Sunday, 14 March 2010

Red Eyed Rats: The Soundscapes of Kenyon Hopkins

I've been wanting to write something about Kenyon Hopkins since I started blogging about music. What prompted me to finally get down to it was finding an album called Music of Mystery Mayhem and Murder in a shop in Sheen this week. The title is misleading; the album looks like just one more 007 cash-in from the James Bond craze of the sixties. Indeed the words James Bond are huge in comparison to the album's title. It was on the British budget Music For Pleasure (MFP) label and I almost passed it by because it looked so spectacularly tacky, and because the world isn't short of dodgy albums of James Bond cover versions. But something caught my eye. One of the tracks on the LP was Red Eyed Rats. There can't be too many pieces of music with that title, I thought. So I looked more closely and, sure enough, it was the Kenyon Hopkins composition from his amazing album Nightmare. And there were three more Hopkins tracks on the album. Evidently some bright spark had decided to eke out a fairly conventional James Bond cash-in with these amazing lost audio documents. Or maybe somebody simply saw a way of giving a new life to some terrific music, by recycling it with a few 007 tracks attached. I got the record home and it was a delight. The James Bond versions by Danny Davis were pretty interesting in themselves. And there were also some nice Mancini Peter Gunn covers by Ray Ellis, but it was the Kenyon Hopkins stuff that was pure gold. It was great to hear it again, and it encouraged me to pull out Nightmare, the original source of this material. And from there I began digging out all his albums and soon had a full blown Hopkins retrospective going on. So I'm grateful to this little gem (the sound quality of the MFP pressing is quite nice too, by the way). However, as the album's cover is pure kitsch I'll put it near the end of this piece, so it won't scare the horses, so to speak. Instead I'll put a Pete Turner photo at the top, since it will more accurately suggest the classiness and cool artistry of Kenyon Hopkins. (Buy Turner's book, The Color of Jazz, here. And you really should buy it. Once you get past the somewhat shocking cover, it's a book full of colour. And jazz.) This picture was used on the cover of the album The Sound of New York, produced by Creed Taylor. Taylor was a long time collaborator, and indeed some Hopkins albums appeared under the Creed Taylor name, because Hopkins was under exclusive contract to Capitol at the time. These pseudonymous classics include Lonelyville (another Pete Turner cover) which is attributed to the Creed Taylor Orchestra. Presenting a landscape of hip urban alienation and a nice cover with a cat (get the mono version, there's more cat on it), it features Dick Hyman on piano and includes, among other joys, a stonking version of St James Infirmary. The back cover of Lonelyville boasts "arrangements by Bob Kenyon", but of course it's pure Kenyon Hopkins. As are Shock and Panic, two other 'Creed Taylor Orchestra' excursions of the 1950s which are now scarce and sought after collectors items. Luckily the resourceful UK Righteous label is poised to reissue them on CD. Panic and Shock occupy the same oddball terrain as Nightmare, a 1962 MGM album finally under Hopkins' own name. These are spooky soundscapes incorporating sound effects as well as music, and were originally marketed around Halloween to teenagers in search of cheap thrills (in other words, all teenagers). Now, I know this makes them sound like camp curiosities whose only value today would be as kitsch diversions. But nothing could be less accurate. They're actually extraordinarily effective, highly musical, and possessed of their own peculiar integrity. Plus, they're fun. It's a bit like Les Baxter meets Alfred Hitchcock — uneasy listening, to coin a phrase. But I think there's considerably more depth and seriousness to Kenyon Hopkins. And also a thread of bluesy authenticity which constantly validates his work. Even a track as mad as Werewolf (on Nightmare), which depicts a lone cowboy huddled by his camptfire, apprehensively twanging his guitar, singing and whistling into the night, while being stalked by a rustling, and ultimately pouncing, lycanthrope. As nutty as it sounds, and I haven't even told you that the cowboy is singing Home On the Range, Werewolf exhibits some real authenticity and modest power. Maybe because it never comes across as phony, or silly, or throwaway. This is partly because these albums are done with real conviction and a real R&B rawness. It also doesn't hurt that the musicians playing on the sessions are of the calibre of Jerome Richardson and Phil Woods. By rights these records should just be bad jokes, forgettable and cheap. but instead there's something quite marvelous about them. They occupy a region somewhere between jazz and exotica. There's also an intriguing overlap with film music. In particular, the wild Red Eyed Rats features orgasmic female breathing and vocalese ("Why is she is responding to the rats like that?" wondered a generation of puzzled teens) in a way that very much anticipates the work of Edda Dell'Orso for Ennio Morricone. There is also a very groovy jazzy coda after the rats devour their victim. There's an excellent interview with Creed Taylor on Marc Myer's formidable JazzWax blog, where he discusses these recordings, and working with Kenyon Hopkins. I had intended to make this piece an overview of all of Hopkins' work but it's clear to me now that I've only begun to scratch the surface. I can't do justice to the range, or depth, of his music in one short (or indeed interminable) essay. So expect another piece discussing his jazz and soundtracks here soon. Just let me close by thanking the people who put me on to Kenyon Hopkins in the first place. Dusty Groove, in Chicago, are so much more than just a record store. They offer insightful capsule reviews of the albums they stock and it was their description of East Side, West Side that initially put me on the scent, and then Doug Payne's invaluable discography gave me the information I needed to begin the search in earnest. Thanks, guys.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Piero Umiliani Part Two: Una Bella Grinta and the Joys of Vinyl (I'm Being Slightly Ironic Here)

I wanted to write a rave review of this album ages ago. It's the reissue of a great lost Italian soundtrack by the great lost Italian composer (we lost him on Valentine's Day 2001) Piero Umiliani. This rare recording is back from the grave, or at least the record company vaults, and it's on vinyl, too. Unfortunately the pressing, a brand new Italian LP from Cinedelic, is so disappointing that I just lost heart and set this review aside for some months. Please note it's not the music I'm talking about here. The music is wonderful. It's the job someone did of putting the music on a shiny flat black piece of polyvinyl chloride resin that falls short of the mark. But we'll return to that in a minute. First let's talk about this marvelous music. Una Bella Grinta was a 1965 film released to the English market as The Reckless. The soundtrack album begins strongly with a crime jazz feel, reminiscent of Henry Mancini or Kenyon Hopkins. It goes on to feature straight ahead, open jazz with Gato Barbieri's blowing on tenor sax reminding me of Sonny Rollins on Alfie, another classic jazz soundtrack. There's an eerily triangular connection here. Sonny Rollins worked with arranger Oliver Nelson on Alfie. When, years later, Gato Barbieri was asked to write his own jazz score for a film, he also approached Oliver Nelson. The film in question was Last Tango in Paris. But before approaching Nelson to provide the arrangements, Barbieri first turned to Piero Umiliani. Umiliani enthusiastically agreed. But time passed and, as Umiliani himself says, Barbieri "did not call me... he had chosen Oliver Nelson for the job." Now, I think Nelson's work on Alfie was great. And Last Tango was a memorable and distinctive score. (There's also a remarkable vocal version of the main title available on a Blue Note CD which you can read about and hear here.) But I believe that not using Umiliani instead of Nelson (sorry, Oliver) was one of the great missed opportunities of jazz music on film. The music from Una Bella Grinta, or at least the six tracks featuring Barbieri, have been previously reissued on a CD on Umiliani's own Liuto label (LRS 6300/2). This rare disc also collects the Barbieri tracks from another Umiliani film score, the classic Sweden Heaven and Hell. You can see a picture of the cover above. The new Cinedelic reissue of Una Bella Grinta features 13 tracks in all. Barbieri is probably at his best on the second version of Ballata della Bassa Padana (Ballad of the Po Valley), on side two of the album. This has a beautiful clean, airy modern jazz feel reminiscent of the work of Miles Davis or Herbie Hancock in the early 1960s. Barbieri is masterful here. In addition to Barbieri and Umiliani himself, the musicians on the album include Enrico Rava on trumpet, Franco D'Andrea on piano, Gianni Foccia on bass and Gege Munari on drums. I suspect that Umiliani himself (who else?) is responsible for the tasty Hammond organ on Treno di Notte and Hammond Blues. Unfortunately there's no clue to the identity of some of the other musicians. Who played the groovy guitar on Treno di Notte? Was the harpsichord on Jazza alla Vivaldi by Umiliani, as I like to believe? And who plays the hip, adroit flute on the same track? If I find out, I will tell you. So much for the great music. Now for the less than great recording quality. This reissue is on Cinedelic, an Italian label who have done fine work in the past. They clearly had some problems with the original master tape, which sounds damned good for its age, beautifully open and clear with a deep and well defined soundstage. Check out the wonderful acoustic on the brief but lovely cue Lontanaza (Distance). It's clear from this and the following track Sequenze Autostrada (Highway Sequence) that the album was recorded somewhere with a gorgeous acoustic. But the ravages of time seem to have led to some deterioration of the master. There is substantial tape wobble at the beginning of track 2 on side one (Ballata della Bassa Padana, which incidentally reminds me of Matt Dennis's Angel Eyes) and also traces on track 1. These flaws were probably beyond Cinedelic's control and I wouldn't hold them responsible. What I would hold Cinedelic responsible for is the quality of the vinyl pressing, an expensive limited edition. For the most part this is pure and quiet with only a trace of noise haunting the sweet vintage recording. But there is a visible and audible scratch spoiling the last track of side two, the great Hammond Blues. If you're in the business of manufacturing limited edition high end vinyl, there shouldn't be scratches on your records. I emailed Cinedelic about the problem. I got a prompt and polite response from Marco D'Ubaldo saying he was sorry but "the other copies don't have any scratch." This unfortunately was not the correct response. The correct response would have been to ask me to send them the dodgy copy and then, after ascertaining that it is indeed dodgy, sending back a replacement in perfect condition. (Assuming of course that any copies pressed were in perfect condition.) So I'd advise you, discerning listeners, to pick up this lost gem on CD, or maybe download it. Steer clear of the vinyl.