This is going to seem like I’m going way off on a tangent, but trust me. In 1989 the DJ dance duo Coldcut released a song called “Stop This Crazy Thing,” which got airplay on radio stations in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was living at the time. It’s what I like to call a “sample jam” song-lots of samples from different sources over a groove. In this case the main sample is George Jetson crying the title line, but there is also a musical break I’ve been wondering about since I got it. Well, I need wonder no more. It’s from “Congo Fever (Jungle Fever) by The Mills Brothers. If this two-CD set had only answered that musical question, it would be worthwhile to me.
This collection was put together from the films of the ‘30s through the ‘60s. In those pre-rock video days, if a studio wanted to cross-promote a movie to music fans, they stuck the musicians in the picture. Either the main characters of the film would conveniently visit a jazz club where a hot band of the day was playing, or in some instances the musicians themselves would be cast in supporting roles, as musicians or folks who just happened to play an instrument. In addition, jazz musicians were occasionally themselves the subject of short subjects (back in the days when they had short subjects before feature films). Now, at the risk of reading like some kind of K-Tel announcer (“and you also get…”), let me run down just some of the numbers included here.
The film High Society combines two of the approaches to integrating musicians into film of which I wrote above. In this musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, Bing Crosby acts in the film as the ex-husband and sings several numbers, alone and together with costar Frank Sinatra. But Crosby’s character also finds time to join Louis Armstrong, playing himself, for two duets from the Cole Porter score, included here. “Now You Has Jazz” has Mr. laid-back singer laying out—approximately, as he says in the intro—the elements of the music with Satchmo chiming in on a later verse. On “I Love You, Samantha,” the part of Samantha is played by Armstrong’s trumpet.
The most major and pleasant surprise on this set for me is the presence of Leslie Uggams performance of “Don’t Blame Me,” from the film Two Weeks In Another Town. Who knew she could sing like that? You gotta understand—I was born in 1971, and when I first became aware of Ms. Uggams she was working primarily in TV miniseries, series, and soap operas. I had simply no idea she had ever been this good.
In the short subject Jammin’ The Blues, a narrator introduces us to a jam session, which only features a couple of the greatest horn players ever to toot—Lester Young, tenor sax, and Harry “Sweets” Edson, trumpet. This uncredited-as-to-writer jam then segues into a rendition of “On The Sunny Side Of The Street,” and both sections appear separate from the film for the first time. There are practically enough selections (nine) from the film The Subterraneans to make up a soundtrack album of their own. But since these are improvisations and compositions by Andre Previn, played by his trio, the baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, and others and the results are so good, why complain? Especially since most of these too have never been issued before.
The two discs also offer a chance to mark the maturation of one man’s voice, by presenting two Mel Torme performances from films exactly 20 years apart. The first, “Mrs. Whiffen,” an outtake from 1943’s Higher and Higher, is goofy fun depicting the aging female swinger of the title. The second, “Sunday In New York,” from a 1963 film of the same name, is warmly melodic.
Some of the tracks here have been included on CD before. For example, the Benny Carter medley from “An American In Paris,” can also be found on Rhino’s gorgeous and highly recommended two-disc soundtrack to that film. As can more of his orchestra (and of course, Kelly, Levant, etc.).
And then—ohgodohgodohgod—three tracks from the Count Basie band, circa 1966, written and/or arranged by Basie & Quincy Jones (with, the liner notes suggest, a probable assist by Billy Byers). Featuring Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, one of your all-time great tenor sax players.
Do I grow breathless? So sue me, I grow breathless. There are over 50 pieces spread over these two discs, and I haven’t even written about half of them above. I haven’t said anything about “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm,” or the “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be/Going Up” medley featuring Duke Ellington & Orchestra. I haven’t mentioned Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare” or “Traffic Jam,” both in previously unissued recordings. And on the grounds of it’s inclusion in Get Yourself A College Girl, just when you think this collection can’t contain any more nice additions to your musical library after 46 tracks, they throw in “The Girl From Ipanema!”
In his typically excellent liner notes, Will Friedwald points out that whatever their individual merits as films, these movies did us an invaluable service by preserving the images of great musicians as well as their sounds. Friedwald is the author of one of the three or four best books out of dozens on Sinatra, The Song Is You, and other books on jazz singing and singers.
This CD set does us the equal service of removing some great performances from that context, and reminding us just how great they really are. To just about anyone who is even a passing student or fan of jazz, all I should have to do is tell you what names are on this anthology, and you will likely want to pick it up. I cannot imagine anyone, unless they are one of those sad souls for whom any music recorded before they were born is as white noise, not finding something they like on this collection.