Saturday, 13 June 2009

Happy Anatomy

I have been meaning to get around to writing about the fiftieth anniversary of Duke Ellington’s Anatomy of a Murder for weeks now – and I have been beaten to it. Go here to read Hans Koert’s thoughts on this album on his Keep Swinging blog.

Whilst much fuss has been made lately – and rightly so – of 1959 as The Year That Changed Jazz with special reissues of the albums Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, Mingus Ah Um and Time Out, Ellington’s major contribution to that year’s recordings has been largely overlooked.

Well, fair enough. The album was neither the critical nor commercial success of those venerable collections listed above. It was neither any more nor any less than jazz fans had come to expect, I guess, from the many albums Ellington was releasing at that time in the immediate aftermath of his renaissance at Newport. It was, however, Ellington’s first commission for a motion picture soundtrack and its anniversary is as good an excuse as any for us to pause and to reflect on Ellington’s achievements in this sphere.

Otto Preminger had already enjoyed considerable success with marrying jazz to film four years earlier with The Man with the Golden Arm. Given that so many jazz musicians had migrated west at the end of the big band era to take up steady jobs in recording studios, it seems logical that they should find their way to the soundstages of Hollywood. Or you would think so. Jazz musicians unfortunately suffered a – not entirely unwarranted – reputation for unreliability, sufficient, at any rate, to frighten off the placemen and accountants who ran the movie business so their involvement in this work was slow. Following the success of Man with the Golden Arm, composers such as Elmer Bernstein used jazz as a regular ingredient in their music for films such as The Sweet Smell of Success.

Ellington, however, was an altogether different kettle of fish. With Ellington, you were buying into both an entirely self-sufficient unit of music makers and also a distinct personality, philosophy, style and sound in the man himself and the way this was expressed through his music. In the music, what you basically had was another character in the film. Ellington himself appeared, briefly, as Pie Eye, the manager of a road house, but just in the same way that Alfred Hitchcock made a cameo in his own films, so Ellington’s imprimatur was not confined to his fifteen minutes of fame in front of the camera. Through his music, Ellington’s finger prints were all over the film.

What was Ellington’s mode of composition, his inspiration for the film's score?

Unlike the way, for example, Miles Davis created the music for Ascenseur pour l'├ęchafaud by improvising in front of a screening of the film itself – Ellington did not have moving images or a print of the film to score to. He did have access to a film script (a copy of the script of the movie is available here) and was alleged to have read the novel. But to what extent did the actual plot influence Ellington at all in his writing?

By all accounts it was Lee Remick herself rather than the character she played who was the inspiration for one of the main themes of the soundtrack, Flirtibird.

Ellington and the band were in the studios a little month before the film premiered. Even by Duke’s standards, this is cutting it fine.

But then, that is Ellington's essential mystery and magic. Like some prestidigitateur, producing with a flourish a bouquet of flowers where formerly there was a wand, Ellington's score will suddenly appear, apparently out of nowhere.

Listening to this svelte soundtrack, I am reminded of a conjurer’s act – the reed section a velvet curtain which Ellington draws back and forth across the cabinet of delights, teasing us, shooting his cuffs in assurance that there is nothing up his sleeve, his audience looking in vain to find the lady.

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