It’s late, very late, you drain the last of the Bourbon and slap the empty tumbler on the bar. You make your way to the exit and slip out quietly into the small hours. You take a quick look around, pull up the collar of your jacket and begin walking. It’s dark and it’s drizzling. You walk briskly, your leather-soled shoes clip-clop the pavement/sidewalk, you keep your ears alert for anyone who might be on your tail. You’re mixed up in a business that’s no fault of your own, but you don’t trust the cops and the feeling is mutual. This is a concrete jungle and you’re not sure if you’re the hunter or the prey. Do you take the short cut or go the long way? The short cut it is. You turn into an alleyway and hear a car pulling in behind you its headlights silhouette your body against the end wall. You feared this would happen…
You’ve seen hundreds of films and TV shows like this, haven’t you? Thrillers, cop shows, and spy films gripping the armchair as the tension builds. Is your favourite character about to meet a sorry end or will they emerge the hero?
I have compiled for you some of my favourite sounds of a genre that hasn’t really got a name. It could be called Big Band Blues, Crime Jazz or B-Movie Jazz but I have called it Film Noir. Not all of it was written for TV or film and most of it has its roots in jazz, but what all of the pieces have in common is big, bold brass arrangements.
The playlist starts with the biggest name in this field - Elmer Bernstein - who scored for dozens of films, but his work for gritty black and white stories like The Man with the Golden Arm, Walk on the Wild Side, The Sweet Smell of Success and The Rat Race take some beating. Big, brassy and menacing, his orchestrations perfectly prepared the viewer for a journey to the seedier side of life.
Other big names crop up; Henry Mancini, organ maestro Jimmy Smith, Nelson Riddle, and Buddy Rich. Like jazz, blues, rock’n’roll, soul, funk and disco this is inherently American music, but like all those genres it is transferable. Take Dudley Moore’s “The Detective” from 30 Is a Dangerous Age, Cynthia, Britain’s most talented jazz pianist and woefully under-used film composer proves as adept as any of the US masters in this field. Of course, Britain also had John Barry, famous for the James Bond films. We can look at his phenomenal and prolific work another day, but we can’t leave him completely off this list; “The Knack” and “Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” fit the bill.
Most of my choices are big and brash ‘in your face’ but I have also included some pieces from the mellower moody side of the tracks, Nelson Riddle’s “Blue Safari” and Buddy Rich’s “New Blues” from 1967 is a favourite of mine.
This music is a near-perfect marriage of jazz and blues but Latin influences bring in a different dimension. Here, Argentinian-born composer Lalo Schifrin took the sound in a different direction as the 50s moved to the 60s and detective films moved from black and white to colour. His jazzy scores were mellower than Bernstein’s brash, bold and brassy recordings, but Bullitt, Mission Impossible and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. superbly built anticipation, tension and atmosphere, perhaps most famously with Steve McQueen’s car chase around the streets of San Francisco in Bullitt. Dig also Archie Shepp’s awesome “Blues for Brother George Jackson”, which gives more than a nod in the direction of the great Lalo.
And I’m not signing off without a shout for my man Gerald Wilson. Born in Mississippi in 1918 he was earning a living as a jazz trumpeter before World War 2. By the 1960’s he was leading and writing music for his own big band. Although never a major name, his work really speaks to me in a big way. He recorded around a dozen albums with his orchestra in the Sixties, all of which are superb, especially California Soul, Everywhere and Eternal Equinox. Buy them if you ever see them. Like Schifrin he has a distinctive and unmistakable sound of his own, (though the two share similarities) big and brassy, with a great swing and superb use of vibes, courtesy of the wonderful Bobby Hutcheson. He continued to work until the end, which came at the grand age of 96 in 2014.
I hope you enjoy this playlist. I am glad that I enjoy a wide range of different musical styles, but if you had to pin me down to one I think I’d tell you that Big Band Blues is about my favourite. So, imagine yourself walking those New York, Chicago or Soho Streets. Imagine yourself behind the wheel of Bullitt’s car. Or just sit back with a short drink on the rocks and dig some of the biggest sounds to ever emerge from a recording studio. This is most definitely after-dark listening.