avid supporter, was no stranger to jazz. He would later do notable work with Kenyon Hopkins. Alex North, Heindorf and the players provide some really lovely music here, immaculately reproduced.

Next up on Disc 1 is Private Hell 36, a Don Siegel quickie from 1954 starring Ida Lupino, which was definitely noir territory, with a definite jazz soundtrack. The score is composed by Leith Stevens, whose jazz work in the movies also includes The James Dean Story and the classic Brando biker flick The Wild One, on which he had the help of Shorty Rogers. I’m pleased to say that Shorty Rogers also provides arrangements and orchestrations on Private Hell 36.

Indeed, he looms large across this collection. (And if you’re intrigued by The Wild One, it will be available from Moochin’ About on their next CD collection.) The sound quality on these CDs just keeps getting better. The separation and depth of the soundstage on Private Hell 36 (main title) is immediately impressive. And a little bit of Latin fire gets cooking on ‘Havana Interlude’. Johnny Richards, nee Juan Manual Cascales, wouldn’t have been ashamed of this and indeed the liner notes very perceptively compare the tune to the work of Stan Kenton’s outfit, where Richards was arranging at the time.

There is considerably more information available about the musicians here, so we know that the memorable baritone sax is played by Bob Gordon while the great percussion is provided by none other than Shelly Manne. But who is that on vibes on the left speaker? And how did they manage to record in stereo back in the pre-stereo days of 1954?

Which brings us to a fascinating tale. The music from Private Hell 36 was first released as a ten inch Coral LP in ’54. But Moochin’ About have very intelligently sourced the tracks on their CD from the 1959 Coral 12 inch version. For that release the original mono music was recast in stereo. But it wasn’t the usual cheesy ‘electronically re-channelled to simulate stereo’ farrago. Instead, new percussion tracks were recorded, with some other sparse instrumentation. So music from the 1954 sessions sits in the middle of the 1959 mix, still in mono, while the new stereo instrumentals can be heard on either side. (My thanks to Jim Doherty at the Film Score Monthly site for this information.) This novel approach was a clever way of preserving the original beauty of the music while bringing it technologically into line with the late 50s stereo craze. And, much to our benefit it also adds another layer of great jazz talents, since the arrangements for the stereo sessions were by Johnny Mandel and Bill Holman. But I still don’t know who that is on vibes. Answers on a postcard, please. In any case, Havana Interlude courtesy of Leith Stevens, Shorty Rogers and company made me want to dance. Once again the sound quality has to be praised. It provides a great sense of in-the-room reality. I can’t get over the audiophile standard of these discs.

Private Hell 36 is a gem, and Moochin’ About are to be applauded for including it along with the much more high profile and better known choices on this collection. The number in the title refers to a hotel room, by the way. Before leaving our Private Hell, I should inform completists that there is also a track from this movie featuring Ida Lupino singing (and playing the piano!) which can be found on a Spanish Fresh Sound CD (FSRCD 2201)

Next up, on Disc 2, we have Elmer Bernstein’s Man With a Golden Arm (Shorty Rogers again). This is an intelligently chronological set, so the music here hails from 1955. And it means we’re still in the land of mono (and a very fine land it is, too). Although Man With a Golden Arm was once reissued in a totally reprehensible fake stereo remix, Moochin’ About — who have yet to put a foot wrong —here preserve the magnificent mono original, mean and moody and not mucked about with.

This is compulsive classic music, as iconic as its Saul Bass cover design. Swaggering, brassy Clark Street comes across as punchy and powerful on the CD, yet the flute and delicate piano on Molly are beautifully rendered, too. Elmer Bernstein has a surprising jazz pedigree, including his mid 1950s big band album Blues & Brass (another Saul Bass cover) and his 1959 TV score Staccato. Many are also fond of his theme for Walk on the Wild Side.

But his other most famous jazz score is, I’m pleased to say, waiting for us on CD 3: The Sweet Smell of Success. Here the splendidly complex and articulate sax solo from Paul Horn on Toots Shor’s Blues is beautifully presented, while every nuance of David Frisina’s violin is audible on Susan the Sage. The musicians on these sessions include Johnny (later just John) Williams on piano. The terrific sound quality continues, offering an exceptional soundstage which gives reality and spatial depth to the recording.

Next up is Touch of Evil, an Orson Welles crime noir with a score by Henry Mancini. Mancini has always been capable of providing splendid jazz themes, notably Peter Gunn, and of course The Pink Panther, although perhaps his most pure jazz album is Combo which featured Art Pepper.

Touch of Evil is a terrific score. A lot of it is source music, which in the film emanated from radios or jukeboxes. It has a raucous honky-tonk authenticity, notable for the beat up bar room piano which came to haunt my dreams. And there is a scorching, achingly beautiful sax solo on Rock Me to Sleep (which the ever useful booklet notes suggest is by Plas Johnson). Despite the occasional period genuflection to rock and roll, this is wonderful stuff. With that raw, bluesy edge and R&B credibility that also characterised the soundtracks of Kenyon Hopkins in the same period. (Hopefully Hopkins too will soon be represented in this tremendous series.)

Thanks to the indispensable booklet, we also learn that Russ Garcia was involved in writing the arrangements for Touch of Evil. Too little known these days, Garcia was a major figure in jazz in the 1950s. Anyone interested in learning more about his collaboration with Mancini should check out an excellent interview with Matthias Büdinger — in which Garcia reminisces about Touch of Evil and a very honourable Henry Mancini: “Hank got a big check when they sold the rights for that film to TV. He sent me a good part of it. That was very nice of him. He could have just kept it and I would never have known the difference.”

Onto Disc 5 and another Saul Bass cover image — and the music of Duke Ellington. Prime Ellington at that. Anatomy of a Murder has a lovely, rich, full sound, with the woodwinds weaving nimbly among the brass on Hero to Zero. Ellington’s Olympians are at their finest here, as is the composer himself. The Duke’s piano is featured to marvelous effect on Low Key Lightly, as is Ray Nance’s wonderful and soulful violin. The sound is just stunning. These really are good transfers with great presence and a surprising amount of warmth.

And, just to get technical for a second, the spatial relationships of the instruments are beautifully conveyed, as is the rhythmic accuracy of the music. Another highlight is Sunswept Sunday where the clarinet solo by Jimmy Hamilton, as well as the other reeds, are rendered to perfection. If you have a high resolution sound system, you are really in for a treat with this disc. With its impeccable early stereo (before multi tracking raised its ugly head), Anatomy of a Murder may have the finest sound of the bunch. Listen and compare.

Rounding out Disc 5 is the haunting John Lewis score for Odds Against Tomorrow with Milt Jackson on vibraphone and no less than Bill Evans on piano. The astringent and incisive horn section so lovingly preserved here features Joe Wilder and Gunther Schuller. One tiny track from the original album had to go missing to fit it on the CD, entitled Distractions. But I am not going to let that distract me from the matter at hand. This is a very imaginative and scrupulous selection of music and I loved it.

Do I have any caveats or criticism at all? Well, yes. I wish they’d put a different image on each CD, instead of just colour-coding them. This would have made it easier to find and identify the desired disc when you’re rendered tired or emotional. Other than that, I can only go on about how the excellent sound reproduction here gives a new life to memorable — though often forgotten — jazz scores. But by now it should be obvious that this set is a winner all the way. It’s a sumptuous package with its superb, in-depth booklet featuring notes well written by Selwyn Harris with an introduction by Guy Barker. Packed with priceless information the booklet is, in its own way, as much of a treasure trove as the CDs themselves. And the phenomenal sound quality of these CDs allows the stunning music to be properly appreciated.

There was once a time when I was dubious about CDs remastered from vinyl sources. But, judging by the results here I’ll start seeking them out in preference to those sourced from tapes. This makes sense, when you consider that vinyl is less vulnerable to deterioration than magnetic tape, which stretches, breaks, and sheds iron oxide. The unsung hero of this set is the engineer who remastered the music. I don’t know who he is, but I’d like to buy him a drink.

With Christmas coming up this package is going to make a lot of jazz fans very happy. And the great news is that it’s the start of a series. Volume 2 , Beat, Square and Cool is about to go on sale. Pre-orders to moochinabout.com 

Categories: miscellaneous

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