The original issue of George Gruntz's 1960 soundtrack to Mental Cruelty was as obscure as it gets. The 100 LPs printed at the time immediately disappeared into the abyss due to some corporate bullshit, leaving a gaping black hole at the start of the Swiss pianist's recording career and a severe market price for the record in the range of $1000.
Atavistic's appropriately titled Unheard Music Series imprint has picked this disc up for reissue, including all 18 tracks plus three additional scraps from tape. At the time Gruntz was hovering in obscurity and generating untold numbers of film soundtracks, theater scores, and operas. He would enter the spotlight later in his career, but at this time he was anything but a household name. Working with French saxophonist Barney Wilen in various configurations, he also briefly joined forces with drummer Kenny "Klook" Clarke. Both appear prominently here.
My initial impression based on the title of the film and the last name of the artist was pure trepidation. What a surprise it was to hear a swinging, relaxed jazz issue forth, somewhere between cool and bop. The "Themes" that recur throughout the disc help unify it and ensure a light but wholesome feel. The through-composed "Main Theme" opens the disc, a freely swinging stroll through the garden. Its melody is so classic that it almost sounds cliche, but that only exemplifies the way these tunes convey a strange sense of familiarity. A sedate blues follows, then a "Student Hang Out" straight out of the Miles Davis Prestige songbook (Raymond Court nimbly holding court on the trumpet).
Down the road the group touches pointedly on tango and a "Romance" with Wilen's voices on soprano and tenor sax eerily resembling Coltrane's early '60s work. A tiny 40-second hunk of fire on "Good Time Joe" yields to a Latin feel (coaxed along by Clarke in elegant style) and later a mid- tempo waltz. With a brief 23 seconds of theme, the soundtrack closes. (Bonus tracks expand briefly on already-familiar tunes.)
The brevity of these pieces (only four of which span more than three minutes) ensures a minimum of solo time, focusing the group's sound on arranged passages and straightforward themes. For the most part, Gruntz hangs low, content to accent the horns and ensure continuity, and it seems that his cohorts appreciate the subtlety and nuance of these pieces. It's tempting to single out soloists for their brief contributions, but in the end the compositions sit foremost. Of course, the main attraction (in terms of star value) is drummer Kenny Clarke, whose playing here never grabs the spotlight but always reinforces forward momentum. And, lest it be forgotten, he's a virtual epicenter of swing.
A fine resurrection, wonderfully romantic and completely unpretentious.
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Personnel: George Gruntz: piano;
Barney Wilen: soprano and tenor saxophone;
Kenny Clarke: drums;
Marcel Peeters: flute, alto saxophone;
Raymond Court: trumpet;
Karl Theodor Geier: bass.