Sunday, May 31, 2009

Dave Douglas: Pushing Jazz Forward

Dave Douglas is among the few jazz musicians today who truly pushes the boundaries of the genre. Working almost two decades now as a leader, the trumpeter has crafted radically different albums with each outing. All of which have been excellent. He in no way sounds like his predecessors (Miles, Hubbard, Brown, etc.) but has uniquely stepped into the realm with ease.

He has weaved together tin pan alley, bebop, fusion and avant garde every step of the way. There are many new musicians on the scene today but few are pushing jazz forward. Dave Douglas is one that has and continues to be consistent and reliable on every record.

The following are good starting points if you are interested and very easy to find at record stores and online:

1) Convergence (Soul Note Records): A fairly straight ahead session featuring his best quintet of Mark Feldman (violin), Drew Gress (bass), Erik Friedlander (cello), and Michael Sarin (drums).

2) Soul On Soul (Bluebird/BMG): A tribute to the legendary pianist/composer Mary Lou Williams featuring an all star ensemble which included Joshua Redman, Uri Caine, Joey Baron and more.

3) Freak In (Bluebird/BMG): This you could loosely call Douglas' "Bitches Brew" or "Jack Johnson". It is that fusion of jazz and electronics that you actually want and expect a forward thinking musician to create. A stellar recording.

So if you see these recordings, try them out - you won't be sorry. If you see Dave Douglas coming to your city. Go and take friends.

Until next time.

Jazz Soundtracks — Part 5

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

Perhaps the ultimate funky crime jazz soundtrack is David Shire’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). It has no love themes or lounge numbers to slow it down, just a relentlessly hard-driving, take-no-prisoners score. Shire set out to crate a sound that would be “New York jazz-oriented, hard-edged” but with a “wise-cracking subtext to it.” He turned to the 12-tone method of composition, which Arnold Schoenberg developed decades earlier. (The disconcerting angularity of the Austrian’s compositions occasionally caused fistfights between the audience and the musicians.)

Something so naturally tense definitely fit the bill for this gritty, unsentimental drama about a hostage situation on a subway train. The music is diabolically calculated and pulsating, yet swings like a big band in hell. Electric bass, drums and tons of percussion provide the undercurrent for abstract horn, string, guitar, woodwind and keyboard lines. The theme gets restated again and again, but with such relentless variety it never becomes stale, only more intense.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Jazz Soundtracks — Part 4

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

Undisputed jazz genius scored in Hollywood. Duke Ellington — arguably the most influential composer and bandleader of the big band era — contributed a Grammy Award-winning score for Anatomy of a Murder (’59). Although Ellington had occasionally composed music to low budget musicals and short films prior to WWII, this courtroom drama offered him a unique opportunity. The music — with its rich harmonic shadings and intuitive use of soloists — is unlike any other crime jazz soundtrack, and many of the individual tracks would not sound out of place on other Ellington records of that period.

To his credit Ellington provided the requisite array of moods and variations on theme to complement the film’s characters and scenes, rather than merely recording variations of pre-existing music, to which he fittingly resorted for Paris Blues a year later.

Miles Davis, another jazz iconoclast, also scored in the crime genre — this time in Europe. Considering the immense popularity of jazz in France during the period, it comes as no surprise that filmmaker Louis Malle wanted to have an American jazzman provide music for his thriller Ascenseur pour l’├ęchafaud (Lift to the Scaffold, ’58). Unlike most film music, Davis’ score was improvised in the studio. According to the soundtrack CD booklet notes, it was an informal gig for the trumpet player and his mostly French sidemen; in fact, the film’s star Jeanne Moreau played bartender in the studio while Malle screened selected scenes to the musicians. A rookie to the soundtrack game, Davis took little to no control over the selection of final takes for the film, letting Malle call the shots. Davis used a few tracks on his Jazz Track LP.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Demise Of The Record Store

Now that the final major "record" store is closing, I thought I would finally comment. It is sad and unfortunate that the music industry has allowed this to happen. Virgin Megastores have been closing for a couple of years now. Now I'm not lamenting Virgin Megastore. I always thought their staff really weren't very helpful or knowledgeable but they did have a deep selection of jazz and it was worth spending an hour trying to make up your mind on what you had money for. The final location in NYC is about to close at the end of May.

This will mean that in New York City--New York City--of all the places on the planet, there will be not one major store for consumers/music lovers to stand, browse, wonder and listen to music.

We are left with a handful of independent stores that still believe that treating a customer who is looking for the new David Sanborn should have a pie thrown in their face. Now I don't like David Sanborn either but this type of consumer should be able to find the basic record at most record stores (independent or major chain).

Now yes there is still FYE but I don't and never have considered that as a record store.

There are obviously a handful of regional chains (e.g. Newbury Comic in New England) that will be able to fill the void somewhat. But let's face it, once Tower closed two years ago that was pretty much it for record stores. You will be lucky to find the new Branford Marsalis in a Best Buy or Target.

This is a great opportunity for indie stores to rise from the ashes of the late '90s - '00s and reestablish themselves as a place for everyone to hangout and find great music again. I hope some of them can fill the void. I pray that they will. Most people will travel online to Amazon for their physical CDs or download from iTunes, eMusic and others. But there's nothing like the adventure of going through the racks and finding that CD or in the rare case LP that you've been looking for all year. You may get lucky at the once a year record convention but the weekly trip to the record store is gone.

I can't believe this has happened and yet the music industry still hasn't seen the light.

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.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Jazz Soundtracks - Part 2

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

A sure sign that jazz had found a home in Hollywood came in ’56 when Elmer Bernstein earned an Academy Award® nomination for The Man with the Golden Arm. The film’s gritty subject matter — heroin addiction — may have opened many eyes to the dangers hounding modern man, but the score opened audience ears to the high drama of hard-driving horn blasts, sultry woodwinds, rumbling bass and crashing percussion. No crime theme seems to swing harder than “Frankie Machine.” The brass screams against a backdrop of jackhammer percussion. On “The Fix,” the same theme takes on a nightmarish urgency. On “Desperation,” rumbling discordant piano and locomotive drums capture the single-minded obsession of the junkie. Golden Arm is simply one of the genre’s most iconic scores.

A year later, Bernstein scored Sweet Smell of Success, a cynical drama set on New York City’s Madison Avenue, where reputations are built up and torn down over cocktails. While Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis exchange Machiavellian manipulations, Bernstein’s score and additional jazz tracks by Chico Hamilton pour on sophisticated scorn.

As Bernstein stated in cover notes for a ’62 LP of his Movie & TV Themes, “Jazz is contemporary... (and) so are most films. Thus it seemed quite natural for me to utilize the elements of the jazz idiom in my work.”

Also in ’56, Bernstein contributed jazz for a short-lived TV detective show Take Five. “(It) failed,” he noted, “but similar shows that followed did not, and jazz took a firm hold in television scoring.”

Before the decade ended Bernstein would take another crack at TV crime with somewhat greater success, but first another young Hollywood composer would strike mainstream gold first with his own take on TV crime jazz.

The claim came in ’58 when Henry Mancini, a long-time apprentice arranger at Universal, bumped into producer Blake Edwards in the studio barbershop. Edwards invited Mancini to score TV’s Peter Gunn (’58-’61). Mancini’s theme for the suave detective quickly became a standard of cool jazz (and eventually surf rock) repertoire. One could easily compile two or three discs worth of Peter Gunn variations by artists as disparate as Quincy Jones and Art of Noise. In the show, Gunn hangs out in the jazz club Mother’s where a jazz group plays underneath the dialogue.

“The idea of using jazz in the ‘Gunn’ score was never even discussed. It was implicit in the story,” Mancini recalled in his autobiography Did They Mention the Music? (p. 87, Contemporary Books, 1989).

“It was the time of so-called cool West Coast jazz,” Mancini added. “That was the sound that came to me.”

Walking bass and drums, smoky saxophones, shouting trumpets were keys to the “Peter Gunn” sound, and the show also provided Mancini with his first opportunity to use bass flutes, an instrument that he used with great success throughout his career.

Peter Gunn was one of the first TV shows to receive a soundtrack LP release, which went to number one on the Billboard chart and held the position for 10 weeks — an astonishing feet for a jazz record as well as a soundtrack. It stayed on the charts for more than two years and eventually sold more than a million copies. All of this made Mancini a bankable recording artist and one of the few film or television composers to ever become a household name.

The Peter Gunn score was only the beginning of what would prove to be an immensely popular and influential body of work. The “chilled-out soundtrack” — as Steely Dan co-founder and jazz aficionado Donald Fagen called it (Premiere, ’87) — spawned two LPs and other related releases. Ten years later, Mancini scored the relatively unsuccessful Gunn ... Number One movie with a somewhat updated sound (check out the fuzz-tone guitar on “The Monkey Farm”).

While Peter Gunn was hardly the first show of its kind, its soundtrack helped to popularize the crime jazz genre through the biggest mass medium ever. Other shows of the era that touted hard-boiled brass were M Squad, 77 Sunset Strip, Mike Hammer, Perry Mason, Richard Diamond, Naked City and Staccato — the last of which features a Bernstein score.

If Staccato appeared to be a calculated response to Peter Gunn, its score was simply a reiteration of the sound Bernstein had already explored on the big screen. Johnny Staccato is a private eye who moonlights as a piano player in a jazz combo at a hip nightclub. Staccato’s theme aptly evokes an urban jungle’s sweltering atmosphere. The rhythm section prowls along like a panther on the hunt, while brass and woodwinds soar above in the canopy of night. The show didn’t enjoy Peter Gunn’s longevity, but its theme is nearly as iconic.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Loungecore, Jazz and The Gentle People

So I spent a hour listening to The Gentle People "Soundtracks for Living". The Gentle People are truly an international group, with members from the U.S., UK and Australia. Their style is a mixture of '50s, '60s kitsch jazz and '90s ambient (think Les Baxter, Martin Denny, Saint Etienne and The Orb.) The term at the time was called loungecore, as sub-genre of lounge music which was also a sub-genre of jazz. I always thought was pretty lame but that's just me. The best and most well known band in this genre was Pizzicato 5 from Japan (unfortunately lumped into this genre while being far and away ahead of it.)

The Gentle People have created a wonderfully relaxing vibe that made you curl up on the couch with a nice glass of wine and wish the day away.

"Soundtracks for Living" is their debut CD from 1997 (did I say 1997!). It holds up surprising well. I'm not saying this a stellar rediscovery and everyone should run out and buy or download it. But if you're looking for something fun, relaxing and relatively harmless this an excellent record for a Friday night with your companion or to close out an evening party. The band released their third album last year ("Galactic Confections") but for me "Soundtracks for Living" remains the standout. All their albums are available on iTunes. Take a listen and check them out...