Friday, July 2, 2010

Spartacus and All That Jazz

Think Bill Evans and Gabor Szabo and Yusef Lateef, Regina Carter and Ramsey Lewis and... Alex North? Now hold that thought...

At this late date in the recorded history of humankind it must be obvious that we of the collector bent will hoard and protect just about anything. Archeologists have their specialist experts in ancient dung, and there are those in the world of collecting who will similarly sample and save--or smoke--practically any old shit.

One better-quality specialty niche is filled by collectors of movie soundtracks--not the ordinary citizens who see a picture and like it enough to buy the commercial soundtrack recording (usually shortened, simplified, even rearranged), but the deadly serious folk who demand the complete score of a film, or at least all of its music, in order, and whatever was recorded for the film whether used in the final cut or not. Huge flurries of excitement and commentary circulate in this shadow world when one of the labels that issue these richer, closer-to-complete, resurrected versions (Intrada, La-La Land, Screen Archives Entertainment, Varese Sarabande) announces some major project, usually presented in CD limited editions of 1,000-3,000 copies--on the order of: everything Elmer Bernstein ever composed for some Hollywood studio; ten obscure and forgotten Westerns suddenly given star treatment; Miklos Rosza's discarded cues and crumpled-up, handwritten notes to himself regarding the conducting of some grand score... but more often an alternative package as "simple" as the 2CD set devoted to every note Jerry Goldsmith composed for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. At any rate there are an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 of these remarkable film score obsessives located around the world, and they are incessantly vociferous on certain portions of the Internet.

One so-called "holy grail" among soundtracks, a masterpiece of music only ever available heretofore in a too-brief LP issued circa 1960, has been the famous film Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas as the disgraced general who leads an unsuccessful revolt of enslaved gladiators against Rome and is then crucified for his hubris (details may be off; I only ever saw the movie during that initial release). The amazing music for Spartacus--melodic, complex, changeable; cherished, cited often, held up as exemplar and more--was written by Alex North, whom many soundtrack experts consider the master guru among Modern film composers, from his early and significantly influential scores (A Streetcar Named Desire and Viva Zapata!); through the career-bursting big films like Cleopatra and The Misfits, The Agony and the Ecstasy and Cheyenne Autumn; to later, lesser-known efforts like Carny and the trilogy he scored for John Huston (Under the Volcano, Prizzi's Honor, and The Dead) as well as the unique fantasy film Dragonslayer and, a near-mythic item for years, his excellent but rejected score for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Through them all, as a myriad of admiring fellow composers say, North maintained his always-recognizably-Alex, Classically trained but Jazz-influenced composing style, sparking and burning creatively, reaching deep down into the interior lives of each movie's characters and then expressing them in music. Nominated for the Film Score Academy Award 14 times but never actually the winner, North was finally accorded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar by the Academy in 1986. (Only two have ever been awarded, with Ennio Morricone the second recipient.)

And then there was Spartacus, a film and score that for five decades has lived more in the imagination of fans than on the screen or phonograph (much less CD player). But Varese Sarabande will soon change all that by at last releasing a 6CD and single DVD box set purporting to contain absolutely every mono or stereo note considered, recorded, re-recorded, forgotten, or rescued (that would be the first four CDs), plus a two-hour documentary allowing other composers to discuss North, plus a 160-page book, and finally also--yes, you thinking Jazz fans--two individual CDs devoted to newly recorded and older classic performances of the single most famous portion of North's score, that beautiful melody usually called "The Spartacus Love Theme." The CDs will house 22 versions played, or arranged and led, by Jazz musicians and soundtrack people alike, ranging from Bill Evans' amazing overdubbed-pianos take (and a second Evans performance with flautist Jeremy Steig), to the new 12-flute arrangement by film composer Alexandre Desplat.

Shades of that Fifties LP devoted solely to a dozen performances of "Lullaby of Birdland"! (Or was it "... Broadway"?) And of the "one-drop" rhythm-and-tune albums common to Reggae that I've written about lately. Well, there should be something for every film score buff or Jazz fan when the line-up reads like this: Jazz musicians Yusef Lateef, Ramsey Lewis, Jeremy Steig, Gabor Szabo and, of course, Bill Evans; Jazz-oriented player-composers Nathan Barr, Dave Grusin, and Lalo Schifrin; crossover artists Regina Carter, Carlos Santana, and Richard Stoltzman; working soundtrack composers John Debney, Alexandre Desplat, Patrick Doyle, Mark Isham, Diego Navarro, and Brian Tyler; distinguished conductors John Mauceri, Joel McNeely, and Eric Stern; plus a few others whose categories I don't know. (The DVD documentary also adds David Newman, John Williams, Christopher Young, and a host of others eager to praise Alex.)

So: an auspicious occasion, North's 100th birthday and the approximate 50th anniversary of the film, answered by his friend, producer Robert Townson (whose 1000th album produced this is!) with the most elaborate presentation and package ever accorded a single film score. Townson had promised North that someday he would restore and release the Spartacus soundtrack (as he managed to do for the 2001 music), but the soon-to-be-available result must surpass all imagined possibilities.

I'm willing to pay the hundred-dollar freight to see and hear this astonishing tribute and restoration. Anyone curious or similarly convinced should go here to learn more.

Spartacus Lives!

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