CD review: Jazz on Film - French New Wave

 Jazz on Film: French New Wave
(Jazz on Film Records, JOF001. 5 CD set. Review by Nicolas Pillai.)

For many, the films of the French New Wave define the city of Paris in the cultural imagination. Cerebral, semi-improvised, cast with unknowns, many of these films used jazz soundtracks to assert their youthful swagger.

This CD collection presents us with a delightful walking-tour of those cultural landmarks, seven soundtracks - some familiar (Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold), some less so (Edouard Molinaro’s Un Témoin Dans Le Ville). As with Selwyn Harris’ previous Jazz on Film collections, the set is beautifully packaged and accompanied by a booklet prodigiously illustrated and benefiting from Harris’ excellent liner notes.

The set spans 1957-1962, leaving me in the hope that there will be a follow-up dealing with a later period. What we have here more than whets the appetite; scores played by The Modern Jazz Quartet for No Sun in Paris, by Miles Davis for Lift to the Scaffold, by Martial Solal for Breathless, by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers for Les Liasons Dangereuses and Des Femmes Disparaissent, by Barney Wilen for Un Témoin Dans Le Ville and by Michel Legrand for Eva. US ex-pats like Kenny Clarke shine alongside French natives like Wilen, the undoubted star of this set, featured on three of the seven soundtracks.

Miles’ legendary improvised score for Lift to the Scaffold is, of course, a three-martini classic. Martial Solal’s frenetic Breathless perfectly summons up the era’s intoxicating newness, its tonal shifts as jarring as Godard’s jump-cuts. In his notes, Harris is right to draw attention to the element of parody in Solal’s score, which appropriates the sound of American B-movies, soupily romantic and sensationally violent. A particular joy on this disc is ‘New York Herald Tribune’, alternating between Solal’s tentative romantic piano and the swelling strings of an orchestra. It’s at once a dead-on skewering of Hollywood scoring and an immensely moving paean to young love. I defy you to listen to it and not hear Jean Seberg’s voice above the traffic.

Two very different Blakey albums share space on Disc 3. Duke Jordan’s hard bop score for Les Liasons Dangereuses finds Art’s band on confident, driving form. Benny Golson and Blakey’s score for Des Femmes Disparaissent is a more subdued affair, consisting of shorter cues but no less melodic or swinging for that. But perhaps the biggest revelation was Barney Wilen’s Un Témoin Dans Le Ville, which I confess I am now playing constantly. Legrand’s Eva is more bitty, evidence of the technical brilliance of its composer but never quite grabbing us when divorced from its parent film.

In my previous review of the Beat, Square & Cool CD collection, I noted that soundtracks are inextricably bound to the films of which they are a part. One of the triumphs of this French New Wave set is that it foregrounds the role played by jazz in the nouvelle vague’s cinematic revolution, a role often neglected by film criticism. Suddenly, films didn’t just look different. They sounded different too.

Dr Nicolas Pillai of Warwick University is the author of a forthcoming book on jazz and screen modernism to be published by I.B Tauris.

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