Jazz on Film… Beat, Square & Cool
(Moochin About, MOOCHIN02. 5 CD Set. Review by Nicolas Pillai)
The history of jazz on film has been curious and chequered. Many aficionados of the music fall in with George Melly’s colourful observation that Hollywood has “treated jazz like a rich man in a hotel ringing the hotel porter and asking him to send up a call girl”. To those of us who grew up not just watching Hollywood film but also listening to it, this may seem an unfair judgement. Thanks to Moochin’ About and Jazzwise, we now have some evidence on our side. Beat, Square & Cool is a welcome follow-up to the Film Noir collection released last year. These gorgeous CD sets present choice film scores in their entirety, untroubled by the tyranny of dialogue or the spectacle of actors manhandling musical instruments.
While the Film Noir set focused on famous Hollywood scores, this second collection moves out to the margins of genre (The Wild One, Panic in the Streets, Paris Blues and The Subterraneans), taking in French cinema (Les Tricheurs) and the avant-garde (Shadows and The Connection). As Selwyn Harris observes in his erudite liner notes, these disparate films embody the spirit of their age: rebellion against a paternalistic society and, by implication, against dominant trends in Hollywood.
Disc 1 kicks off dramatically, with the rev of a motorcycle engine and the swaggering brass of Leith Stevens’ score for The Wild One. But don’t sweat it, daddy-o – this recording doesn’t fall into the Hollywood trap of representing jazz as wailing hysteria, signifying nothing. Indeed, a more sophisticated game is at work – led by Shorty Rogers and Maynard Ferguson, a recurring refrain cat-calls Hollywood treacle-vendors. If you listen carefully, you might hear Method man Marlon Brando snarling. No mere adolescent snit, the soundtrack to The Wild One is a mature and provocative orchestral piece that shows off its musicians to great advantage, inheriting from classical, Latin and bop styles.
The first disc is rounded off by another surprise. Franz Waxman’s music for Panic in the Streets is at once a pressure-cooker, an austere exercise in mechanics and a tour of the seamy side - wonderfully capturing the fragmentation of metropolitan life. Ray Turner’s pensive piano is a particular highlight.
Gerry Mulligan links discs 2 and 4, robustly sauntering through Johnny Mandel’s soundtrack for I Want to Live! (above) and André Previn’s The Subterraneans. Each is a masterclass in the mutual benefit to be derived from sympathetic composers and performers. As well as the contribution of Mulligan, both scores share Art Farmer on trumpet and Shelley Manne on drums. It is the West Coast sound through a Hollywood filter, but no less enjoyable for that. Each in his own way, Mandel and Previn capture a deceptively intricate, emotionally delicate form of the music.
Les Tricheurs and Paris Blues share the bill on disc 3. If the former seems less cohesive – made up as it is of single tracks composed by visiting Americans – this is more than made up for by the quality of musicianship on offer. Roy Eldridge, Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, Ray Brown and Sonny Stitt all take time out from their Jazz at the Philharmonic duties. Paris Blues is a problematic film but it has the gift of ten Ellington and Strayhorn compositions, some of which feature Louis Armstrong solos. Need I say more?
The collection is rounded off in fine style by Charles Mingus’ four pieces for Shadows and Freddie Redd’s lively score for The Connection, featuring Jackie Mclean. There is enough musical excellence on this one disc to keep jazz scholars busy for decades to come.
Beautifully packaged (an aspect of the collection admirably discussed here by Stephen Graham), Beat, Square & Cool does so much more than present these soundtracks neat. It replenishes our memories of films half-forgotten, fluidly reconnecting the uneasy barter between sound and image. It reminds us that films are more than their narratives – they are also affecting documents of performance, quite unlike live improvisation. I cannot pay the CDs a higher compliment than to say that I want to experience these films all over again. And I shall be listening more carefully this time.