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Henry Mancini’s Jazz Score in a Modern-Recording Homage
Harmonie Ensemble/New York; Steven Richman, conductor
Harmonia Mundi HMU 907624
Remember TV's pioneering Peter Gunn? From 1958 to 1961, women wanted to meet someone like him and men wanted to be him -- both thoughts that would apply to James Bond seven years later. He wore a suit and tie, was oh so debonair, and was so very cool and hardboiled. He had a gorgeous girlfriend (Lola Albright) who sang at the waterfront jazz club Mother's, and he dispatched villains with aplomb (after all, it was a half-hour show). But I bet that more people remember the name of the show's composer (Henry Mancini) better than the actor who portrayed Gunn (Craig Stevens).
The release of the Peter Gunn soundtrack caused a Gunn-Mancini furor. I remember that at Kemp's Records in Chapel Hill, N.C., where I grew up, I heard almost nothing but that sizzling title theme for at least a month, and of course I bought a copy so I could hear it at home too! The music became iconic, as did the album cover with its dark blue background punctuated by octopus-like blood splats, with "Peter Gunn" and "Henry Mancini" spelled out in bright yellow. The cover was capped on top by RCA's Living Stereo logo: Fresh music in a fresh new two-channel format.
The new cover is lower octane -- a cool aqua background with angular smoke trails spiraling upward from Gunn's cigarette. The difference in covers reflects, or perhaps broadcasts, the difference in the two albums. The original is hot, in your face, and reeks of excitement, whereas the new one channels a cool, calm, and precise vibe. Conductor Steven Richman, whose previous Tchaikovsky/Ellington album I reviewed most positively, seems to be taking us on a nostalgia tour where nothing is quite as brazen as the original. It's a refined homage, with great attention to detail, but it's a bit low on verve at times.
On a cut like "Dreamsville," with its mellow theme over a walking bass intercut with piano filigree, Richman's approach works best, but on cuts like "Blue Steel" you might prefer the cutting edge of the original. That the music works well given two different interpretations speaks well for Mancini. This is background music with meat on its bones. When Gunn debuted, pop jazz had landed and the public loved it. It's no wonder it made Mancini's career and set him forth as one of the most in-demand composers in Hollywood. The recordings suit the performances, or maybe influence our perception of them. The Richman is like spun gold, with precise channel separation, transparency, and real stage depth. The original soundtrack is all brass and sass, with a flat, TV-like sound. Either way, it's some of the best music ever written for the small screen.
Personally, I'm happy to have both discs in my collection. And scanning Amazon.com's listings, I see that the original soundtrack is available on CD, used for a penny and new for $1.82, so you can easily afford to experience both versions too. You can get the soundtrack now. Richman's disc will be available August 12, but everyone is taking preorders. If you want to view the half-hour black-and-white show in HD, Hulu Plus has all 114 episodes. I started my marathon last night!
Be sure to listen to: Pay attention throughout to the fine vibraphone work of Christos Rafalides. Mellow to a fault.
. . . Rad Bennett