Thursday, January 26, 2017

Alessandro Alessandroni - Prisma Sonoro

Composer: Alessandro Alessandroni
Title: Prisma Sonoro
Year: 1974

Those familiar with the work of Ennio Morricone might know Alessandro Alessandroni as the multi-instrumentalist whose Fender guitar and beautiful, clear whistling can be heard on some of Morricone's most iconic work. What they might not know is that Alessandroni was a masterful composer in his own right, scoring over 40 films and releasing countless albums of absolute music. Of those albums, Prisma Sonoro is perhaps the finest and the only non-soundtrack album for which Alessandroni had access to a full orchestra. Regarding the instrumentation, Alessandroni said:

"The editor gave me total freedom, so I composed for a great orchestra with 16 violins, 4 violas, 4 cellos, it was truly fun. It isn't often that a producer leaves you free to compose whatever you want."

As with much of the Italian soundtrack music of the 70's, Alessandroni doesn't limit himself to just a traditional orchestra here: it is often driven by drum set and electric bass and frequently employs electric guitar, harpsichord and wordless female vocals.  As often heard in Morricone's work, Alessandroni makes significant use of doubled melodies on Prisma Sonoro (two instruments playing the same melody in unison), which contributes to the lushness of this impeccably orchestrated work.

Though it has similarities to much of the Italian soundtrack work of the period, Prisma Sonoro enjoys the distinction of having each track be a unique composition with no repetition and variation of themes.  As such it is one of the most pleasurable albums to listen through from start to finish among his work and among the genre at large.

Les Baxter - The Ritual of the Savage

Composer: Les Baxter
Title: Ritual of the Savage
Year: 1951
While Ritual of the Savage has the distinction of arguably being the first concept album, its most essential contribution is that it marks the birth of Exotica, a genre that would come into full bloom over the next decade, entering the mainstream in 1957 with Martin Denny's fittingly-titled album Exotica.  While Denny dropped the strings in favor of vibraphones and added the distinctive element of birdcalls, Ritual is a decidedly orchestral work and as such has a slightly more removed, reflective feeling.  That is, it comes through as a musical recollection of a journey to a distant land rather than being the journey itself.  Though Denny's later sound along with that of Arthur Lyman would largely come to define Exotica, Ritual is essential listening for anyone interested in the genre and many of its distinctive compositions can be heard throughout the albums of the later arrangers.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

John Zorn - Spillane

Composer: John Zorn
Title: Spillane
Year: 1987
For those unacquainted with composer/saxophonist John Zorn's work, Spillane is likely to be a challenging introduction, but will be a rewarding one.  In a prolific and varied career that is still unfolding,  Zorn's Spillane is a unique and definitive work unlikely to be buried no matter how much compelling work he continues to churn out.

Spillane draws much of its strength from an unusual musical technique: file-card composition.  A file-card composition is one in which the sequence of musical events is dictated by a shuffled or ordered set of cards, each of which communicates a distinct block of sound to the performers.  Though this method is employed on three out of the four tracks, its use is most clearly heard in the title track which explores the gritty and violent world of mystery writer Mickey Spillane's hard-boiled detective character, Mike Hammer.

In typical fashion, Zorn draws on a cast of immensely talented musicians, including some of the best of the New York Downtown Scene (Anthony Coleman, Bill Frisell, Carol Emanuel, et al.), the Kronos Quartet, Christian Marclay on turntable and John Lurie (of the Lounge Lizards) as the voice of Mike Hammer.  It is a magnificent and imaginative, if challenging, journey to take, so leave a patient space for it.

Ennio Morricone - Giù la testa

Composer: Ennio Morricone
Title: Giù la testa (Duck, You Sucker!) [OST]
Year: 1971
Italian director Sergio Leone, known for his Spaghetti Westerns, including the iconic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, directed only six films between 1964 and his death in 1989 and each of those is beautifully scored by the peerless Ennio Morricone, a former schoolmate of Leone's whose rise to success was defined by their collaboration.  To say Morricone's music is essential to Leone's films would be an understatement; indeed they define the films as much as the breathtaking cinematography, the gritty violence or the stories they tell.  In fact, their approach to the music was one that is very unique in film history: in some cases the music would be written before the films and Leone would play the music for the actors on set to inform the mood he was striving for.

Though the Dollars Trilogy, Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America, get the bulk of the attention among their collaborations, Giu la testa (or Duck, You Sucker!) is a remarkable and epic film with an equally masterful score, mostly overlooked by history.  Starring James Coburn and Rod Steiger, the film is considered a Zapata Western, a variation on the Spaghetti Western that typically focuses on a Mexican revolutionary partnering with a money-hungry Caucasian.  The score here ranges from grand and emotional orchestral pieces to light-hearted small-ensemble pieces that highlight the happy-go-lucky sentiment into which the film briefly wanders.  As always, Morricone leverages his imaginative sense of instrumentation, at some points employing what seems to be essentially a man burping as a percussive accent.   There is a particular feeling of nostalgia in this work as a whole, which both fits the film and the then quite mature partnership between Leone and Morricone.

Hosono/Suzuki/Yamashita - Pacific

Composers: Haruomi Hosono, Tatsuro Yamashita, Shigeru Suzuki
Title: Pacific
Year: 1978
Part exotica, part electronic, part fusion, part funk, Pacific brings together a range of genres but is a sonically coherent sail through the warm seas.  A collaboration between Hosono, Suzuki, and Yamashita (the former two of which had worked together on Happy End and Tin Pan Alley), the album is a beautiful moment of transition in Hosono's magnificent careeer, bridging the gap between the exotic sounds of Tin Pan Alley that proceeded it and the electronic ones of the great and influential Yellow Magic Orchestra that followed.  In the interesting history of collaborations within the Hosono circle, this album is something of a unique punctuation mark, not entirely foreign but still quite separate from the other work.

Though coherent despite having three different composers, the album is at its strongest and most beautiful on the exotic-leaning tracks, "Saigo no Rakuen" and "Slack Key Rhumba" (composed by Hosono) and "Nostalgia of Island" (composed by Yamashita), and the synth-heavy closer, "Cosmic Surfin'" (Hosono), which would later become a signature YMO tune.

The Versatile Henry Mancini

Composer: Henry Mancini
Title: The Versatile Henry Mancini and His Orchestra
Year: 1959
In both the exotica genre and in the Mancini catalog, The Versatile Henry Mancini stands by itself, an early masterpiece, the beauty of which does not wane even after hundreds of listens.  Despite the implication made by the "and His Orchestra" part of the title, this album features no strings, horns or woodwinds and instead employs a small, gentle ensemble of electric organ, accordion, electric bass, electric guitar, wordless vocals and occasional, scattered triangles, bells and faint tambourine.

Though it is decidedly in the realm of exotica, you'll hear no birdcalls or driving hand percussion as are invariably present in Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman's work.  Its emphasis on electric instruments and reeds (accordion and harmonica) sets it further apart, perhaps inviting wandering daydreams more so than imaginations of the tropical and the tribal.  To hear the warm and wet tones of electric organ, guitar and bass in absence of percussion emphasizes the dreamy potential of these instruments as they combine delicately to paint moonlit seaside scenes.

These are immaculate, tender treatments of Exotica standards alongside two original compositions, highlighting Mancini's incredible arranging ability, particularly his sense of instrumentation and timbre.  Though Mancini's soundtrack work that followed undoubtedly continued to exercise his keen use of orchestration and voice, this is the only major work in which he confined himself to such a small ensemble and one might reasonably wish he had revisited this realm from time to time.

Mort Garson - Mother Earth's Plantasia

Composer: Mort Garson
Title: Mother Earth's Plantasia
Year: 1976
Beautiful, layered compositions expertly arranged for modular synthesizer by a little-known master, Mort Garson, a Canadian composer-arranger and pioneer of electronic music. Subtitled "warm earth music for plants... and the people who love them", the record comes with an illustrated booklet on caring for your plants. Warm, sweet, rich and full of sunlight, this record is just about the best morning record one could imagine.

Nino Rota - Giulietta degli Spiriti

Composer: Nino Rota
Title: Giulietta degli Spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits) [OST]
Year: 1965
Among the great director-composer partnerships, that between Federico Fellini and Nino Rota ranks as one of the most fruitful and prolific, resulting in 17 films scored over a 26-year period.  An argument could be made for Giulietta degli Spiriti being the finest among those scores, a delightful circus of music intelligently pairing heavenly electric organs, electric guitar and wordless vocals with nimble slices of the orchestra.  Rota draws from his extraordinarily colorful palette to vary recurring themes in unexpected and dreamy ways, allowing ample and deserved opportunity for their beauty to be explored and sink in.

The Enchanted Feast Begins

Music, you sweet companion, you indescribable and incomparable beauty, you beautiful proof of something sacred in man, come closer, ever closer, digest me and leave me complete at the end of my days.

I suppose if I really believe in such a completeness, I have a lot of composing and a lot of listening to do.  In all likelihood, I will find myself on my deathbed yearning for more life and for more music.  And that’s the beauty of music: it is infinite.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  Just when you think you’ve heard it all or composed all you have in you, you’ll round a corner and stand before some beautiful paradise you never considered or perhaps even one you’ve visited before but weren’t then prepared to appreciate.  Rejoice each of these times and let them be many!

Though I’m lucky to have friends nearby with whom I can listen to and discuss records, I am regularly confronted by the desire to share music with those who are far away and have yet to arrive at any consistency in satisfying that desire.  “The Enchanted Feast” represents a simple effort to be organized in sharing music with those distant folk and, in doing so, to catalog the music I love and to celebrate new music as I discover it.  Expect everything from film music to exotica to free jazz to Japanese synthpop to musics I haven't even yet imagined.  Maybe even some field recordings of Antarctic ice sheets.

I hope it goes without saying that the links provided here are ideal with respect to their ease of sharing but less than ideal with respect to fidelity.  If you enjoy something you hear here, do yourself a favor and get a copy of the record or a higher-quality digital source.  And if it’s still in print, please support the artist!

Happy listening,
Brendan