One of Tony Bennett's most spectacular recordings of the 1960s is The Movie Song Album. On this 1965 tribute to Hollywood, Bennett is at his artistic and vocal best, delivering deeply personal and emotionally reflective renditions of the day's movie themes. For my money, there's no finer Bennett than the singer interpreting 1960s movie and Broadway hits. I even dig Bennett on pop-rock material of the period (Something, Love Story, etc.)
But make no mistake—The Movie Song Album isn't a pop disc. It's a stealth jazz album on par with the best jazz-vocal strings recordings (Billie Holiday's Lady in Satin, Frank Sinatra's Only the Lonely, Ella Fitzgerald's Rodgers and Hart Songbook and David Allyn's A Perfect Match). At the helm on this date was Johnny Mandel, who as musical director perfectly selected the arrangers for the songs and arranged three himself—two of which he composed. Johnny also conducted the orchestra on a number of the tracks.
First, a word about movie music. In the 1960s, with the decline of the MGM musical and rise of the adult drama, more films began to feature a theme song that had a dual purpose. If the song was beautifully crafted, you left the theater feeling more emotional about what you saw on the screen. What's more, the song could be used to sell soundtrack LPs and 45-rpms and would wind up being covered by singers of the day. Interestingly, many movie themes from the early and mid-1960s were piercing ballads (More, Alfie, Valley of the Dolls, Jean, Romeo and Juliette, Born Free, Moon River and so on).
The Movie Song Album captures the ballad era in movie music perfectly. As Bennett sings, you can hear him immersing himself in the various lush arrangements and weighing his phrasing of every lyric. On each song, Bennett delivers a passionate and penetrating rendition without ever abandoning his up-close intimacy or street-singer optimism.
For the date, Johnny Mandel pulled in the era's greatest studio and arrangers and players. There are charts by Al Cohn (Smile, The Second Time Around and The Trolley Song) and Larry Wilcox (a dazzling Maybe September, Days of Wine and Roses). Other arrangers were the songs' composers: Neal Hefti [pictured] (Girl Talk), Quincy Jones (The Pawnbroker), Luiz Bonfa (Samba de Orfeu) and a spectacular arrangement of Never Too Late by David Rose. And, of course, Johnny Mandel wrote nonpareil charts for The Gentle Rain and his own Emily and The Shadow of Your Smile.
The sidemen? A virtual It's a Mad Mad Mad World of the jazz business. That's Lou Levy's doodling piano opening Girl Talk, pianist Jimmy Rowles providing the key-spray intro to The Shadow of Your Smile and Tommy Flanagan offering tender chord voicings on his accompaniment to Smile. Johnny knew what he was doing: Each pianist put his own stamp on the song. The tenor solo on The Trolley Song (the only non-60s theme and the session's only uptempo tune)? Zoot Sims [pictured].
As Johnny Mandel told me yesterday, "I had the best studio and jazz musicians in the world on that album."
What I love most about this album are the now-forgotten hits—Quincy Jones' The Pawnbroker, David Rose's Never Too Late and Percy Faith's Maybe September, a powerful ballad from The Oscar, a now-hammy 1966 movie in which Tony Bennett had a co-starring role (as Hymie Kelly). As you listen to these songs, you're transported back to another time: the twilight years of film songcraft, jazz studio sensibilities and powerful vocal interpretations.
Bennett here is more than matched by the majesty of the arrangements. Listen to David Rose's [pictured] surging nuances in Never Too Late or the smoldering intensity Johnny captures on his own Shadow of Your Smile. Or the crisp snappy delivery Hefti brings to his composition Girl Talk. Or the somber pathos Quincy Jones adds to his work The Pawnbroker. This album has it all—and on multiple levels.
Johnny's reflection yesterday on his masterpiece The Movie Song Album:
"I love that record. We did a good version of The Shadow and Emily. Tony always sings the definitive version of every song I write. His interpretations are always the best. He comes to the territory, stakes his turf and winds up owning the song. There wasn't much agonizing in the studio during those sessions. We ran down some things and then just went to work, and the other composer-conductors were all enormous pros. We just did it, and the result was gorgeous, just great."
JazzWax tracks: Tony Bennett's The Movie Song Album (Columbia) is available at iTunes and here. Even if you already have some of these songs on compilations, download the remastered version. Trust me, this is one of those albums where you want to hear these tracks in order, as producer Ernie Altschuler intended. Or if you can find it on vinyl, even better. I recently purchased a sealed original copy, and the sound is warm and spectacular. Bennett sounds like he's in the room.
JazzWax clip: Here's Tony Bennett singing The Shadow of Your Smile from The Movie Song Album—composed, arranged and conducted here by Johnny Mandel. Listen to Jimmy Rowles' tender piano intro. And dig how warm Tony becomes and how he turns on the power three minutes in. And most of all, dig the fluttering flutes Johnny added at the end....