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Jazz and television were an easy match in the Sixties, especially in the context of the cop, spy and detective shows that were Hollywood’s bread and butter of the era. Noirish blues and angular tempoed chase themes fit the action on these shows perfectly, as did the Cool connotations of West Coast Jazz. Among the more successful composers for the studios was John Williams, a jazz pianist who would later become one of the industry’s big names scoring soundtracks to blockbusters like Star Wars and Jaws. Shelly Manne crossed paths with Williams while working on several productions and hatched upon the idea of adapting his selections from his score for the show Checkmate to his working quintet.
Many of the pieces make innovative use of modal structures and Manne’s band relishes in the rhythmic freedom. Such is particularly true of the leader whose signature style of emphasizing finesse over bombast is given ample opportunity to shine. Check out his crisp cymbal accents on the undulating tempo of the title track opener as the horns riff the unison theme. Kamuca charges out of the starting gate soon after blowing a furious spate of choruses that never shirk their underlying swing. Candoli’s card comes up next as a series of cleanly articulated brass phrases skate across the sound floor. Berghofer and Freeman engage in a breakneck race of walking bass and comping keys goaded even further by Manne’s bustling brushes. Freeman lays out leaving drummer and bassist to a floating, almost free form exchange of ideas. Then it’s Manne alone on the toms making elastic use of time and pitch before the requisite return to theme. All this in the first cut alone. “The Isolated Pawn” treads more modal waters on the buoyancy of Berghofer’s highly melodic bass, Freeman’s lush piano chords and Candoli’s tightly muted trumpet. “En Passant” builds from a similar winning formula ripe for modal invention with Kamuca taking the lead as stand out soloist. Other tracks prove equally effective, shaping the album into one that demands to be replayed over and over, if only to fully capture the wealth of nuance and creativity that went into its conception. Manne’s Men were arguably the most accomplished small group plying the jazz trade in Los Angeles and this record adds plenty of credence to the claim.