Henry Mancini. Music for Peter Gunn. Performed by Harmonie Ensemble/New York,Harmonia Mundi, 2014.
Why are we reviewing this? Although the band is from New York, Henry Mancini was born in the Little Italy neighborhood of Cleveland, and despite the family moving to West Aliquippa when he was young, we can still claim him. We are greedy and tenacious with regard to our musicians, and Mancini is much too hard to just give away to Pennsylvania. His fame and fortune came in the 1950s in Hollywood, where he scored numerous motion pictures, then television shows. The 1958 TV series Peter Gunn was one of his breakthroughs, in which jazz, specifically cool jazz, was featured prominently in the series, leading to many imitators as well as an increasing acceptance of jazz in mainstream media. In 114 episodes from 1958 to 1961, Gunn, played by Craig Stevens, solved crimes in a fictional riverfront city in a sophisticated and hip fashion. So hip was the show that jazz musicians made cameo appearances, including Shelly Manne and Shorty Rogers. While the show was popular in the heyday of crime TV shows, far more popular was the music, which won Mancini best selling albums, Emmy and Grammy Awards. The music has been recorded by others, including Ray Anthony (who grew up in Cleveland, by the way). The music was intended to be essentially “incidental” music, as background to the action of the show, but it’s all so good that it became a central feature and has had a life of its own far beyond the half-forgotten TV series.
While some of the music has appeared here and there, nobody recently has tackled the bulk of the music as a unit until Mr. Richman and his ensemble. Harmonie Ensemble tackles both classical music and jazz, ranging from Stravinsky to Miles Davis. However, much of their bread and butter comes from the gray area in-between: Gershwin, Copland, Grofé, Ellington. Mancini fits somewhere in here as well; not exactly a jazz musician (although he worked with Tex Benecke in the , not really purely anything else, but so massively talented a composer that he could move in any direction. The challenge for the group is to make the music sound as authentic as possible while not ending up with a period piece. They succeed admirably.
The Theme is of course the most famous piece on the album. Part jazz, but with some rock chops built in, it’s no wonder the tune became a favorite among surf music bands. Here, it punches just right, with a strong guitar coming up against the brass and saxes. The tune is magnificently constructed for maximum effect as an earworm. Other tunes fit other moods, ranging from the extra cool “Sorta Blue,” to the cheerful “The Brothers to Mother’s,” to the soft cocktail moments of “Dreamsville,” to the heavy action of “Spook,” each depicting an appropriate feel for a scene. Richman never strays far from the original, but he doesn’t really need to. The music stands tall, and the group plays with strength, style, and reverence.
This is music to get lost in, to paraphrase Chet Baker. Cool, sophisticated, and delightfully played by a fine ensemble (trombonist John Fedchock is also a Clevelander), this is an excellent album for anyone who enjoys big band music, cool jazz, or television theme music from an earlier era. I’m knocked out.
Personnel: Steven Richman (conductor). Reeds: Mark Gross (alto sax, alto flute), Lawrence Feldman (alto sax, alto flute), Lew Tabackin (tenor sax, alto flute), Lino Gomez (tenor sax, alto flute), Ronnie Cuber (baritone sax). Trumpets: Lew Soloff, Dominic Derasse, Joe Giorgianni, Stanton Davis. French Horns: R.J. Kelly, Alexandra Cook, Eric Davis, David Peel. Trombones: Larry Farrell, John Fedchock, Mark Patterson, Frank Cohen. Bob Mason (guitar), Christos Rafalides (vibes), Lincoln Mayorga (piano), Francois Moutin (bass), Victor Lewis (drums).
Tracks: Peter Gunn Theme, Sorta Blue, The Brothers to to Mother’s, Dreamsville, Session at Pete’s Pad, Soft Sounds, Fallout, The Floater, Slow and Easy, A Profound Gas, Brief and Breezy, My Manne Shelly, Blue Steel, Blues for Mother’s, Blue Street, Spook, Peter Gunn Theme (reprise).