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Cinema at 33 1/3 RPM

Ten jazz takes on film music that prove the interconnectedness of the two art forms.
Ehsan Khoshbakht
Jazz music has long expressed its capacity to borrow from various, sometimes contradictory sources in order to create something which in every sense transcends the original elements. Since the earliest days of jazz as a musical form, it has been inspired by military and funeral marches; has stylishly interpreted popular songs; and even brought the classical intricacies of Wagner into the domain of swinging brasses and reeds. This multiculturalism and eclecticism of jazz likens it to cinema which, in turn, has transformed pop culture motifs into something close to the sublime and mixed ‘high’ and ‘low’ artistic gestures to remarkable effect.
In the history of jazz, the evolution from ragtime or traditional tunes, to discovering the treasure trove of Broadway songs was fast and smooth. The latter influence was shared by cinema, as the history of film production quickly marched on. The emergence of ‘talkies’ in the United States meant rediscovering Broadway, its stars and directors and above all its musicals and their songs. In the 1930s, jazz became the incontestable rival of cinema in extracting tunes from the American theatre and transforming them into immortal standards. Both arts, film and jazz, used popular songs as a structuring framework, around which band leaders, musicians, directors and choreographers could develop more sophisticated and daring ideas.
Just as the emergence of television began to make itself felt at picture houses across the States, where declining attendance figures reflected a shift in the culture, jazz experienced a similar deadlock which contributed to the decline of the big bands. The effects of the war for returning Americans, and the new possibilities for enjoying entertainment in the home gave rise to very different strategies of survival: The film studios began to produce more sumptuous, glossy and costlier motion pictures to overshadow television, while jazz bands were downsized, becoming more intimate – or “indie”, if you like. Instead of big bands, modest outfits of three to six musicians was jazz’s answer to the times. In this respect, one might find the origins of John Cassavetes and 1960s independent cinema not only in Hollywood, but in Coleman Hawkins Quartet.
Cinema, for a very short time, managed to beat the odds with the help of Cinemascope, stereophonic sound, majestic scores and other gimmicks which expanded the affective potential of the big screen. After the invention and popularity of 331/3 rpm discs, releasing film music on LPs became a good source of income too. This market blossomed in the 1960s; in some cases, it was not only music but dialogue from the films that were presented on record (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Romeo and Juliette). Jazz labels took note, and saw no reason to deprive themselves of such guaranteed success. Soon the themes from films were added to an expanding repertoire. Bringing film music to jazz wasn’t only a trend in keeping with the change in the public’s taste, but also a challenge for the musicians’ creativity in harmonic innovations and free improvisation – the way it had started two decades before, with Broadway songs.
The ten jazz takes on film music that I have selected here, rather than being a case of one art form riding the coattails of the other, prove the interconnectedness of the two and a motivating force that they both passionately share: creating images.
Note: These tracks should be played loud!
10. Charlie Parker: Laura (1950)
During his fast and furious life, Charlie Parker recorded many popular songs from Broadway musicals, many of which were used in Hollywood films. In this example, however, he selects a popular tune from a motion picture, Laura (composed by David Raksin) and plays one of his most relaxed solos over a heavily orchestrated background. For some, Parker recording with a string section was an instance of infidelity to “pure jazz”. For many others, this exceptionally lavish string recording opened up a possibility of marrying bebop and pop culture and tactfully blending its revolutionary, complex style into the fabric of a laidback, romantic melody. In a similar way, film noir had found a potent, atmospheric way in which to use the techniques and styles of European film to depict stories found in pulp crime novels.
9. Yusef Lateef: Love Theme from Spartacus (1961)
Way before Cahiers du Cinema championed Hawks, Hitchcock and Fuller, the auteur theory existed in jazz. Each musician was associated with a personal touch, a unique sound which reflected the character of the musician and his or her view on the world, regardless of what piece s/he played within various ensembles. Here is one of jazz’s true auteurs,Yusef Lateef, who, for his Eastern Sounds album, turned an already haunting love melody written by Alex North into a hypnotizing piece for flute – one of many reed instruments he could play. Lateef’s interpretation has an aura of pastoral simplicity and oriental melancholy which is typical of his flute recordings.
8. Dizzy Gillespie: Morning of the Carnival (1963)
This nice, if uneventful, performance proves that jazz musicians’ interest in film music hasn’t always been limited to Hollywood. “I would like to play one of the tunes now from the motion picture film Black Orpheus,” says Dizzy Gillespie in his introduction to the piece at the Monterey Jazz Festival, where he wryly adds “excuse the expression.” Then Dizzy’s leading reed player, James Moody, stirred by the biting remark shouts “You can say black. It’s alright... Malcolm [X] told me!” Dizzy, jubilantly, replies: “Well, then it must be cool if Malcolm says so.” Some more theatrical banter between Dizzy and Moody follows and it ends in a roar from the audience when Moody says "and if they don't like it we can lay down here and demonstrate right here, right now!" After the political statements, Dizzy who was always fascinated by the music of Latin America, commands the start. Moody on flute comes in to play the melody and leaves the rest to Dizzy’s muted trumpet, which is warm and splendid. Just as Camus’s film reinvigorated Greek mythology with the colours and rhythms of Rio de Janeiro, Gillespie was renowned for his capacity to imbue popular jazz forms with new harmonic complexities and his singular energy.
7. Duke Ellington: Days of Wine & Roses (1965)
Ellington in the 60s (after leaving Columbia Records and signing with Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label) wasn’t as much into composing new pieces for the stellar line-up of his orchestra as he was in the old days. In one of the more unusual periods in his life, the greatest of all jazz composers started covering film music, the Beatles, Bob Dylan and even, somewhat embarrassingly, recorded a complete album based on songs from Mary Poppins. But if one puts aside any prejudice and listens to these recordings, for example his fantastic orchestration of Henry Mancini’s composition ‘Days of Wine and Roses’, the rigor, joy and sophistication is always there. As emotionally captivating as Blake Edwards story of a couple’s descent into alcohol dependence, the tenor saxophone solo by Paul Gonsalves with a “darkly glowing tone and rhapsodic delivery” can seduce any troubled heart.
6. Enrico Pieranunzi: Il vitelloni (2003)
Jazz musicians continue to be fascinated by the wealth of musical material left in Nino Rota’s scores, especially those for the films of Federico Fellini. It may be because of what Richard Dyer calls a “very particular, albeit extremely flexible, way of feeling” in Rota’s music, or the cultural aura attached to his work with Fellini, that such material has been the subject of much daring experimentation, in arrangement and instrumentation. Among all Fellini/Rota interpreters, the virtuoso pianist and author Enrico Pieranunzi evokes the widest range of feelings; mostly because, like Fellini, he too is an Italian master storyteller and can perfectly deliver that poetic, lazy, Mediterranean mood of a piece such as Il vitelloni.
5. Ahmad Jamal: Autumn Leaves (1996)
It was Edith Piaf who persuaded Marcel Carné to give her then lover Yves Montand his second chance as an actor, in a rather late entry to the Poetic realist cinema, Les portes de la nuit. Montand not only acted in the film but sang ‘Les feuilles mortes’, a new song written by Joseph Kosma with lyrics by Jacques Prévert. The film fared badly at the box office, but the song found its way into mainstream culture, thanks to songwriter Johnny Mercer who, in 1947, wrote the English lyrics to it. Everyone from Jack Teagarden to Eric Clapton has toyed with it, but no one has come close to Ahmad Jamal and his manifestation of space and intensity. It was first played by him nearly fifty years ago and still holds a place in his repertoire. This riveting performance is a highly percussive, uptempo take with George Coleman on tenor saxophone and Calvin Keys on guitar, and was, appropriately, recorded live in Paris.
4. Don Ellis: Theme from The French Connection (1972)
This pick, from one of the most adventurous film scores ever composed for a Hollywood film, is an exception to the rule I have applied so far, since the composer and the performer are the same. But it seems breaking the rules is the norm where Don Ellis is concerned, as is demonstrated in his reinterpretation of his own classic cop movie theme. It was William Friedkin who invited Ellis to Hollywood. Friedkin met the master of odd time signatures in a supper club in Hollywood and attended a number of Ellis’s rather informal gigs over the course of almost two years. “They were taking big-band jazz to a new level,” says Friedkin, “the arrangements were unique, experimental, and thrilling. [Don] was soft-spoken, soulful, with a Beatles haircut. I asked Don if he would be interested in scoring a film. The French Connection was his first film score, and it was a perfect fit.” For the film, Ellis had already powerfully evoked the moral ambiguity of Friedkin’s characters in his uneasy, quarter-tone arrangements. Here, on his last album for Columbia Records, Ellis is strenuously supported by the dirty funk of Milcho Leviev on synthesizers, and encapsulates the sheer excitement of the New York City streets in three minutes and fifty seconds.
3. John Coltrane: Chim Chim Cher-ee (1965)
This Sherman brothers song was a kind of sequel to the massive success of Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things’ (from the The Sound of Music) and his growing interest in deconstructing the popular songs. This ‘soprano essay’, which reminds me of the post- Éloge de l'amour Godard, is fearlessly expanding in all possible musical directions and I wonder how it would be choreographed if someone were to remake Mary Poppins with Coltrane’s music.
2. Bill Evans: Theme from M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless) (1977)
M*A*S*H was Bill Evans’s favorite TV series and reportedly, when he was playing in London’s Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, he used to catch the show backstage between his sets. What makes the ‘Theme from MASH’, also known as ‘Suicide is Painless’, so stirring is not only the sophistication of the performance, but also the effect of the context in which this rendition appeared. Years of self-destruction and drug addiction (a slow suicide) in Bill Evans’s life; the actual suicide of Evans’s long-time partner Ellaine; the sudden death of his brother and mentor Harry; and the death of his one-time student and collaborator, another remarkable jazz musician, Gary McFarland. Evans recorded an album, You Must Believe in Spring with tracks dedicated to or concerning the recent death of these relatives and friends, featuring ‘Suicide is Painless’. In the last bitter twist of fate, the album was released only after Evans’s death in 1980. While we will never know whether if it was ‘painless’, Evans’s death wish is played with such grace and elegance, with style and emotional sobriety.
1. Jimmy Smith: Walk on the Wild Side (1962)
In 1962 Elmer Bernstein, one of the first composers to introduce Hollywood to the jazz score (in return, Hollywood picked his A Streetcar Named Desire soundtrack as the first to be released on LP), composed an attractive title tune to Edward Dmytryk’s Walk on the Wild Side. Like the film, which was mostly set in a bordello in New Orleans, Bernstein’s music was brassy, hot and humid. In the same year, getting ready for the first big band recording of his career, Jimmy Smith, the master of Hammond B3 organ, teamed up with arranger Oliver Nelson to reveal his conception of walking on the wild side. Smith’s cover, which in retrospect became one of the defining sounds of the 1960s, remarried bop and big band with popular music without forsaking dignity –similar to the way in what Charlie Parker, with strings, had achieved a decade before. Smith, whose full, multi-voiced sound was actually like an orchestra within the orchestra, exchanges his own idiosyncratic lines with a roaring band behind; they first flirt, then clash and finally explode.
Jazz and film is the subject of an upcoming event at Bologna's Il Cinema Ritrovato, curated by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ehsan Khoshbakht.
Author’s note: Many thanks to Yusef Sayed for his invaluable input.


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