Sunday, May 10, 2009

Jazz Soundtracks - Part 3

The following is an excerpt from the book Film and Television Scores, 1950-1979 (McFarland, 2008) by Kristopher Spencer, founder of

While many crime scores barely qualify as genuine jazz, there are a handful from the era that come closer than most. One of the best belongs to I Want to Live! (’58), a true story about a murderess on death row. Johnny Mandel’s sexy smoky score is a classic. The 26-piece All-Star Jazz Orchestra burn through the main theme, “Poker Game,” “Stakeout” and “Gas Chamber Unveiling” and other hot-blooded and emotionally wrenching tracks. Also featured are half a dozen cuts played by Gerry Mulligan’s Combo.

The legendary baritone saxophonist leads veteran jazz greats such as Shelly Manne (drums), Art Farmer (trumpet), Bud Shank (alto sax, flute) and Red Mitchell (bass), Frank Rosolino (trombone) and Pete Jolly (piano) on “Night Watch” and “Black Nightgown.” Mulligan’s inclusion is significant. The original LP cover notes by William Johns describe how the film’s main character “moves through an atmosphere in San Francisco and San Diego where jazz hovers constantly in the background. One of the few stabilizing things in her life is her interest in jazz and, particularly, in the music of Gerry Mulligan.” Mandel penned the tracks specifically for Mulligan’s group, and they’re peppered throughout the film as source cues.

“We'd been through a lot of bands together,” Mandel said of Mulligan in a 1998 interview with Patrick McGilligan for the Rykodisc reissue. “I first ran into Gerry when he was with Gene Krupa and I was with Buddy Rich. This was in ’46. ‘Disk Jockey Jump’ had just come out and somehow Mulligan and I … were thrown together in the New York nightclub and session scene. We remained good friends, right to the end.”

The bits composed for the larger group are highly experimental and were daring for the era. Among the unusual instruments employed are contra-bass clarinet, contra bassoon, bass trumpet, bass flute, and E-flat clarinet. In addition, there is a wild assortment of percussion such as scratcher, cowbells, Chinese and Burmese gongs, rhythm logs, chromatic drums and claves as well as bongos and conga drums — collectively representing “the forces of law and order always hovering in the background,” as McGilligan observed.

More importantly, I Want to Live stands apart from most crime jazz scores in that it is genuine jazz featuring improvisation and not merely “scripted” jazz.

“I was really very nervous,” Mandel told McGilligan, “until I realized, after I learned the language and how to sync everything, that essentially it is what I’d been doing for a long time and just didn’t know it. It married all the things I’d been doing previously.”

Mandel went on to win an Oscar for “The Shadow of Your Smile” from The Sandpiper and scored many other popular movies, but his boldly inventive I Want to Live is among the best of the crime genre and of the era.

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