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Barney Wilen and Kenny Dorham

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Jazz and French movies were a natural fit in 1950s. The most famous soundtrack is Miles Davis's Ascenseur Pour L'echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows), recorded in Paris in December 1957 with Davis (tp), Barney Wilen (ts), Rene Urtreger (p), Pierre Michelot (b) and Kenny Clarke (d). Almost as well known is Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 (Dangerous Affairs 1960), recorded in New York in July 1959 with Charlie Rouse and Barney Wilen (ts), Thelonious Monk (p), Sam Jones (b) and Art Taylor (d).

Lesser known is Wilen's soundtrack for Un Témoin Dans la Ville (Witness in the City), recorded in Paris in April 1959. It featured the Barney Wilen Quintet, with Kenny Dorham (tp), Barney Wilen (sop,ts), Duke Jordan (p), Paul Rovere (b) and Kenny Clarke (d). Directed by Édouard Molinaro, the film is about love, murder, revenge and happenstance—a classic French cinematic recipe of the period. Just add shadows.

What's special about the music is the mood. While the Davis and Monk soundtracks are superb, they lack what this one has—the Parisian feel. Both Dorham and Wilen play with a nocturnal melancholy that settles on the score like a fog. Wilen plays smokey and blue on the saxophones while Dorham has a heartbreaking sound on trumpet, squeezing notes into tight places. Meanwhile Clarke's machine-gun drums creates suspense and Jordan's piano, particularly on Final Au Jardin D'acclimatation, unleashes cafe-society drama.

The common denominator on all three of these soundtracks is Wilen, who had a tender but aggressive technique and deep soul. His originals and playing give the music and films a lavish, sophistication. Also of note is Wilen's Jazz-Sur-Seine, an album that easily could have been a movie score. The album featured Wilen (ts), Milt Jackson (p), Percy Heath (b), Kenny Clarke (d) and Gana M'Bow (perc). Only 21 years old at the time, Wilen blows ambitiously with a Dexter Gordon edge throughout.

Barney Wilen died in 1996.

JazzWax clips: Here's the full album in playlist format...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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