September 23rd, 2008

Tuco (The Good the Bad & the Ugly)


To clarify: I have been sick for the past couple of days. It started out being a "sort of" sick and ended up blossoming into a "pretty sick" which became a "pretty damn sick." I'm feeling much better now, and I'm hoping to go back to work tomorrow morning more for the prospect of getting out of my damn apartment than for any warm fuzzies about the job. I was pretty much confined to my apartment for most of last week and the weekend, and so I ended up doing what I could to keep myself amused. This ended up meaning (surprise, surprise) sitting down at the Vermithrax Pejorative and playing around with music. As a result, I present to you today not one but two compilations that I have made over the past few days.
As both a filmmaker and a film music enthusiast, the films of Sergio Leone are a source of great inspiration. By adapting the much more cynical approach of Akira Kurosawa's samurai films and applying it to the American Western, Leone created a new standard for the genre. From the sun-drenched widescreen vistas to the tight, sweaty close-ups, this was bold and expressive cinema. Leone's Westerns are irresistible because of his style; it is the perfect combination of nihilism, morality and the best macho bullshit.

All of Leone's films were scored by Ennio Morricone, and the collaboration between the two is often hailed as being on a par with that of Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann. Leone would often have Morricone compose music before shooting so that he could play it on the set for the actors. Morricone had two main talents: a gift for melody and a penchant for musical exploration. This meant that in addition to beautiful long-form themes, there is also a streak of weirdness that runs through his music that keeps these scores, some now close to forty years old, fresh and engaging.

The original title for A Fistful of Dynamite was Giù la testa!, which translates into Duck, You Sucker!. Because of the fact that the film was always referred to by the latter name when I was at school - and because I think it's funnier - that is the title I've used here. I also didn't include any selections from the wonderful My Name Is Nobody despite its connection to Leone's oeuvre (he produced and co-wrote the film and it follows through on many of the ideas introduced in the the Dollars trilogy and Once Upon A Time in the West). I decided to restrict the scope of the album to Westerns Leone himself directed, which also eliminated Once Upon A Time in America, a beautiful score to be sure, but one that wouldn't necessarily have fit on this CD.

While I was initially satisfied with my previous essay on the Ennio Morricone/Sergio Leone Western collaboration, Gun and Sun, time has not proven kind to that disc. All but one of the scores represented have in the interim been remastered and expanded, yielding much better sonics and a greater variety of music to choose from to best represent the scores. As a result, while I did check the track listing for Gun and Sun occasionally while assembling the new version, for the most part I approached this as a completely new project. Many of the selections are the same, but will benefit from superior sonics, and in other cases I was able to use tracks which had not been available when I put together the previous disc.

The sources for the new assembly were the new issues from GDM of A Fistful of Dollars and Once Upon a Time in the West, the Pick Up Records two disc set of Duck, You Sucker!. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is sourced from two different discs; the original stereo album tracks sound better on the GDM issue but the monaural additional cues sound better on the Manhattan/EMI reissue. The only expansion from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly that was not sourced from the Manhattan/EMI disc is the conclusion of "The Trio" (track 29), which is exclusive to the GDM disc. For a Few Dollars More is sourced from the same RCA disc as before; apparently the original tapes for this score have been lost, and I'm not interested in spending a small fortune on a lackluster expanded version which has sound effects over the music and overzealous de-hissing, which is the only other source.

I decided early on that I wanted this disc to have to delineated "sides" for structural purposes, but in assembly decided to make the division "official" by notating it in the insert's track listing. There is also an audible pause (and a two-second pregap) between side one and side two. I found that this allowed me to make the disc more internally symmetrical; I could introduce a theme on side one but wait until side two to develop (I used overlapping but discrete successions; for example, the soaring "Once Upon a Time in the West" theme takes over from "For a Fistful of Dollars"). This is a vast improvement over the previous disc in sonics, pacing and appearance (I made my own screencaps from which I derived the artwork on the album), and I feel a very satisfying summary of this extremely important director/composer team.

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When I first saw She's Gotta Have It, I fell in love with Bill Lee's beautiful score. I was listening to it a couple of weeks ago and I idly thought about the possibility of making a compilation that could include that score and his inspired music for Do the Right Thing. I was pleased to discover that Bill's music was indeed represented on the albums for the other two films that he had scored for his son Spike. The filmmaker has since gone on to a fruitful team-up with Terrance Blanchard, but it is a shame that their falling out after Mo' Better Blues precluded their continued collaboration because Bill's music truly uplifted Spike Lee's movies. The title "Father and Son" comes from a track from the Do the Right Thing score (track 17), which I felt was also appropriate to the nature of their relationship before it soured.

Once again, I opted for a two-sided format with an officially notated delineation between "Side One" and "Side Two." In both cases, there are guest artists; the opening track is a Lee original song performed by Phyllis Hyman, while side two has a tune by Branford Marsalis, who was a featured performer on Do the Right Thing and School Daze. While I didn't do any retitling (though I hope that nobody takes offense to the fact that I didn't retitle track 12), I did drop some subtitles that might have been confusing in context of this album. There are two versions of "Mookie" on the Do the Right Thing album, one septet and one orchestral; this is the latter. From She's Gotta Have It, "Nola" is, in fact, "Nola - Instrumental," based on a song heard in the film that I chose not to include and "Opal" is actually "Opal - Reprise," but since I didn't include the brief initial iteration of the theme, it wasn't a reprise here.

This was actually a pretty easy disc to assemble, it was one of those cases where it felt like it was putting itself together. I only sat down at the computer to preview some tracks and before I knew it, I was putting them together into album form. The two versions of the gorgeous "A Thought" form a sort of framing device for the album as a whole, comprising the second and penultimate tracks, and I carefully modulated the flow to put each track in the best context as possible, to keep it from getting stuck for too long in one mood, but making the transitions from tone to tone as smooth as possible. I specifically wanted to close this album with the ascending saxophone solo that concludes "Martin and Malcolm," a personal favorite of mine.

As I noted in a recent conversation with ehowton, my Just Talkin' About Shaft is, for all intents and purposes, an R&B album. Similarly, this turned out to be a perfect sunny Sunday morning jazz album, thoughful and pensive in some places, upbeat and optimistic in others.

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On the boards: a Harry Palmer mix (I received the Konrad Elhers score from Funeral in Berlin just today) and a follow-up to The Vice of Killing concentrating on Maestro Morricone's music for the other Sergio, Corbucci. There may also be an additional Morricone Western mix in the offing that isn't connected to any particular filmmaker, which would allow me to include Death Rides a Horse, The Hills Run Red and My Name is Nobody, among others (possibly Guns for San Sebastian, although whether that fits into the Western genre is questionable). Considering how prolific Morricone was, that is a somewhat daunting task, but a worthwhile one.