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    Johnny Be Thankful

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Among the blessings evoking expressions of gratitude this Thanksgiving Day, one to add to the list is appreciation of the legacy of the legendary Johnny Mandel, marking his 92nd birthday today. A composer, conductor, arranger, Oscar® and five-time Grammy® winner, and virtuoso trumpeter and trombonist, his solo work and collaborations with key figures in the music business produced groundbreaking jazz recordings and dozens of celebrated movie soundtracks, three of which have pride of place on our label. His first credited movie score was historic: for I Want to Live! (1958), director Robert Wise’s searing, truth-based film (starring Best Actress Academy Award® winner Susan Hayward) about notorious B-girl Barbara Graham’s troubled life and fight to save herself from a death sentence following a (possibly unjust) murder conviction, he crafted a smoldering, propulsive and sinuous all-jazz soundtrack that proved instrumental (pun definitely intended) to the film’s surprise success. Per these archived notes for Film Score Monthly Online: “Mandel’s score featured the underscore as well as original jazz numbers, with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and a host of West Coast musicians, spawning two separate LP soundtracks. In addition to performance cues such as at the opening scene at the jazz club, Mulligan and his septet can be heard in numerous source cues on record players and on the radio. The underscore broke from Hollywood tradition: a 26-piece orchestra with no strings. Mandel’s music featured ‘a lot of unusual sounds with unusual instruments and odd combinations,’ including ‘decidedly offbeat instruments’ like the E-flat clarinet, contrabass clarinet, contrabassoon, bass trumpet and bass flute. In the stakeout scene, Mandel used a battery of percussion – rhythm logs, cowbells, claves, scratcher, Chinese and Burmese gongs, bongos and conga drums – ‘to drive [the scene] forward to its conclusion,’ explained Mandel in the soundtrack’s CD liner notes. ‘I was using the music as propulsive force, to speed up what you were seeing on the screen.’ For the death scene, Wise insisted on a musical background. ‘What I didn’t want to do is get very dramatic,’ said Mandel. ‘When you see somebody die in a gas chamber, it’s not like being electrocuted; it’s more like the life seeping out of you as the cyanide takes over. It’s anticlimactic. I had to concoct something that felt like the scene looked. What you saw on the screen were clouds of smoke, so I used instruments weaving in and out of each other, creating an impressionistic texture.’ Mandel used the piccolo in its bottom register to make ‘an eerie sound…almost like someone’s dying gasp.’” The other two titles find Mandel in rueful Americana mode, alternating traditional marching band sequences with more layered themes that convey senses of tantalizing mischief and regretful longing. Director Noel Black’s dark comedy Pretty Poison (1968) co-stars Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld as an uncomfortably matched pair of calculating dreamers whose uncorked fantasies result in murderous small-town mayhem. Director Hal Ashby’s foul-mouthed funny but ultimately tender road movie The Last Detail (1973), in which Navy lifers Jack Nicholson and Otis Young escort sad-sack sailor Randy Quaid from Norfolk, VA, to a Portsmouth naval prison in Maine, endeavoring to show the callow kid a good time along the way, features smartly used and arranged interpolations of tunes by Jack Goga, Miles Goodman and Ron Nagel. All three Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays carry Isolated Tracks highlighting Mandel’s contribution, which in the case of the latter two is the closest we have to soundtrack albums, since neither movie spawned an LP. Through December 1, you can thankfully gobble-gobble up these three superb examples of marvelous Mandel musicality – I Want to Live!, Pretty Poison and The Last Detail [the last-named only available here:] – at 50% off original list as part of TT’s Pre-Holiday Sales Promotion.

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