Saturday, August 30, 2014

Harmonie Ensemble New York: Music for Peter Gunn

Harmonia Mundi USA
By Derrick Bang
Buy CD: Music for Peter Gunn

Henry Mancini’s sleek, sophisticated themes for this ultra-cool private eye had an impact far greater than the three-season TV series itself, which ran from 1958 through 1961. Despite the devotion of fans who adored Craig Stevens’ suave title character, the show never was a ratings hit, posting no better than #16 its first season, and #29 its third. Mancini’s two soundtrack albums, on the other hand, literally set the world on fire, the first — The Music from Peter Gunn — hitting #1 on Billboard’s Pop LP Chart and taking 1958 Grammy Awards for Best Arrangement and Album of the Year. During the next several years, that entire album was covered by jazz artists such as Ted Nash and Maxwell Davis (Peter Gunn), Pete Candoli (More Peter Gunn), Ray Ellis (The Best of Peter Gunn), Aaron Bell (Music from Peter Gunn), Joe Wilder (Jazz from Peter Gunn) and, most successfully, Shelly Manne (Shelly Manne & His Men Play Peter Gunn, Son of Gunn!! and, in 1967, Jazz Gunn).

The title tune, meanwhile, became a regular part of Mancini’s live concerts and, over time, a jazz standard covered by more folks than I could cite.

Now, roughly half a century after the early LP action faded, conductor Steven Richman’s Harmonie Ensemble New York has resurrected the still-swingin’ Gunn music with this disc, which contains all but one track from Mancini’s first album — I guess they didn’t like “Not from Dixie” — and four tracks from the second, More Music from Peter Gunn. The original charts have been used, and even the track sequence retained, but this is no slavish copy. The overall sense is a bit more of everything: more savage urgency to the hard-driving action cues, sweeter shading on the ballads, and an earthier underbelly to the blues numbers. The solos are entirely new, of course, each cut giving plenty of space to members of this 22-piece ensemble.

I only wish the soloists were better identified; I’d like to know, for example, who to credit for the screaming sax chops displayed in the opening “Peter Gunn Theme.”

I’m particularly enchanted by vibist Christos Rafalides, who delivers lovely solos in “Session at Pete’s Pad,” “Brief and Breezy” and “A Profound Gass,” and grants lovely call-and-response support to the flutes in “Blue Steel.” Guitarist Bob Mann also is quite evident throughout, his rock-oriented licks alternately sweet, as on the smooth and sexy handling of “Dreamsville”; or droll, as on “The Floater” and “A Profound Gass”; or sultry, as on a slow 2/2 delivery of the boogie-inflected “Spook,” where he lends able support to sinister saxes and a particularly dirty horn solo.

The unison work also is excellent, particularly on “Fallout,” the ominous cue played behind the nefarious activity taking place during each show’s prologue; François Moutin’s smooth walking bass and Victor Lewis’ drums set up this cue, which then offers a sleek trumpet solo while building to a breathtaking horn climax. At the other end of the excitement scale, the unison horns are serene and lovely on the ballad-esque “Slow and Easy.” (Let us pause to admire Mancini’s sense of humor, concocting cue titles such as “Slow and Easy” and “Brief and Breezy.”)

The tone shifts gracefully, from track to track, whether minor-key moody and ominous (“Sorta Blue”), slow and sassy (“Blues for Mothers”) or ferocious, to accompany action-oriented cues such as “Blue Steel” and “Fallout.” Ronnie Cuber’s baritone sax is a highlight of the drum-heavy “My Manne Shelly,” a cue Mancini wrote for Manne, which is given similar fire here by Lewis.

The disc’s final track repeats the title theme, this time served up as more of a showcase for soloists, notably pianist Lincoln Mayorga, who toured with Mancini, back in the day. Mayorga solidly anchors this entire album, whether soloing or gently comping behind his compatriots.

Between this disc and Timeless Media’s recent DVD re-issue of the TV show’s entire three-season run, it’s safe to say that Peter Gunn is back in business. To quote Pete himself, when explaining the nickname assigned to the jazz-playing title character in the episode “Streetcar Jones,” “When he plays, all you gotta do is get on and ride.” The same can be said for Richman and his marvelous ensemble.

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