The Second Disc

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Review: Three From Dave Grusin, Cy Coleman and Henry Mancini

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With hyperbole the norm, it’s questionable just how many buyers took notice of a 1957 album on the Liberty label entitled The Versatile Henry Mancini.  Yet fewer record titles have proven as apt. As frequent collaborator Blake Edwards noted, “Whether the situation is romantic, humorous, tragic, ironic or full of action, Mancini creates exactly the right musical mood.”  Mancini’s breakthrough came two years after that LP’s release, when Edwards enlisted him to provide the cool jazz-inflected score to the television drama Peter Gunn.  Though no such albums exist, it’s easy to imagine LPs titled The Versatile Dave Grusin and The Versatile Cy Coleman.  These gentlemen shared with Mancini a passion for jazz, a vibrant recording career and an uncanny knack for film scoring.  Grusin, a co-founder of GRP Records, began his film score career in 1967, parallel to his work as an arranger, composer and musician.  Coleman, after making a name for himself as the pianist and leader of The Cy Coleman Trio, was still a young man when he made major contributions to the American songbook with tunes like “Witchcraft,” “You Fascinate Me So” and “The Best Is Yet to Come.”  He then established himself as a top-tier composer of Broadway musicals like Sweet Charity and Barnum, dabbling in film composition along the way.

Thanks to the tireless talents of producers Douglass Fake and Bruce Kimmel, at the Intrada and Kritzerland labels, respectively, three very different scores by Messrs. Mancini, Grusin and Coleman have recently arrived on CD.  These albums are about as close to pure musical joy as one could find.  Intrada has delivered the first-ever soundtrack for the 1976 television miniseries The Moneychangers (Special Collection 172), starring Christopher Plummer and Kirk Douglas, with an expansive score by Mancini, while Kritzerland has offered a two-on-one release of the soundtracks to two comedies starring Dick Van Dyke: 1965’s The Art of Love, by Coleman, and 1967’s Divorce, American Style by Grusin (KR 20019-6).  Even if you’re not a film score aficionado, you can’t go wrong with these albums; both are distinct listening experiences that conjure up a particular instrumental milieu and transport you there.

To steal from one of Coleman’s titles, “Kick Off Your Shoes,” hit the jump, and I’ll meet you there!

A misconception about many sixties comedy scores is that they’re “easy listening.”  The combined Divorce and Art dispels the myth, but it’s important to remember that both are, indeed, from an era where many soundtrack albums were expressly designed for a general listening audience.  Divorce, American Style was Grusin’s first film score, just slightly before he found himself accompanied by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel on the Original Soundtrack to The Graduate.  Fans of the non-Simon and Garfunkel tracks on that top-selling Columbia album will find much to enjoy here, too.  Far from sounding like the work of a novice, Grusin’s music is as sly as the Norman Lear screenplay, which is concerned with a bickering couple (Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds) contemplating divorce in the heady environment of the late 1960s.

The main theme is melodic, and far from screaming “comedy,” employs subtle, tension-filled strings and harpsichord with a bit of a classical sensibility.  It’s bold and big, with more than a hint of jazz not only in that central theme but the sinuous baritone sax of “Social Suburbia.”  A frantic organ calls you to attention on “The Other Woman” while “Drunk at Home” shows the influence of Henry Mancini and the “lounge” sound on the era’s composers, though that was, in fact, just a small aspect of Mancini’s talent and indeed of Grusin’s.  “Sudden Bachelor Blues” is a slow-burning jazz melody with some smoking solos, while Grusin skillfully sends up the chart-dominating Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass on the tongue-in-cheek “Tacos For Un Por Favor, Jose.”  Kritzerland has expanded the original Capitol soundtrack album with additional music present in “Drunk at Home” and “Social Suburbia.”

Unlike Divorce, Cy Coleman’s score to The Art of Love was re-recorded for its United Artists soundtrack LP, in the style of Mancini’s hugely successful RCA “soundtrack” albums.  Yet Coleman was wise enough to retain the film orchestrations of Russ Garcia (The Time Machine) on a number of tracks to preserve the score’s true sound.  The Main Title alone incorporates a number of different styles, from silent movie-style chase music to a Gallic-accented theme, a spy-sounding movement and a big-band, brassy pastiche.  In musical theatre parlance, this cut would be an Overture to Coleman’s score.  The madcap adventure stars Van Dyke and James Garner as “two nimble American rascals [who] turn Paris on its ear…and prove that fifty million Frenchmen have a lot to learn about The Art of Love,” according to the original advertisements!

Producer Kimmel has rearranged the tracks into film order, further lending the album a cinematic feeling somewhat missing on the original record.  “Parisian Women” sounds just as you might expect a track of that title to sound, and it’s light as a soufflé.  Much as Grusin wickedly aped the Tijuana Brass, Coleman takes on the sacred cow of Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” theme.  “The Inspector Revisited” features Coleman’s trademark musical humor on full display.  “Halfway Blues” is a sensual orchestral piece, with the composer’s slinky piano, guitar, driving percussion and swelling strings.  The Main Title’s Keystone Kops-style music reaches fruition in “The Chase,” while the title cue offers more cocktail piano.  In short, this is a sophisticated soundtrack that’s an entrée in to a high class fantasy world that probably never existed.

James Nelson has remastered both albums for vivid, vibrant sound, and Kimmel has provided the entertaining and informative liner notes.  The booklet also contains a number of photos of Van Dyke and company in action.

Both Coleman and Grusin paid homage to Henry Mancini in their scores, and Intrada has delivered another smashing release from the master himself.  Mancini would have earned a place in film history had he only composed the instantly recognizable “Pink Panther Theme,” or supplied the melody to Johnny Mercer’s wistful lyric to “Moon River” for Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  But those are just two accomplishments of the man who scored over 80 films and recorded over 90 albums, collecting 20 Grammys and four Oscars in the process.  Mancini’s adaptability might have been his greatest strength but it was also a curse, as he was dismissed as a prolific writer whose work was “all style, no substance,” all melodic hooks with nothing underneath.  Before his untimely death in 1994 at the age of 70, Mancini ruefully admitted, “The [re-recorded “pop” soundtrack] albums gave me a reputation, even among producers, as a writer of light comedy and light suspense…I did that to myself.”  It’s a crime that he didn’t live to see Intrada’s album of The Moneychangers, derived from the original score tracks and showing off the many colors of a multi-faceted artist.

The Moneychangers looked forward to his sprawling Emmy Award-winning work on The Thorn Birds but with a modern, of-the-minute flair circa 1976.  It’s appropriate that Intrada turn the spotlight onto this largely-unknown score for television, as Mancini never saw the small screen as a poor sibling of the silver one.  It was Peter Gunn, after all, that solidified his place in the pantheon.  So attuned to the period was the composer that The Moneychangers quite simply sounds like a television miniseries might sound were you to imagine one.  The music is visual and evocative, interpreting the dramatic action onscreen without sacrificing the melodic qualities that made the composer a recording star himself.   There are reminders of the poignant Days of Wine and Roses, and the suspense and darkness of Experiment in Terror, but by and large, The Moneychangers is its own unique entity.

Intrada’s 2-CD presentation features the miniseries’ Parts 1 and 2 on the first disc, and the concluding Parts 3 and 4 on the second, adding up to one of the longest  original scores of the composer’s career.  He was up to the challenge of providing an exciting soundtrack to the tale of two bankers, one ethical (Kirk Douglas) and the other avaricious (Christopher Plummer), and the score never sounds mundane or uninteresting.  There’s a humorous “March of the Moneychangers” for a team of auditors and a driving chase sequence (“Wainwright Hates Easton”) plus light funk (“The Deacon Speaks”) and of course, plenty of romance and action, too.  Mancini and co-orchestrator Jack Hayes take full advantage of their canvas, incorporating modern styles alongside timeless orchestral compositions.

The Moneychangers has never been released on home video, despite its all-star cast; Plummer and Douglas were joined by Joan Collins, Anne Baxter, Ralph Bellamy, Lorne Greene and even Helen Hayes.  Mancini himself only recorded one track from the film on his album Mancini’s Angels, which itself isn’t very easy to find.  The new 2-CD restoration, splendidly remastered by producer Fake from the original digital transfers for all six reels of ¼” mono safeties from the sessions, is an important release as well as a deliciously enjoyable one.  The accompanying booklet is copiously-annotated and illustrated in full color.  (Now, Mr. F, how about that soundtrack to That’s Life you mention in the notes was first considered 25 years ago?)

The films Divorce, American Style, The Art of Love and The Moneychangers may have all fallen through the cracks, with the only first of those three ever having been on (a now out-of-print) DVD.  But these vital new soundtracks are a reminder of the unforgettable music of three of the most talented composers irrespective of genre: Dave Grusin, Cy Coleman and Henry Mancini.    That their scores have outlasted their filmed sources is no surprise; a great melody remains, simply, timeless.

Written by Joe Marchese

August 18, 2011 at 11:26

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