Sunday, June 28, 2009

Jazz Soundtracks — Part 8

Portions of the following are excerpts from the book Film and Television Scores, 1950-1979 (McFarland, 2008) by Kristopher Spencer, founder of

Another couple of jazz legends who cut soundtracks during the ’60s and ’70s are Herbie Hancock and J.J. Johnson.

On Blow Up (’66) — Michelangelo Antonioni’s existential crime film about a hip London fashion photographer who thinks hes witnessed a murder — Hancock draws upon his hard bop and rare groove chops. The results arent particularly cinematic — one could easily be fooled into thinking this is one of Hancocks Blue Note recordings from the same period — but they are kicky nonetheless. One of the best tracks is the bouncy Bring Down the Birds, which dance pop group Dee-lite sampled for their early 90s hit Groove is in the Heart. The soundtrack also features Stroll On by The Yardbirds, who appear in a riveting club scene.

By the time Hancock scored Death Wish (’74), he
’d already moved on to fusion. For this Charles Bronson vigilante flick, Hancock creates a mood of sophisticated yet funky suspense. The densely arranged and tension-mounting main theme is worth the price of admission alone. On Do a Thing and Paint Her Mouth, he opts for more minimalistic arrangements to more disturbing effect. The centerpiece of Death Wish is the 9-minute Suite Revenge, which explores stylistic cues from atonal symphonic, as well as African tribal drumming and Hancocks penchant for synth sounds. Hancock’s score for Death Wish, while not as immediately accessible as the groovier Blow Up, is an intriguing, richly detailed crime score every bit as gritty as the movie.

One of the best soundtracks of ’72 and of the blaxploitation era is Across 110th Street, featuring music by legendary jazz trombonist J.J. Johnson and songs performed by Bobby Womack & Peace. Hit-maker Womack’s theme song boasts a memorable hook, a sweeping arrangement and a lyrical message that doesn’t pull punches about organized crime and the drug epidemic. Womack also contributes a tender ballad (“If You Don’t Want My Love”), an up-tempo pop number (“Quicksand”), a bit of hard funky rock (“Do It Right”) and raucous feel good soul (“Hang On In There”). Johnson performs instrumental versions of most songs, but his contribution is most noticeable on “Harlem Clavinette,” which raised the bar on cinematic funk with its pulsating rhythm and bubbly mix of brass, wah guitar, clavinet keyboard, percussion and electronics. J.J. Johnson also contributed excellent soundtracks for Cleopatra Jones, Trouble Man (with Marvin Gaye) and Willie Dynamite.

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