Misc. Reviews

THE MANCINI PROJECT

By • Sep 14th, 2008 •

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Ever since I was a child, I’ve wanted to go to Mother’s, the fictional jazz club in Blake Edwards’ late 50’s tv series, PETER GUNN. Situated off a dark alley and packed to the gills with cigarette smoking, tuxedoed patrons, Mother’s seemed like the ultimate in tawdry, romantic glamour. The music played by the house combo, a mix of smart-ass brass and loungey Mancini melodies with a syncopated twist, didn’t hurt either. So when I read that saxophonist Ted Nash, the son of trombonist Dick Nash (one of the dominant voices in Mancini film scores from the 50’s through the 80’s), was leading a quartet at New York’s Jazz Standard to celebrate the release of a new CD entitled “The Mancini Project”, I rushed right down there. The only thing missing was a smoke-filled room and Hershel Bernardi’s Lt. Jacobi (a continuing character on the tv series).

As the lights went down, Ted Nash asked how many people in the audience had seen THE NIGHT VISITOR. No one raised their hands, including, I’m ashamed to say, your reviewer. (THE NIGHT VISITOR is a psycho thriller from 1970 starring Max Von Sydow and directed by Laslo Benedek.) Mancini’s main title music is a twisty minor-key melody with a middle-eastern feel. It sounds a little like “Barbara’s Theme” by Johnny Mandel from I WANT TO LIVE, but more unsettling. The music started with a repetitive pizzicato bass figure against rumbling cymbals, and then Ted Nash began to play this deep yet supple tenor, keening upward into a whispering cry, a sound so beautiful that tears came to my eyes.

While Ted Nash’s playing is beautiful on its own, through the medium of these compulsively listenable compositions (many of which haven’t been heard in public since the films were released), it’s impossible not to be moved. For me, it’s deeply satisfying to hear this music within the framework of a jazz quartet. The specificity of the film cues are preserved so that you can almost see the original images flicker across your mind’s eye, while expanding the context of the music exponentially.

Recently, I found a cache of Henry Mancini Living Stereo LPs at a Salvation Army, including “Peter Gunn” which contains “Dreamsville”, a moody wee small hours ballad with a poignant touch and “Mr. Lucky Goes Latin” which has “Lujon”, an exotic tune using the arabic scale which is one of the most perfect melodies ever written for a saxophone. I’ve been playing these tunes, gorgeously inventive and impossible to forget, for the past few months, and hearing them live, enhanced by Ted Nash’s subtle improvisations, was enthralling. (They also comprise two of the best performances on the CD.)

Between the sets, Mr. Nash talked about his first encounter with Henry Mancini. “I was sixteen and practicing at home on my sax when the phone rang. It was my dad, who needed his bass horn for a recording session. So I got into my beat-up VW bug and drove to LA. When I got there, these guys in grey suits stopped me, and asked all these questions. Finally, they went into a conference, and the tallest one said, ‘It’s ok. The kid can go in.’ So I went into the studio even through the red light was on. After all, they told me to go in. There was Henry Mancini waving his arms above his head for the downbeat, his face twisting into a cross between a grimace and a grin when he saw me. I tried to run out, but first my dad grabbed his horn.”

Ted Nash changed a mouthpiece and put his sax back on its stand, grinning a little sheepishly. “This is a very personal project for me,” he said. “Not just because my father, and uncle, also named Ted Nash, played many of the original solo parts on these compositions. But this music, both objectively and emotionally, was an important part of my childhood and sense of self.”

One doesn’t really think of Henry Mancini as a jazz composer. Instead, the limpid, effervescent quality of Mancini’s music seems forever linked with Audrey Hepburn raising a martini glass in an ironic toast or Peter Sellers cha-cha-ing the night away in search of the Pink Panther. There’s something cooly nostalgic yet deeply personal about the manner of these themes, in both their melodies and methods (bringing in all kinds of dissonance and strange rhythmic textures) mirroring the equally innovative style of Blake Edwards, the director for whom most of these scores were composed. (PETER GUNN was the first television series to feature a jazz combo, as well as the first to have an original score written specifically for each episode.)

While not improvisational, there is a strong jazz feeling in Mancini’s music, of swing and lyrical sang-froid, not to mention spontaneity and rhythmic complexity. I think Mancini listened long and hard to Duke Ellington’s “Koko” from 1940, the first jazz composition to be based on a rhythmic motif repeated by the brass and saxes as if the entire orchestra was a drum. (You can hear a similar use of the horns in the middle section of the “Peter Gunn Theme”, with the trumpets and saxes used for punctuation around a riff stated by the piano, bass and drums.) Mancini’s experiments with percussion as counter-melodies (“Theme from Hatari”) or even breaking into and altering the melody (“Experiment In Terror”) opened the door to such work as John Barry’s “007” and Lalo Schifrin’s “Theme from Mission Impossible”, not to mention the spaghetti western themes of Ennio Morricone.

Mancini came out of big band jazz – he was an arranger for the Glenn Miller Orchestra under Tex Beneke in the late 40’s – and employed many of the best west coast players: trumpeters Conte and Pete Condoli, drummers Larry Bunker and Shelley Manne, and on at least one occasion, the legendary Art Pepper. These players had such an individual sound, they imparted a very personal aspect to Mancini’s work, one that identified timbre and articulation with melody and emotion. There’s a particularly lovely passage on the aforementioned “Dreamsville”, where over the echoey vibes of Larry Bunker, Ted Nash’s uncle Ted creates this glissando of sliding saxophone lyricism and crystalline tone. (The younger Ted Nash recalled hearing this passage after a hiatus of many years as the impetus to recording an album’s worth of Mancini.)

In Mr. Nash’s improvisations, he remains true not only to Mancini’s melodic statements, but also in his paraphrases and passing notes, manages to create sound pictures of the films the original themes were composed for. In “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, for example, which is performed with only bass and drums (here Rufus Reid, one of the best bass players of his generation, really comes into his own), there is only a basic statement of the theme before Mr. Nash engages in pure invention. Still, the loping rhythm and melody fragments easily form an image of Holly Golightly wandering about midtown Fifth Avenue at dawn.

Other selections present Mancini’s music in a manner that’s more straightforward. On “Something for Nash” from Blake Edward’s BLIND DATE (1981), a composition that was originally a feature for Dick Nash’s romantic burr of a trombone, Ted Nash plays the melody on alto flute, simply and unadorned. It’s both a tribute to his father and the resurrection of a work that still speaks to us over the years.

There are many pleasures to be found on this CD. Especially, there’s luscious ballad statements of Mancini’s loveliest melodies, such as “Soldier in the Rain”, lithe, pungent and entrancing (it’s a tune that should be a standard but isn’t), and an extended version of “Two For the Road”, shifting through many moods and tempos. According to the liner notes, “Two For the Road” was Mancini’s favorite composition, which he dedicated to his wife. In Ted Nash’s quiet yet deeply penetrating tone, one can discern a delicate sense of romantic abandon.

My favorite selection is “Experiment in Terror”, from the Blake Edwards film of the same name, a mysterioso theme with stabbing, spooky sounds that segues into a heartbreakingly lovely melody, forming an extraordinary effusion of feeling. Ted Nash has combined the Mancini composition with the “Invocation” from John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”, creating a muscular and evocative music of great passion and longing. (When I asked Ted Nash about the Coltrane influence, he said it was inherent in Mancini’s music.)

During his piano solo on “Experiment in Terror” at the Jazz Standard, Matt Kimbrough unleashed a flurry of percussive, minor key notes that ended with a sudden romantic coda, his hands on the keyboard in unison forming a kind of sound Horowitz might have used for Chopin at Carnegie Hall. Matt Wilson can be a volcanic drummer when he chooses, but the sounds he created during this number were always complimentary and innately musical. (Throughout the set, he leaned over the drum kit listening to the rest of the band with a cherubic smile on his face.)

The Mancini Project, while being exploratory, doesn’t ever lose the thread of these fabulous compositions, making for an exciting and satisfying listen. Watching the band at the Jazz Standard, I couldn’t help but imagine Henry Mancini sitting behind me, with his face suffused with an all-encompassing grin. Highly Recommended.

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One Response »

  1. First rate composition. I was looking for a film about Art Pepper, but will enjoy this one first.

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