Soundtracks Series Vol. 1: Duck Baker’s Top 10

Jazz Soundtracks

Soundtracks Series Vol. 1: Duck Baker’s Top 10

Soundtracks Series: Intro 

For this online exclusive I asked TAS writers to recommend their “Top 10” soundtracks or film scores, preferably connected by a theme. That didn’t take much prompting, as at some point every music lover has been smitten by film music. Some writers dissected the close connection between certain music scores and films while others focused on song-oriented soundtracks full of pop tunes that existed before the movie was made. In most cases, the album headings listed the label for the original record, although we should note that some Golden Age film scores waited decades for an official release. Also, in those cases where writers were particularly smitten by a specific reissue (including some outstanding audiophile albums), the heading reflects that release.

We encourage TAS readers to get involved in this steadily unfolding feature, where, over the next several weeks, we’ll trot out a new list or two every week. Feel free to share, like, tweet, and comment.

What are your favorite soundtracks? Tell us. Who’s your favorite composer for films? Tell us. Who’s underrated and overrated? Is there a film with a great soundtrack that never came out on record? Tell us about it—and, above all, tell us about soundtracks with great sound. We’ve had our say—and now it’s your turn.—Jeff Wilson

Vol. 1: Duck Baker's Top 10 – Jazz Soundtracks

Jazz soundtrack records are an interesting category that includes music composed and performed by famous artists for hit mainstream movies with big stars, and improvised romps for avant-garde flicks that barely made it into art house cinemas. In some cases the music performed for the film is completely different from that on the soundtrack record. And the genre runs the full gamut from straight-ahead jazz blowing to composed, jazzy snippets that follow a short film sequence. The following listing is weighted towards real jazz, as compared with “jazzy,” soundtracks, which comprise a much broader category. And by sheer coincidence it covers just under a decade. Since ranking the music by preference seemed impossible, the records are given in chronological order. 

1. Miles Davis: Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. Fontana.
The music for Louis Malle’s 1958 film noir is an easy choice for jazz enthusiasts, with Miles Davis at his best, a top-notch supporting cast, and a score that’s almost completely improvised—quite an innovation for the time. Both Davis and tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen get off very effective up-tempo statements, but most of the focus is on the almost impossibly poignant sound of Miles’ moody horn. Modern CD versions include lots of outtakes that will delight jazz fans, but those who will be satisfied with just the original recording should consider picking up the excellent Jazz on Film, The New Wave on the Moochin’ About label, a 6-CD box set that presents soundtracks from some 13 films, three of which are included on this listing (Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Knife in the Water being the other two).

2. Duke Ellington: Anatomy of a Murder. Columbia.
In its own way, Ellington’s stylish soundtrack for Otto Preminger’s 1959 courtroom drama was just as innovative as the Ascenseur soundtrack, and perhaps even more important historically. Duke developed the way jazz writing could follow the action on the screen in the same sort of way the standard soundtracks did, while still leaving room for great improvisers like Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance, Paul Gonsalves, Clark Terry, et al.

3. Barney Wilen with Art Blakey: Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Epic.
Once again, a French noir flick starring the young Jeanne Moreau features the music of the young Barney Wilen in the company of American jazz musicians. Wilen took the place of Art Blakey’s regular saxophonist Benny Golson for these sessions, and showed that he could hold his own with the very best jazz musicians, despite being only 22 years old. Then again, he had a year on trumpeter Lee Morgan, whose solo on the opening “No Problem” never fails to astonish no matter how many times one hears it.

4. Freddie Redd Quartet: The Connection. Blue Note.
From 1961, The Connection represents the opposite end of the spectrum from a high-powered Hollywood production like Anatomy of a Murder, but it is every bit as enduring a film, the first full-length feature by a truly Bohemian director, Shirley Clarke. In this low-budget film, Jackie McLean blows beautiful alto on pianist Freddie Redd’s charts during a couple of scenes.

5. Krzysztof Komeda: Knife in the Water. Muza.
Roman Polanski’s career as one of the most star-crossed and controversial of directors got into gear in 1962 with Knife in the Water, his first feature film, and the brilliant young pianist/‌composer Krzysztof Komeda was a logical choice for the soundtrack, having already written scores for several other Polish movies. Knife is Komeda’s best soundtrack, in the motif-directed style one expects, and as dark and atmospheric as its subject demanded.

6. Dizzy Gillespie Quintet: The Cool World. Philips.
Though Shirley Clarke never made much money from The Connection (or anything else), she did direct several more fine films, a couple of which had jazz soundtracks. From 1963, The Cool World featured music by Dizzy Gillespie’s working band of the time, with saxophonist James Moody and pianist Kenny Barron on board. Effective writing and solid soloing by all concerned help make this one of Gillespie’s best dates from the period.

7. Albert Ayler: New York Eye and Ear Control. ESP-Disk.
Several of these soundtracks have attained reputations that come close to eclipsing those of the films themselves, but none have done that in such near-total fashion as the recording Michael Snow commissioned for New York Eye and Ear Control. The soundtrack features free jazz tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler at the very peak of his fiery form. Along for the unforgettable ride are Don Cherry on trumpet, Roswell Rudd on trombone, John Tchicai on alto sax, Gary Peacock on bass, and Sonny Murray on drums. An early release on the ESP-Disk label, this hair-raising album has been a touchstone for thousands of Ayler devotees who have never managed to see the film.

8. Sonny Rollins: Alfie. Impulse.
Sonny Rollins’ soundtrack to Alfie is considered by many hardcore fans to be one of his last really great records. The group heard in the movie, with such English players as Stan Tracey and Phil Seamen, is completely different from the band heard on the record date, which was led by Oliver Nelson and featured an all-star-caliber lineup. Though Kenny Burrell and others made great contributions and Nelson’s score is one of his best, it’s Sonny’s show all the way, and he makes the most of it.

9. Ornette Coleman: Who’s Crazy? Affinity. 
Ornette has contributed to several soundtracks, including a justly celebrated score for Conrad Rook’s Chappaqua, which the director decided against using after hearing it, for fear it would dominate the film itself. While in Europe with his trio (David Izenzon, bass and Charles Moffett, drums) a few months after recording that music, Coleman was approached about making another soundtrack, for the one and only film by an American director named Thomas White. Who’s Crazy? was shown at Cannes in 1966 and then presumed to be lost, but it has resurfaced recently to a very enthusiastic reception. The soundtrack was issued on LP in the 1970s but never got the attention it deserved.

10. Mal Waldron: Sweet Love, Bitter. Impulse. 
Neither the film nor the soundtrack ever got much attention, but connoisseurs rate both very highly; in fact if this rating were in order of preference, Sweet Love, Bitter would be near the top of the list rather than at the bottom. The main theme, “Loser’s Lament,” is a gorgeous ballad that compares with the best jazz ever heard on any jazz soundtrack, showcasing the beautiful sax sound of George Coleman before segueing into a lovely medium-up solo for trumpeter Dave Burns. 

UP NEXT: Read Soundtracks Series, Vol. 2: Karen Bells’ Top 10.