Jazz interpretations of Broadway shows and movie musicals are notoriously iffy. Past recordings either hit them just right, taking the standards to new levels, or they miss by a mile. And when they miss, the reasons are usually that the songs were played too straight or too jazzy. Or they feature solos that drag on in an effort to eat up time on an LP rather than employ skillful arrangements.
You won't find Oscar Peterson's West Side Story, Vince Guaraldi's Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus, or Shelly Manne's My Fair Lady on today's list of five favorites. All are super albums, but they're too well known and too obvious for this post. As you'll see, the ones I've selected are a bit off the beaten trail and may even be unknown to you. All are smart executions that I think you'll enjoy as much as I do. Here they are, in no particular order:
Fiddler on the Roof—Cannonball Adderley (1964). Recorded for Capitol Records in October 1964, this album is a sleeper. If you've avoided it under the assumption that Cannonball had to have been forced to make this album, you'd be wrong. This CD succeeds on so many levels, from the performances to the arrangements of the Jerry Bock songs. Cannonball is joined by Nat Adderley, Charles Lloyd, Joe Zawinul, Sam Jones and Louis Hayes. Cannonball even included Sewing Machine, a song written for the musical but deleted prior to the show's opening on Broadway. The album is available at iTunes or as a CD here.
Music From Breakfast at Tiffany's—Barney Kessel (1962). The beauty of this Reprise album is that it runs very close to the original soundtrack, which is a Henry Mancini masterpiece. What makes the album special is the swinging interpretation of each song. Recorded in January 1962, just three months after the film's release, guitarist Barney Kessel was joined by Bud Shank, Paul Horn, Victor Feldman, Chuck Berghofer and Earl Palmer. If you know the original soundtrack, then this album will be doubly interesting. The arrangements adhere closely to Mancini's score and respectfully tag his orchestral touches throughout. A tad faux-rock noisy in spots (you could skip Mr. Yunioshi and Hub Caps and Tail Lights), the album's softer songs are pure joy. Plus you get to hear Bud Shank on a sumptuous flute as well as alto. The album is available at iTunes. Or it's on CD here, together with two other Kessel albums.
Gypsy—Annie Ross (1959). There has been much mystery surrounding when exactly this album was recorded. In all likelihood, the World Pacific date was held in January 1959. That would place the session a month before Ross recorded A Gasser! in February with Zoot Sims and two months before she became the third member of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. But how could it have been recorded in January 1959 if the Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim musical opened on Broadway in May? As Michael Cuscuna shrewdly points in the updated notes, Buddy Bregman, the album's arranger, was Styne's nephew and must have had advanced access to the score. On this album, the steamy Ross was teamed with a monster West Coast jazz ensemble: Conte Candoli, Pete Candoli, Frank Rosolino, Herb Geller, Richie Kamuca and Stan Getz, Bill Perkins, Russ Freeman, Jim Hall, Monty Budwig and Mel Lewis. As you can imagine, every track has splash, dash, punch and pow. The CD is out of print but available here used, from independent sellers for about $8. All I can say is, grab it while you still can!
Dance to South Pacific—Les Brown (1958). This Capitol album was recorded in January 1958 and arranged by a showcase of penmen, including Sonny Burke, Don Bagley, Frank Comstock, Billy May, Wes Hensel and Les Brown. The band treatments of the songs have snap and drive but they also playfully tease out the richness of each Richard Rodgers composition. Many of the charts bear the swinging instrumental complexity of Nelson Riddle's arrangements of the time. For example, dig the baritone sax and bass clarinet interacting with the piccolos on Honey Bun, the opening track. The arranging credit on that tune goes to a "J. Hiff," whose identity remains unknown to me. The CD is available here, doubled with The Les Brown Story.
Jazz Impressions of Pal Joey—Kenny Drew (1957). In October 1957, the Kenny Drew trio consisted of Wilbur Ware on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. Recorded for Riverside, this almost-forgotten album was a shrewd attempt by producer Orrin Keepnews to marry a pure jazz trio to a hip soundtrack, and the result works beautifully. Interestingly, the album was recorded the same month the film was released. Much of the music from the film had been around since Pal Joey was first staged on Broadway in 1940 and then revived in 1952. With Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak in leading roles for the film adaptation, the album was assured a commercial piggyback ride. Interestingly, for the film, only eight of the original Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart songs remained, with four added from their other shows—I Didn't Know What Time It Was, There's a Small Hotel, Lady Is a Tramp and My Funny Valentine. This album is available as a CD, either as an import here or a reissue here.