In 1959, RCA released a Living Stereo recording of Henry Mancini’s music from Peter Gunn that was the first in a series of “soundtracks” that became consistent best sellers because of Mancini’s instantly likable music and their electrifying sound. Mancini was a superb melodist who combined jazz, mellow popular songs, and funky instrumental cues into a unique and easily recognizable personal style that was equally well served by, in most cases, RCA’s Living Stereo sound. So, it is hardly surprising that Analogue Productions has followed its highly regarded series of classical RCA Living Stereo SACDs with three of Mancini’s biggest hit albums.
Peter Gunn was a groundbreaking show because it was the first time that jazz was used as both source music and dramatic underscore for a TV show. Alex North (A Streetcar Named Desire) and Elmer Bernstein (The Man with the Golden Arm) had already introduced dramatic jazz scores to the movies. Mancini’s music was further enhanced by some of the best jazz musicians in the country, including Pete Candoli (trumpet), Rolly Bundock (bass), Ted Nash (alto sax), Dick Nash and Milt Bernhart (trombones), Jack Sperling (drummer), Larry Bunker (vibes), and a young jazz pianist named Johnny T. Williams (who over the next half century would become the most popular film composer of all time). The driving theme from Peter Gunn, of course, was a runaway hit that became the show’s signature. No ensemble has ever played it better than on this recording, and the rest of the music is classic Mancini jazz. My only regret is that Analogue Productions did not include the second Peter Gunn recording (More Music from Peter Gunn) that has some even better cues. The Living Stereo sound is excellent, but it is not quite on the level of the best-sounding RCA Mancini recordings (Hatari!, Charade, Experiment in Terror, High Time, The Great Race) in terms of spectacular high frequencies, instrumental texture, and fine inner detail.
Hatari! (originally released in 1962) contains more dramatic underscore (primarily in the nearly seven-minute “The Sounds of Hatari” cue) than most of Mancini’s formulaic “soundtracks.” The musical highlights are the theme from Hatari! and two incredibly catchy classic Mancini funky pop cues (“Baby Elephant Walk” and “Your Father’s Feathers”). All of this sounds amazing on one of Mancini’s best Living Stereo recordings. The musical and sonic centerpiece for most listeners will be the “Baby Elephant Walk” with its shrieking woodwinds that still manage to sound musical and are not distorted despite the close miking.
The Pink Panther (released in 1964) is justly famous for the unforgettable breathy texture of the tenor sax in the ultra popular main theme (though I actually prefer the stunning main theme from Experiment in Terror with its two solo autoharps). There is no denying the electrifying you-are-there realism as the sax explodes from the soundstage, but truth be told, the rest of this Dynagroove recording is rather bland musically and sonically. Aside from the title track, The Pink Panther has a flat soundstage when compared to Hatari! and those other best Mancini Living Stereos mentioned earlier.
Sonically these Analogue Productions SACDs are all marginally better than the difficult-to-find previous CD versions, but the subtle differences are mostly confined to more wide-open airiness that mitigates against aural fatigue in the closely-miked recordings when they are played at full room volume. The Speakers Corner pressing of The Pink Panther remains in a class by itself sonically when compared to the CD versions.
As is usually the case with Analogue Productions reissues, the SACDs have extremely short playing times because of their rigid insistence on reproducing the exact content of the original LPs, along with the cover design and program notes. This is especially annoying in the case of that second Peter Gunn album, which could and should have been included on this SACD to fully satisfy Mancini fans. Otherwise, these SACDS are sonic classics that probably come as close as possible to the sound of the original LPs. Individual listeners will have to decide whether the slight but real sonic improvement is worth the $30 price for these short programs.