|by Natasha Theobald
"I like any and all of my associations with music: writing, playing, and listening. We write and play from our perspective, and the audience listens from its perspective. If and when we agree, I am lucky." – Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington created only one feature length film score, and the effort earned him a tiny part in the movie as well as a Grammy Award. According to Wynton Marsalis, a jazz great in his own right, however, the music Ellington wrote was not used to its best effect in the movie. The sound, too, was distressing, fraught with echo and distortion. Still, the tiniest kernel of the greatness within the composition is there to be found by anyone who sees Otto Preminger’s 1959 courtroom classic starring James Stewart, Lee Remick, and Ben Gazzara, Anatomy of a Murder.
Fortunately, the music has been resurrected and reissued. Thanks to producer Phil Schaap, the effort was released again in 1999, with enhanced sound and reduced echo, in a collection that only may be described as comprehensive. In addition to Schaap’s own comments and the original, uncredited liner notes, there is the previously referenced essay written by Wynton Marsalis about the technical and artistic achievement of the work. The CD is accompanied by its own little book chock full of this and other information. This is not the least of it.
The original thirteen tracks are followed by twelve more, including rehearsal tracks, alternate versions of the compositions included in the soundtrack, and an interview with Ellington about his career and the process of putting this thing together. A written version of the same interview (including the questions, which the audio omits) is in the CD book and accompanied by pictures of Ellington working with the actors and members of his band. He recounts details of Preminger’s brother first approaching him to do the project, introducing Lee Remick to “Flirtibird,” the theme he intended to accompany her character, and more, with explanatory musical examples.
In his essay, Marsalis goes into a lot of detail about the nature of this work, which I will leave to interested readers to find, each on their own. The broad strokes go to an effort to dispel the myth that this is somehow a lesser Ellington work. Marsalis finds the music to offer a “most mature sound of the band.” He expresses interest in the “advanced harmonic conceptions,” as well as the “stunning precision and intonation” of the trumpets, for example. He asserts, as mentioned earlier, that the album differs greatly from the movie, in which the music was not well-used. According to him, the album represents more of Ellington’s intention, “Duke Ellington’s music, his way.”
I’m not crazy enough to think that I might have anything to add to Marsalis in terms of expertise, nor do I think I am in any way qualified to evaluate the quality of work from someone like Ellington. I did notice, though, that iTunes offers much of this CD as singles, so I will offer some guidance to those who might prefer to sample rather than buying the complete album. If you have any inclination to get the whole thing, though, that is my recommendation. The extras are worth it.
Start with “Flirtibird.” As mentioned early, Ellington wrote the song to reflect the character of Laura, played by Lee Remick, in the film. Laura is a flirtatious and vivacious woman, not often held by the bonds of propriety or the expectations of others. The murder in the title of the movie follows closely on the heels of the alleged rape of Laura. Her husband murders the man she has accused. The song which tries to get at the essence of Laura drips with sensuality but perhaps also hints at an element of danger. It is playful and breathy, with horns that imply with sound the looking up and down of a figure’s curves, without embarrassment or a hint of shame to the looker or the object of desire.
Next you may want to pick up the stereo single of “Anatomy of a Murder.” Pie-Eye, the character Ellington plays in the film, owns a roadhouse. According to the interview, “his group plays this thing and it is real colloquial, homespun, folksy and I should say gutbucket.” I’m not really sure what some of that means, but I like the sounds. It starts with a plucked bass and slight piano before the horns crash in with some flavor. Ah, listen to it with some headphones and really feel what is going on.
Of course, being a film score, there is a lot of variation on the same themes. If you enjoy piano and strings, check out “Low Key Lightly.” If you enjoy a waltz, “Grace Valse” is there for you. If you want a rich, full band sound, there is nothing like having “Happy Anatomy.” You’ll note some of the more suggestive track names were changed for the mid-century release, but some were left loose to simply be.
Marsalis considers some of the rehearsal stuff to be a bit “ragged,” thrown together on the fly. I really like the rougher stuff, though. This CD is not just music, it is a musical education. It is so cool to hear these guys talking and putting it all together.
This one is for Ellington fans, soundtrack lovers, and people with an interest in the component pieces that come together to create a full film experience. I’m truly grateful that Schaap took this on and brought it to the rest of us. It is an experience to savor.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2211
originally posted: 06/28/07 13:48:40
last updated: 06/28/07 13:51:37