Yesterday I received quite a few e-mails in response to my post on Henry Mancini's perfect score for Two for the Road (1967). Many readers sought my opinion about specific Mancini albums while others asked for compilation recommendations. It seems many jazz listeners, like me, are closet Mancini fans. (Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout sent along his fave: Piano and Strings, from The Pink Panther, with Jimmy Rowles on piano.)
Mancini soundtracks can be tricky. While every movie he worked on featured fabulously inventive compositions and rich arrangements, many of the soundtracks are burdened by novelty tracks that today border on silly and forgettable—and often mar the complete work. In all fairness to Mancini, the formula for adult-themed movies in the 1960s invariably included some sort of juvenile farce or escapade to young-down the actors and keep audiences from taking storylines too seriously. In many cases, these films featured older male actors and much younger female love interests. The trend only escalated following the success of A Hard Day's Night, Help! and the James Bond films.
Which means that your best bet with Mancini is a compilation. The problem here, however, is that many retrospectives were assembled in the early 1990s and lack sonic definition. Most are in desperate need of remastering. Others are poorly edited, meaning the producer of the re-issue chose too many mainstream tracks and quirky duds. This is especially true on the larger Mancini boxes.
After much searching a few years ago, I did find what I believe is the absolute best Mancini collection. It not only includes one fabulous track after the next, but it also maintains a high degree of jazz smarts and orchestral sophistication throughout. The compilation I found is Martinis With Mancini. Released in 1997, the remastered CD collection was designed to capitalize on the "lounge" craze that revived jazz easy listening recordings from the 1950s and 1960s. Martinis with Mancini features 20 great tracks, and all sound fabulous.
What's more, a handful of the tracks soar beyond great to pure genius. Here are five examples:
The Beat is from The Blues and the Beat (1960), a jazz-driven Grammy-winning album. It featured Ted Nash, Ronny Lang, Gene Cipriano, Harry Klee and Wilbur Schwartz on woodwinds; Conrad Cozzo, Pete Candoli, Frank Beach and Graham Young on trumpets; Dick Nash, Jimmy Priddy, John Halliburton and Karl DeKarske on trombones; Vincent De Rosa, Sinclair Lott, John Graas, Richard Perissi, George Price and Herman Lebow on French horns; Johnny Williams on piano; Bob Bain on guitar; Roland Bundock on bass; Jack Sperling on drums; and Victor Feldman and Larry Bunker on vibes. Sadly, it's out of print and costs a fortune if you can find at Amazon from independent sellers.
Playboy's Theme is from Combo! (1961), which featured Pete Candoli, trumpet; Dick Nash, trombone; Ted Nash, alto sax and C flute; Art Pepper, clarinet; Ronny Lang, baritone sax and alto flute; Johnny Williams, piano and harpsichord; Bob Bain, guitar and bass guitar; Rolly Bundock, bass; Larry Bunker, vibes and marimba; Ramon Rivera, conga; Shelly Manne, drums. This one also is out of print, but I see it's available from independent sellers at Amazon.
Brief and Breezy is from The Music of Peter Gunn (1959) and featured Jack Sperling, drums; Rolly Bundock, bass; Pete Candoli, trumpet; Ted Nash, alto sax; Dick Nash, trombone; Milt Bernhart, trombone; Ronnie Lang, baritone sax; Larry Bunker, vibes; and Johnny Williams, piano.
Something for Sellers is from The Pink Panther (1963). It's a terrific cha-cha-cha that opens with vibes and organ playing a downbeat, followed by Carl Fortina's accordion wandering around the introductory theme before the sax section jumps in.
JazzWax tracks: Though Martinis With Mancini seems to be out of print as a CD, it's available as download at Amazon here for $10.
Below you can hear Mancini's Playboy's Theme—with its funky harpsichord, moaning trombone and snap-brim marimba. Makes you wonder whether Neal Hefti had the song in mind when he wrote The Odd Couple theme years later. Give a listen: