Monday, 14 July 2014

RCA's Classic Film Scores

Thank heavens for car boot sales (in America the equivalent would, I suppose, be swap meets). This year I attended the grand local annual event and came back with a bag of 19 LPs (and also a CD, but we'll pretend that didn't happen).

Amongst the treasures on vinyl was this soundtrack album. Ignore the slightly dodgy cover; it's a masterpiece. More importantly, it's one of a series of masterpieces. The music is by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, drawn from various classic movies.

These are not the original original soundtrack recordings. In other words, they're not the music which was originally attached to the print of the film. They are re-recordings. This is almost always the case with so-called "original" soundtrack recordings. But these are great re-recordings, and part of a magnificent series of 15 LPs (some sources say 14) issued by RCA in the early  1970s.

The project was the brainchild of Charles Gerhardt, who conducted the National Philharmonic Orchestra on the recordings. They featured music by Hollywood greats such as Korngold, Bernard Herrmann and Franz Waxman. The music was superb, the performances were magnificent and the recordings and pressings outstanding — this was the last hurrah of quality vinyl before things went digital.

Elizabeth and Essex is splendid, particularly the Sea Wolf score which features gorgeous use of harmonica. But if you are into the golden age of film music, then really any of these Gerhardt RCAs are worth seeking out. They're well worth hearing on CD, but it's the vinyl you really want, if you can find it.

(Image credits: the LP cover is from the reliable Soundtrack Collector. The photo of Gerhardt at the piano, baton in mouth, is from Classical CD Review.)

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Roland Kirk Meets Cy Coleman

One good thing about that fascinating little vixen of an American jazz singer I once knew (Hi, Kat!) was that she introduced me to the music of Cy Coleman. Coleman was an irresistible jazz pianist and a distinguished composer of popular songs and Broadway shows. He's probably best known for classics like Big Spender, Witchcraft, When in Rome and The Best is Yet to Come. Oh yes, and the Playboy Theme.

I just love his stuff, but he is definitely what you'd call mainstream, so I was astonished to discover that Roland Kirk, the mad genius of avant-garde jazz, had recorded a beautiful version of a Cy Coleman song. I only know this thanks to a recent episode of the excellent Radio 3 program Geoffrey Smith's Jazz devoted to Roland Kirk. The song in question is I've Got Your Number and it is just dynamite. 

As soon as I heard it, I had to have it. And when I saw what the cover of the relevant album looked like — a brilliant black and white caricature by Desző Csanàdy — I was totally lost. (Here's another great piece of art by Csanàdy, a pyschedelic book cover.)

Picture me hunched over the computer, after midnight, looking for this LP. I found one in a few minutes and ordered it. A very nice UK flipback copy.

This is a stupendous album, an irresistible blend of the far out and the popular — as exemplified both by the choice of songs (besides the wonderful Coleman composition there is also a lovely cover of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square) and the presence of the Benny Golson Orchestra — hilariously listed on the Radio 3 Geoffrey Smith website as the Benny Goodman Orchestra. 

Now, that really would have been strange bedfellows.

This album is a revelation, and well worth seeking out.

(Image credits: The beautiful cartoon cover on the US LP is from Collector's Frenzy. The British version — the copy I own — is from the Ian Gourlay listing on Gemm, where I bought it (thank you, Ian!). The slightly less wonderful photographic cover is from Music Stack.)

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Temptation by Piero Piccioni

Kronos Records is an excellent boutique record label based in Malta who specialise in issuing CDs of rare film scores and other sought after music, most of which have never previously been available in any form. They are run by Godwin Borg, who is an eminently nice guy (Hi, Godwin!). I first got in touch with Kronos when I was in search of some choice items by Piero Umiliani. I bought these and soon began exploring other treats and treasures available from Kronos.

One of the most surprising was by another great Italian composer called Piero — Piero Piccioni. It's a soundtrack for an obscure 1968 film called Temptation. It's a beautiful, jazzy, bossa-influenced score and cut from the same cloth as Piccioni masterpieces like The Tenth Victim, particularly in its use of swirling electric organ and sensual saxophone. Utterly delightful and irresistible. Perfect music for a laid back dinner party, or enlightened easy listening.

On the same CD, which weighs in at a generous 74 minutes, is a TV score for La Figlia del Capitano (The Captain's Daughter) which is a very contrasting piece — bleak, classical and reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann, notably Herrmann's work in his CBS era, such as the Walt Whitman Suite.

Godwin regularly holds sales when selected CDs — such as this one — are offered at tremendous bargain prices. So you should sign up for email updates. And you can also follow Kronos on Facebook.

(Image credits: The CD cover is from the Kronos catalogue. The moody photo of Piccioni is from the Kronos biography page. Thanks, Godwin.)

Saturday, 7 June 2014

The Good, the Bad and the Record Store Day

Every year on Record Store Day all sorts of wonderful limited edition albums are released on vinyl. They're available briefly, first come first served, and then they're gone... Unless you're willing to buy them from the profiteers — the "flippers" who buy low and sell high on eBay.

This year I had a list of records I wanted to obtain, and high on that list was the reissue of Ennio Morricone's milestone score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It came with a special illustrated insert sheet featuring different versions of the movie posters from all over the world and was pressed on transparent green vinyl.

I was all set to line up before opening time at my local record store (Banquet in Kingston — hi chaps!). But events conspired to keep me away. (My cat was fatally injured. I spent the day at the vets and sitting beside the phone waiting for the bad news. Not fun.)

But I managed to pick up this Morricone LP at a not-unreasonable price from a decent sort of flipper and I've now had the chance to listen to it. And I'm seriously impressed. And very surprised.

Often records which are pressed on coloured vinyl sound terrible. (Remind me to tell you about the orange Bride of Frankenstein some time.) So I'm always wary of anything that isn't plain old black. But this Record Store Day Morricone sounds terrific.

Indeed, I'm hearing details on here I've never noticed before. So much so that I'm wondering if they used alternate versions of some of the tracks. I'm going to do a comparison listening with other releases of the LP which I've got, and I shall report back. 

But in the meantime, this is well worth getting hold of, if you can find a copy at a reasonable price. (It originally retailed for about £30 in the UK and $30 in the USA.)

(Image credits: the cover shot is from groovy little Dusty Groove. My favourite record store in the whole world — sorry, Sister Ray! the Japanese movie poster is from Illustraction Gallery. The Italian one is from the Movie Poster Shop.)

Saturday, 31 May 2014

A Ligeti Odyssey

Like virtually everyone else of my generation I first became aware of the extraordinary music of György Ligeti — pronounced "Jurge" (rhymes with "surge") "Liggetty" (rhymes with higgetty-piggetty) — through Kubrick's use of it in 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

Ligeti wasn't entirely pleased by this exposure or, some say, by the fact that his music had been distorted in the film. 

You can read more about that here, but in the end Kubrick and Ligeti settled out of court and Ligeti came to be pleased by the association of his music with 2001. Kubrick, for his part, would return to Ligeti's music for The Shining.

These observations have been prompted by an excellent documentary on BBC Radio 3 about the life and work of Ligeti. It's fascinating and informative and Ligeti comes across as charmingly unpretentious. 

He describes how the Fourth Movement of his Piano Concerto, sometimes called The Fractal Movement was actually inspired by a Marx Brothers movie.

In Night at the Opera, Groucho packs his tiny ship's cabin with visitors, including a stream of waiters bringing him boiled eggs. The room rapidly fills to bursting point, just as the sparse sound world of the Fourth Movement begins steadily more dense. "It's not the Fractal Movement," said Ligeti with amusement. "It's the Boiled Egg Movement."

Even more appealing to me, it reveals that Ligeti admired the work of Henry Mancini and was influenced by him, consulting Mancini's book on orchestration and studying works like the Pink Panther Theme. Suddenly György Ligeti doesn't seem such a daunting, austere or formidable figure, but an approachable musician of genius.

There was also a first rate program of music accompanying the documentary on Radio 3, though by the time you read this it will probably have expired. The documentary however, looks like it will be available indefinitely. Have a listen.

(Image credits: The 2001 cover is from Amazon. The LP of the Shining, with great cover are by Saul Bass — and a surprisingly rare album — is from Flickr courtesy of William Creswell. The Pink Panther is from Jazz dot Com. Thank you all.)

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Finian’s Rainbow

I'm not normally a fan of Broadway musicals. To be frank I often find them too screamingly camp. Some I cotton to immediately — the noirish and sexy classics directed by Bob Fosse, like Cabaret and Chicago (both of which had songs by Kander and Ebb) are just great. But, as a rule, most Broadway songs need to be put through the purifying charcoal filter of jazz before I can endure them.

On the other hand, I love the songs of lyricist Yip Harburg. His left wing masterpieces like Buddy Can You Spare a Dime and, especially, Dusty Shoes seem to me powerful, moving and relevant. Not to mention brilliantly written. My admiration for E.Y. Harburg ('Yip' is a nickname, Yiddish for squirrel, given to him when he was a skinny redheaded kid dashing everywhere) has even led me to reassess The Wizard of Oz (yes, he's the guy who penned those blood-chilling words, "Somewhere over the rainbow...").

The one Yip Harburg musical I really wanted to catch was Finian's Rainbow (Music by Burton Lane, lyrics by Harburg, book by Harburg and Fred Saidy). I used to assume this was some kind of cod Irish nonsense about Leprechauns and crocks of gold. Well, it does feature both of those items, but it's set in the deep south of the USA and wrestles with issues of racism and hostility to immigrants. It features this great one-liner: "My family has been having trouble with immigrants ever since we came to this country."

It also features some truly classic songs, including Old Devil Moon. So when an acclaimed production turned up at the Charing Cross Theatre I zipped along to see it like an eager squirrel. Smart move. It was an outstanding production with a notably jazzy score played by some gifted pit musicians. And Christina Bennington was a knockout in the role of Sharon.

If you get a chance to see this production — adapted by Charlotte Moore, directed by Phil Willmott — drop everything and rush along. In the meantime you can listen to the superb (and jazzy) version recorded in 1963 by the Reprise Musical Repertory Theatre, Frank Sinatra's record label, which turned me on to the glories of these songs in the first place.

(Image credits: The poster for the production I saw is from West End Whingers. The Reprise LP cover is from EIL.)

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Moira Stuart on Sunday Nights

I used to have a Sunday night ritual. I'd retire to bed early, set the sleep timer on my radio and drift off listening to the best music show of the week. This was on Radio 2 and it was the Russell Davies Song Show. It was magnificent — erudite, informative and full of good music. Occasionally it veered down musical byways which were not my ways. My kind of music is jazz, big band and swing and what they did to the great American (and occasionally British) songbook. But even on the oddest tangents, the huge charm and intelligence of Russell Davies kept me interested and listening.

And then, just like that, the Russell Davies Song Show was gone. 

Some mad axeman at the BBC simply decided to get rid of it. It was too good to be allowed to live. I was bereft — and furious. Cue a cutting letter to the Radio Times. (They didn't publish it, of course.) 

But things change. And on Sunday nights on Radio 2, things kept on changing. After Russell Davies's departure there were further alterations to the schedule. And Don Black's late night (11pm) show has now given way to Moira Stuart.

And Moira Stuart is just wonderful. She did a fine, short, series of programs about great jazzmen for Radio 2 last year, and that has now paved the way to her regular slot. I love Moira Stuart's show. It's described in the schedules as "the best in easy listening and timeless standards." 

But it's much more heavy on the jazz than that suggests — last week she played Mark Murphy, Ramsey Lewis, Mel Tormé, Julie London and Count Basie, in addition to the Hi-Lo's and Nelson Riddle. Or how about the week before — Blossom Dearie, Carmen McRae, Horace Silver, Oscar Peterson, Georgie Fame, Billie Holiday and Joni Mitchell.

Moira Stuart has great, eclectic taste, playing famous performers alongside rarities like the Italian singer Mario Biondi or Brazil's Elis Regina. And she has introduced me to people I'd never heard of before, treasures like the Dutch chanteuse Trijntje Oosterhuis. 

Moira's knowledgeable, crediting the great jazz photographer Pete Turner with the classic cover for Wes Monrgomery's Road Song. 

She's perceptive, pointing out how Lalo Schifrin's composition 'The Wave' was a precursor of his unforgettable theme for Mission Impossible. 
 
And she's witty, remarking after a space age Esquivel exotica track, "You can almost see the flying saucers landing."

A wonderful show. Check it out here.

(Image credits. The LP cover images are all from the BBC web pages for various episodes of the show. Like this one. And this one. And this one. Yawn, and this one... And so is the shot of Moira herself.)