Sunday, April 9, 2017

"Checkmate" - John T. Williams and The Shelly Manne Quintet

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“.. what Shelly has done here is to take each piece out of its original setting and put it into a setting all his own. Herein lies, I think, the most remarkable aspect of this album. Shelly has given each piece a mood and a quality quite different from al! the rest and while doing so has retained what was my original thought concerning each piece. This is an exceptional accomplishment, particularly for a jazz group of this size, and a practice which should, I think, be a more important part of contemporary jazz. The variety of colors and moods that Shelly and the group have achieved here is truly amazing.”
- John T. Williams, composer, arranger, piano player

According to Lalo Schifrin (Dirty Harry, Bullitt), jazz was a natural fit for these hard-hitting screen stories. “Filmmaking is not an individual art form,” he said. “It’s a collective, almost like a jazz jam session. It’s a gestalt. The director is the brain; the cameraman in the eyes; the film editor is the DNA; the producer is the lungs; and the composer is the ears.”

With the advent of Hank Mancini’s score for the Peter Gunn television series in 1958, Jazz went from total obscurity to almost becoming commonplace in such settings.

It was almost derigeur. Have cop or private eye show - M-Squad, Johnny Staccato, Mike Hammer, Richard Diamond - equals Jazz score.

At about the same time, Crime Jazz music was also increasingly finding its way into the movies with Anatomy of a Murder, Shadows, Odds Against Tomorrow, and Bullitt, among many others, all sporting Jazz themes and scores

Crime jazz captured the mood not only of our post-war cities, but of a character as distinctly American as the cowboy – that soulful, solitary seeker of justice, the private eye.

Checkmate was an American detective television series starring Anthony George, Sebastian Cabot, and Doug McClure. The show aired on CBS Television from 1960 to 1962 for a total of 70 episodes and was produced by Jack Benny's production company, "JaMco Productions" in co-operation with Revue Studios. Guest stars included Charles Laughton, Peter Lorre, Lee Marvin, Mickey Rooney and many other prominent performers.

The series chronicled the adventures of a private detective agency set in San Francisco. Created by Eric Ambler, the program involves the cases of the detective agency called Checkmate, Inc. Don Corey and Jed Sills run the agency, which specializes in preventing crimes before they happen, from Corey's stylish apartment, supposedly at 3330 Union St. Sebastian Cabot portrays a Ph.D. college professor whom they employ as an adviser.

But for my ears, what made the series particularly enjoyable was the Jazz score written by an up-and-coming Jazz pianist - John Williams.

Long before he composed the music for Jaws, the Star Wars series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and dozens of other major motion pictures. John Towner Williams was Johnny Williams, jazz pianist. He began writing for films and television in the early 1950s and in much of his earlier work, the jazz influence was still strong. Shelly Manne worked with Williams on Hollywood sound stages and was taken with his music for the TV series Checkmate.

Manne adapted seven of Williams's themes from the show for his band. Shelly Manne & His Men. Because Williams was tuned in to trends in jazz, some of the pieces reflected modal approaches recently taken by forward thinkers like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. "The King Swings," as an example, is nearly identical in form to Coltrane's "Impressions." Accordingly, Manne and his quintet, one of the best small groups of the 1960s, plumb Williams's unusual television music for all of its considerable improvisational possibilities.

Here’s more about Shelly Manne and His Men Play Checkmate [Contemporary S-7599; OJCCD 1083-2] from Lester Koenig, who produced the recording and composer John Williams.

A NOTE FROM THE PRODUCER:

“Checkmate is one of the most successful TV shows of the current season [1961 on CBS].  The three heroes of Checkmate—Sebastian Cabot, Doug McClure, and Anthony George — aim to stop crime before it happens, accompanied by the exposed thrills, chills, and danger — and by Johnny Williams's excellent score which strikes precisely the right balance between mayhem and music.'

Shelly Manne, a friend and associate of Williams, held the percussion chair in the studio orchestra which recorded the Checkmate score. He realized that most of Williams's themes would lend themselves admirably to a jazz treatment by his own group. "What attracted me to the music," says Shelly, "was the mood the pieces create—you might call it a 'modal' mood. This is particularly true of The Isolated Pawn,' The King Swings,' 'En Passant.' By modal I mean there aren't a lot of changes and because of it you can create more exciting rhythmic interest. With only a few changes as in 'Milestones' or Coltrane's 'My Favorite Things,' the rhythm can create tension and mounting excitement through use of ostinato effects [a continually repeated musical phrase or rhythm]. Oddly enough, the 'monotony' is what helps create the intensity!"

Shelly also likes Williams's melodic lines. "They are good jazz lines. He didn't conceive of Checkmate as a jazz score, but because Johnny is also a jazz musician, he knows how to write lines which lay just right for jazz blowing."

In the months before this recording, Manne & His Men played the Checkmate music for receptive audiences at the Manne-Hole, Shelly's jazz club in Hollywood. In this way the seven themes took their places on an equal footing with the standards, jazz originals, and jazz classics which comprise the group's extended repertoire.

The characteristic element which distinguishes these performances from Williams's own first-rate big band version of the score album is the extended improvisation by the soloists. The quality of improvisation is an elusive thing. It is primarily a personal and emotional expression. To play well, a musician has to believe in what he is doing. In the case of Checkmate, Manne and his colleagues had become thoroughly enthusiastic about the Williams music, and looked forward to the recording session with much more than ordinary anticipation.”

—LESTER KOENIG December 13, 1961

A NOTE FROM THE COMPOSER:

“Probably the greatest satisfaction a composer can get is when an artist decides to play and record his work, particularly when the artist is of the caliber of Shelly Manne with his present group. The pieces contained in this album were selected by Shelly from a larger group of things that I had written for the TV show, Checkmate. Each was written for a different segment of the show and was associated with the particular personality for whom it was written. I hold the conviction, not by any means alone, that it is a composer's job not only to create the melodic and harmonic details of his music but also the timbre, that is, the final sound or color.

My gratitude to Shelly, therefore, may seem contradictory, for what Shelly has done here is to take each piece out of its original setting and put it into a setting all his own. Herein lies, I think, the most remarkable aspect of this album. Shelly has given each piece a mood and a quality quite different from al! the rest and while doing so has retained what was my original thought concerning each piece. This is an exceptional accomplishment, particularly for a jazz group of this size, and a practice which should, I think, be a more important part of contemporary jazz. The variety of colors and moods that Shelly and the group have achieved here is truly amazing.

In addition to acknowledging wonderful performances by each member of the group, I think special attention should be called to the invaluable contribution made here by Russ Freeman. Russ is truly one of the most important pianists in jazz today. He has a perception and sensitivity unequaled by all but a very few.
My sincere thanks to Shelly and Contemporary Records for this presentation of the music from Checkmate.

—JOHNNY WILLIAMS December 14, 1961

Johnny Williams, a talented pianist, as well as composer and orchestrator, was exposed lo both jazz and classical music from his childhood. His father was a well-known drummer of the Swing Era [featured with Raymond Scott’s sextet] and Johnny, who was born in Flushing. New York in 1932. started studying piano at the age of eight. He came to California with his family in 1948 and at North Hollywood High School led his first band with vocalist Barbara Ruick. a fellow student. later to become Mrs. Williams. Since 1955 Williams has been actively al work in Hollywood, composing and conducting for TV [M-Squad, Wagon Train, etc.] and writing backgrounds for many singers. He is also active as a pianist with jazz albums of his own.


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