Thursday, 13 May 2010

More on Robert Farnon: Shalako

I was delighted when a copy of Robert Farnon's Shalako turned up at Dusty Groove. Farnon, a Canadian by birth, was essentially a British easy listening and light orchestral arranger. He was an acknowledged master of his craft and worked with singers of the stature of Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Sarah Vaughan. He also had considerable jazz chops, collaborating with the likes of JJ Johnson and George Shearing. (I wrote an earlier post about Farnon, on 18 August 2009.) He also did some soundtrack work, one of the most interesting examples of which is this 1968 western, adapted from a Louis L'Amour novel, starring the improbable but potentially mind blowing combination of Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot. Needless to say, the movie was a disappointing snooze — sort of a bloated Hollywood attempt to emulate the spaghetti westerns, if memory serves. And Brigitte's nude scene was disappointingly tame and truncated, too... Where was I? Oh yes, the movie wasn't much cop, but Robert Farnon's music is of considerable stature. It's said that he had an open invitation to move to Hollywood and become a full time film composer. He reportedly loved England too much to leave, though. The album begins with a bruisingly obvious main title theme featuring a whitebread chorus singing "Shalako, Shalako, flashing eyes, no disguise!" I found myself wondering why anyone ever bothers with this kind of straight-ahead mundane meat-and-potatoes movie ditty based on the character of the title. Has such a thing ever worked? Surely no song like this had ever ended up as a hit? And then I thought of Laura, by David Raksin and Johnny Mercer. A great movie served euphorically well by one of the most meltingly beautiful (and sophisticated) jazz ballads ever written. Okay, okay, so main title movie songs can work. But brother, believe me, this one is no Laura. There's some very nice harmonica, though, played by Tommy Reilly — another Canadian. In fact the score is well served throughout by Farnon's clever use of the instrument. Of course, the harmonica isn't a startlingly novel choice for a western, but it is brilliantly deployed here. Side two. Farnon does a highly effective job of evoking landscapes. I'm see mountain vistas in the music. It reminds me of Copland. Then, oh Jesus, that song is back. Is it starting to become catchy? Nope. The use of strings in the bridge is just wonderful, though. Not surprising, as Farnon was a legend for his string arrangements. Andre Previn called him "the greatest writer for strings in the world". And he was a big influence on other arrangers. Apparently Quincy Jones was in awe of him. (Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong about this, Q.) The harmonica on Irena (a theme for the Bardot character) is just beautiful. It's rhapsodic without ever being schmaltzy. But that song just never quits. It even crops up on the last track, Finale.