Big Band de Canarias – Elmer Bernstein: The Wild Side
(Varèse Sarabande. VSD-7312. CD review by Andrew Cartmel)
Although the first jazz movie soundtrack is generally held to be Alex North’s Streetcar Named Desire in 1951, the breakthrough really came with Elmer Bernstein’s The Man with the Golden Arm in 1955. (There is a comprehensive account of the early evolution of jazz in film in the Moochin’ About box set reviewed HERE). Elmer Bernstein (no relation to Leonard) went on to write many distinguished, gutsy and memorable jazz-influenced scores.
This CD from the American soundtrack label Varèse Sarabande gathers together Bernstein’s finest jazz moments on film. And, startlingly, the music is presented in a first rate sequence of new recordings by an outstanding jazz orchestra which hails from the Canary Islands. The Big Band de Canarias under conductor Kike Perdomo give fresh, adroit and ferocious performances, always informed by a deep understanding of this music and where it’s coming from.
This cracking collection spans forty years, from The Man with the Golden Arm to 1995’s Devil In A Blue Dress and even takes a break from the dames-guns-and-night-club noir genre to encompass Bernstein’s score for the 1993 Scorsese costume drama The Age Of Innocence plus — good lord — a hip and funky take on his Ghostbusters theme from 1984 (not to be confused with the Ray Parker Jr song — “Who you gonna call?”). Most usefully, this collection also scoops up the odd jazz cue which originally featured in otherwise non-jazz scores
The CD is a bracing reminder of just how good Bernstein’s writing is. The Man with the Golden Arm opens with a raunchy saunter, then Roberto Amor’s dashing cymbals leads us into a jungle cluster of horns. Bernstein’s composition develops into a cascade effect, a waterfall of sound which ends up as a vortex — a whirlpool spinning down into a central point of silence. Along with Golden Arm the other really iconic Bernstein themes present here are from the celebrated film Walk On The Wild Side and the little know TV series Saints and Sinners, both 1962. Besides being from the same year, these are companion pieces, or at least kindred spirits in their sound worlds, and both bear an interesting similarity to Tony Hatch’s swinging main title theme to the British TV series The Champions (1968). Saints and Sinners shows off one of the featured soloists on the album, the highly skilled Sara Andon on flute, who plays here with skipping, skittering delicacy. But, in fact, this pulsing theme is a rotating carousel of great playing, working its way through the reeds, the horn section and —notably — some terrific vibes by Paco Diaz. Andon is on display again in The Age Of Innocence; the film was set in 19th Century New York but the music actually has a baroque European feel here.
Although Jubilation was written by Bernstein to supplement his 1962 album Movie and TV Themes it does not itself have any film or TV connection. Possibly it was written for such a project, but didn’t make the cut — hard to believe of this lovely slice of jazz. Here again we’re treated to Roberto Amor, with his gently tutting cymbals reprimanding us, before the arrangement punches into a big open sound with the trombones and trumpets signifying and sashaying. (The trombone section consists of Yossi Itzkovich, Santi González, Damián Gonzalez and Adam Pérez; on trumpets we have Julián Díaz, Natanael Ramos, Gustavo Díaz and Miguel Arrocha.) Horn stabs keep on punching above their weight in this big, swaying, seductive melody, Francis Hernández’s piano provides terse commentary and then we’re back to Amor once more, gently scolding us on cymbals and rim-sticks
The punningly named Birdito has a Latin mood, with more than a hint of peanut-vending about it, and shows off some more great vibes by Paco Diaz. But it’s the themes from the 1959 TV series Johnny Staccato which prove particularly fertile territory and probably represent the highpoint of this excellent anthology. The Johnny Staccato theme has a rollicking beat generated by drum and piano and bristles with modernist horn stabs before unfurling in a hard bop sax solo. (The sax section, with Kike Perdomo on tenor and soprano, consists of Roberto Albrecia and Norberto Arteaga on alto, JA Vera on tenor and Marco Pérez on baritone.) Night Mood is evoked by the immense wistful beauty of the sax, gently layering sounds to soothe us, then yielding to Francis Hernández’s picturesque piano exploration, sketching a sparse, melancholy landscape. Emilio Martin’s bass provides the rich, dark tones underpinning the piece. Like Having Fun is a jaunty, jumping, singsong melody which begs for lyrics, although all the singing here is by skilfully muted trombones. High trumpet trills ring the changes and Emilio Martin’s bass goes walking to a neat, brief conclusion. On Walk A Lonely Street Paco Diaz’s vibraphone does a neat double act with Yul Ballesteros’s guitar. It’s clear that this vintage John Cassevetes TV series would have been worth watching for the music alone.
The Silencers was a camp James Bond clone starring Dean Martin back in 1966, but Elmer Bernstein’s music is well worth salvaging from the enterprise and Esther Ovejero sings the title song’s suggestive lyrics (by Mack David) with sultry bump-and-grind slinkiness. Devil In A Blue Dress is another vehicle for Sara Andon’s talents and her achingly lovely flute wrings melancholy, sorrowful elegance out of Bernstein’s theme, floating against the piano line and horn strains, rising to poignant prominence and then yielding to the sensual tumult of a great soprano sax solo by Kike Perdomo.
Not content with being conductor and saxophonist, Kike Perdomo was also the sound engineer for these sessions and deserves recognition for the excellent audio quality. Credit is also due to guest arrangers Soren Moller and Geoff Evans.This CD is a terrific one-stop-shop for anyone interested in the music of Elmer Bernstein. It also offers fresh and inventive new interpretations which will reward long time Bernstein fans. A delight, and a surprising one. I don’t know what they’re putting in the water in the Canary Islands, but it’s resulting in some first rate jazz.