National Youth Jazz Orchestra: Jazz in Film

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Unraveling scores by Lalo Schifrin, Elmer Bernstein, Henry Mancini, John Williams, Quincy Jones and the other composers represented here is no waltz in the park, but as always, Ashton has the ensemble well-prepared and ready for the fray.
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National Youth Jazz Orchestra
Jazz in Film
Silva Screen

This is the twenty-second album in my library by Britain’s remarkable National Youth Jazz Orchestra, and the first one that I’ve not thoroughly enjoyed. (Well, it was bound to happen one day.) Can’t blame NYJO for that, however; Bill Ashton’s young charges are as bright and chipper as ever, and so we must look elsewhere for the shortcomings. There are two, actually — first, the sound on several tracks (“Modesty Blaise,” “Cinderella Liberty,” “Austin Powers” are especially culpable) is so harsh, shrill and reverberant as to be truly disconcerting; second (and this can’t really be helped), the truth is that most Jazz (and other music) in film was written to enhance the mise-en-scène (I’ve always wanted to use that term) and doesn’t stand nearly as securely on its own legs; that is to say, the music seldom wears as well when divorced from its visual component.

That said, NYJO certainly does the best it can with the material at hand, and you won’t hear it played much better than this. Unraveling scores by Lalo Schifrin, Elmer Bernstein, Henry Mancini, John Williams, Quincy Jones and the other composers represented here is no waltz in the park, but as always, Ashton has the ensemble well-prepared and ready for the fray. A pity that its first encounter is with John Dankworth’s theme from “Modesty Blaise,” as it is arguably the most poorly transcribed of the dozen tracks while trumpeter Evan Jolly’s solo is, by NYJO standards, lackluster. Schifrin’s extended suite from “Bullitt,” which follows, is inflexibly atmospheric but not especially captivating sans Steve McQueen (in spite of amiable solos by flautist Rupert Widdows, guitarist Jerry Haglund and pianist Jon Escreet), and Mancini’s “Touch of Evil” is also in need of visual aids to underscore its ominous nature. Williams‘ “Cinderella Liberty,” which uses a string section (although none is listed on the album), is handsomely introduced by soprano saxophonist Phil Knights but soon after engulfed by strident acoustics that make listening more a chore than a pleasure.

The pleasure meter rises sharply on the next track, a charming medley of songs written by the late great Dudley Moore whose impressive musical talents were overshadowed by his genius for comedy. The snappy solos are delivered courtesy of Widdows, Knights, Haglund, Escreet and tenors Mark Hanslip and Robin Fincher. Trumpeter Tom Wortley assumes the spotlight on Jerry Fielding’s threnodic score for the seldom-seen Clint Eastwood film “The Gauntlet,” whose motif is based on the hymn “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” and trombonist Martin Gladdish is the main man on David Shire’s forceful theme for “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.” Alan Silvestri’s gently swinging “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” is a highlight, thanks in part to tight ensemble work (especially by the reeds) and a bracing flugel solo by Robbie Robson.

Two familiar scores by Bernstein follow, with trumpeter Joe Auckland showcased on “Man with the Golden Arm,” Escreet (at the Hammond B-3) on “Walk on the Wild Side.” As I’ve never been a great fan of either, let‘s say they are well-played and leave it there. Schifrin resurfaces with the aggressive “Dirty Harry” suite, consisting of music composed for the first three episodes in Eastwood’s hard-hitting detective series, before NYJO wraps things up with Jones’ lively “Soul Bossa Nova,” written in 1962 (and reminiscent of Mancini’s “Elephant Walk” from Hatari! ) and used as the main theme in Mike Myers’ series of “Austin Powers” spy satires.

As NYJO has a special place in my heart (it’s the first big band I ever reviewed), it troubles me to have to write anything less than complimentary about one of its albums, but Jazz in Film, even though splendidly performed, is too often less than rewarding for the reasons cited above. On the other hand, NYJO is NYJO, and that means there are more than a few tasty slices of Jazz to be savored. Those who appreciate movie themes more than I (and aren’t as fussy about ear-piercing sound) may find the enterprise much more to their liking.

Tracks: Modesty Blaise; Suite from Bullitt; Touch of Evil; Cinderella Liberty; Dudley Moore Tribute; The Gauntlet; The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3; Who Framed Roger Rabbit; The Man with the Golden Arm; Walk on the Wild Side; Dirty Harry Suite; Austin Powers Soul Bossa Nova (72:32).

Personnel: Bill Ashton, director; Dan Carpenter, Tom Wortley, Andy Greenwood, Joe Auckland, Robby Robson, Evan Jolly, trumpet; Martin Gladdish, Phil O’Malley, Bob Dowell, John Stokes, Lewis Edney, Andy Lester, trombone; Kai Hoffman, Martyn Bayless, horns; Phil Knights, alto, soprano sax, flute, piccolo; Tom Richards, alto sax, flute; Robin Fincker, tenor sax, flute; Mark Hanslip, tenor sax; Gemma Moore, baritone sax, flute; Rupert Widdows, flute, alto flute, piccolo; John Escreet, piano, Hammond B-3 organ, Fender Rhodes; Jerry Hagland, guitar; Dave Foster, Tom Mark, bass; Jim Hart, drums, vibes; Chris Marshall, Lindsay Evans, percussion.

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Style: Big Band

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