I'm not sure why, but I had a strong craving for Henry Mancini yesterday. Mancini's music is cinematic and commercial in approach but always much more sophisticated than you imagine on a careful listen. There's a hip, fizzy sensibility to nearly everything Mancini wrote, and his best works mash together the sonic personalities of instruments to produce supersized tones and textures. What's more, a good part of his work conjures up images of the swinging 1960s—bright colors, cars with curves, suit jackets with just a fine hint of white kerchief, molded plastic, perfectly mixed drinks and extended eyelashes.
Everyone has a favorite Henry Mancini song or soundtrack. For some it's The Pink Panther or Charade. For others, it's Breakfast at Tiffany's, which certainly is superb. The title track alone remains breathtaking. But for me, the novelty numbers Mr. Yunioshi and Hub Caps and Tall Lights are too irksome to make Tiffany's as perfectly sublime as it should have been.
Only one Mancini album in my estimation is a pure, perfect effort from start to finish—a splendid marriage of strings and horns, mood and jaunty attitude. That album is Two for the Road (1967). This is Mancini at his experimental peak and mellow best. Mancini, in an interview with Valerie Sagers, in 1982, said that the title song Two for the Road was his favorite composition.
Two for the Road is drenched in a high-1960s feel. It's post-Beatlemania, adult, reflective, nostalgic and terribly groovy. Mancini has a blast here. The title track with chorus is wistful and autumnal. Something for Audrey is 100 strings wide and as caressing as Breakfast at Tiffany's, only more touching and sentimental. The Chaser opens with a bee swarm of strings, followed by uptempo flutes against a clarinet, vibes pressed tight against a jiggy Hammond B3 organ, which dissolves into a Fender Rhodes electric piano. Plas Johnson's tenor jumps in, followed by a return of the organ.
For those unfamiliar with the film, Two for the Road was directed by Stanley Donen and follows the 12-year relationship between an architect (Albert Finney) and his wife (Audrey Hepburn). Scenes from the train-wreck stages of their union are interspersed with scenes from their early and passionate courtship. It was a revolutionary edit back in 1967, forcing the viewer to follow multiple storylines at once and experience the infatuation and disconnect of an uneven relationship.
The film's unorthodox timeline gave Mancini fits. From the Valerie Sagers interview:
"VS: What was your most difficult assignment?
HM: I think Two for the Road was hard. If you remember that picture, it operated on several planes of time and in various times in their marriage it would go back 10 years and then forward 15 years, etc. and just kept see-sawing. So, the trick there was to solidify all those jumps back and forth there with the music and have it carry through. I still do that theme in my shows, I like that theme very much."
One of my favorite tracks on the album is Happy Barefoot Boy, which at first sounds like a takeoff on Baby Elephant Walk.
Instead, the song is a much more shrewd takeoff on a loping line. You hear a funky organ line against strings, followed by strings and brushes on a snare drum played on the offbeat. Flutes follow, playing in unison against a xylophone with French horns and trombones in the background. The hip
organ is back with strings building, trombones puckering for a few measures and dropping out, replaced by the strings. An alto sax flies in for eight bars, dropping out for the organ, which winds down the song by running a call and response with the trombones.
The album's title song appears in three different versions: a choir rendition, an instrumental version, and a second instrumental version that is similar to the first. At first you think the reappearances are a crutch or filler. But the theme's melody is so haunting and captivating that you actually look forward to it.
While Mancini isn't a pure jazz arranger, as we know it, his years writing big band scores for Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Tex Beneke are always top of mind. Like Nelson Riddle, another brilliant texturist, Mancini's jazz sensibilities and taste are unmistakable and forever.
JazzWax tracks: This album has been notoriously hard to find at a reasonable price. I have no idea why it's not available as a download yet. But it looks like the RCA Spain version (which I own) is available here used from an independent seller for $12.50 or at eBay here for $16.50 or a Japanese import for $20 here.
JazzWax clip: To give you a taste of the music, here's a clip from the movie with the music. Listen as the theme shifts to Happy Barefoot Boy when Finney and Hepburn are asked to present their passports. Be sure to catch the the clever art direction used for the film's closing credits at the end of the clip. They don't make 'em like this anymore: