Film noir used to be what the Internet is nowadays: something to blame for why the world is going south in a sidecar. Noir films were black and white, but the story lines weren't. The good guys weren't all good, the bad guys weren't always that bad, and the girls with hearts of gold only had them because that's where they kept their cash. And the music was dark
... dark like the shadows where most of the action happened. Andrew Green understands this, which is why Narrow Margin
works like a Swiss pocket watch.
The New York-based guitarist started writing this music after he watched The Narrow Margin, a 1952 potboiler that Gene Hackman remade in the '90s. Eventually, Green's canvas grew to include elements of the entire genre. Noir always dovetailed well with jazz: Elmer Bernstein's soundtrack to the über-noir blockbuster Sweet Smell of Success (1957) was big band jazz gone insane, and Duke Ellington
did the amazing score for 1959's Anatomy of a Murder
, which had dialogue straight out of noir. Green's compositions mostly stay sextet-size, but they've got all the stopping power of a blazing Tommy Gun.
Green's frontline throws heat from the jump on "45 Auto," playing an off-kilter riff that says something's coming, and it's not pretty. Green fills over and around them, and then gets in line as Russ Johnson
's trumpet leaps out in front. Johnson's solo is downright mean, just like some noir "heroes." Conversely, Bill McHenry
's tenor sounds like someone hoarse from screaming, and his solo is practically strangled as he plays higher and harder. This music is straight from the shoulder, fried in the gristle of James Whitmore's diner in The Asphalt Jungle
Noir films were great when the writing was great, and Green's writing is right on point. "Midnight Novelette" is a travelogue through a city with no peoplejust huge cars, neon signs, and those ever-present shadows. "Totally Joe" is a theme for the sharp operator who's always three moves ahead of everyone in the game; people may hate him, but they can't help but admire him. Then Green builds a bridge between one Hollywood and another with "Narrow Margin/Taxi Driver." Bernard Herrmann's razor-edged score to Martin Scorsese's breakout film was classic noir music, perfect for the movie that sent New Yorkers running for the subway. The movie themes' erratic attack folds seamlessly into the tension and foreboding of Green's original piece.
Green doesn't keep it all retro. Tracks like "Black Roses" and "Miro" have the feel of noir classics like Double Indemnity (1944) and 1948's The Naked CityJC Sanford's mournful trombone on "Miro" encapsulates the feelings of hopelessness most noir "heroes" experiencebut Green's buzzsaw guitar on "Short Cut" and "Honeymoon in Ipswich" evoke modern noir films like Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Layer Cake (2004).
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Narrow Margin is hard-edged music about hard-edged cinema and, like the best noir characters, the music packs a wallop.
Personnel: Andrew Green: guitar; Bill McHenry: tenor sax; Russ Johnson: trumpet; JC Sanford: trombone; John Hebert: bass; Mark Ferber: drums; Benny Cha Cha: Wurlitzer piano (4).