Jazz Plus: The golden age of the soundtrack returns

The soundtrack was once as treasured a part of the cinematic experience as the film itself. When such masters as Ennio Morricone, Elmer Bernstein or John Williams devised a musical framework, it enhanced, often elevated the action taking place on the screen. Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes showed contemporary R&B and funk could be weaved into a tapestry that made ’70s films about the black experience even more exciting.  Jazz and classical types ranging from Henry Mancini to Duke Ellington and Miles Davis have put their stamp on magnificent musical foundations to epic movies.

jangoUnfortunately in recent years the soundtrack has lost importance in an environment obsessed with cross-marketing and trendiness. Rather than create a unified work that takes the viewer on a breathtaking sonic journey that rivals what they’re seeing, too many directors and studios prefer a jumble of unrelated singles. While this often leads to radio hits and maximum publicity, it seldom results in memorable tunes that have historically come from film soundtracks. Plenty of folks will never forget the opening themes or key interludes in The Magnificent Seven, Shaft, Anatomy of a Murder, or dozens of others.

The new soundtracks to a pair of controversial films are throwbacks to an earlier era, even though neither is the reflection of a single composer. Still, in the song choices and sequencing, great care has been taken to ensure that the listener, whether they’ve seen the film or not, gets an idea of its sensibility. Original Motion Picture Soundtrack – Django Unchained and West of Memphis – Voices of Justice both contain a host of excellent songs, but neither was assembled with the hopes of radio airplay a central concern. Accurately conveying the film’s essence is their primary mission.

Just like Quentin Tarantino’s revenge/slavery production, the “Django” soundtrack is unsettling, jumbled, eloquent and clumsy. Tarantino and music supervisor Mary Ramos cobbled this from numerous idiomatic references. There are songs like “Django” or “Sister Sara’s Theme” that in melodic structure and tone refer back to classic western numbers like “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” or any of the opening and closing montages for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti sagas. Others, such as the scorching “Freedom,” fueled by the rousing duet between Anthony Hamilton and Elayna Boynton, or the mash-up of James Brown and Tupac Shakur – “Unchained (The Payback/Untouchable)” – stick contemporary performing modes into vintage thematic territory.

Tarantino and Ramos have inserted dialog from several scenes as transitional bumpers, which allows some of the movie’s most violent and vicious language into the process. You don’t have to have seen it to know, for example, what’s happening when Samuel L. Jackson’s character warns that “You’ve done it now,” or when you hear uncensored, racist discussion regarding why Kerry Washington’s character is the hotbox rather than available for a sexual encounter with a guest. Original Motion Picture Soundtrack – Django Unchained perfectly echoes its film component. It is unruly, edgy, subverts and distorts, yet is very compelling and exciting.

westmemphisThe case of the Memphis 3 made global headlines for many years. Three men were convicted in 1994 of killing three West Memphis boys. They were ultimately convicted, despite their protestations of innocence and a state case against them heavy on circumstantial evidence and light on everything else. They spent more than 18 years in prison until a deal was worked out where they were released following their acceptance of Alford pleas. That document says that while they’ve never stopped maintaining their innocence, the state had ample evidence to convict them.

West of Memphis – Voices of Freedom takes the outrage anyone unjustly convicted would feel and channels it through a host of songs from performers sympathetic to their cause. Henry Rollins’ authoritative baritone is at its best on the opening and closing sections as his narration perfectly depicts the pain and passion contained in letters Damien Echols wrote in prison. He’s particularly moving in segments where he discusses how Echols slowly begins feeling he’s been forgotten, and that the Memphis 3’s case won’t ever come to trial. Yet in the next breath he’s upbeat again, displaying a wonderful resiliency.

There are fiery rock tunes from Band of Horses (“Dumpster World”), The White Buffalo (“House of Pain”) and Citizen Cope (“6 F W”). Lucinda Williams (“Joy”), Natalie Maines (“Mother”) and Eddie Vedder (“Satellite”) sing in demonstrative, passionate fashion, their voices resonating with the message false imprisonment didn’t kill the spirits or souls of these men. Like the “Django Unchained” project, West of Memphis – Voices For Justice is the best example of how great things that can happen when the classic soundtrack approach is used on a 21st century film.

New book assess famous journey
lomaxAlan Lomax’s accomplishments in documenting the secular and sacred music of people worldwide is staggering. He devoted his life to finding songs and material either overlooked or unknown, and in many cases also not taken seriously. Among Lomax’s many quests seeking new music, none were more vital than a trip he took over five decades ago he called “the Southern Journey.” With a cumbersome, ancient tape recorder he went searching for sounds through Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky and Tennessee. He discovered/or helped popularize a host of wonderful styles, from bluegrass and old timey tunes to gospel (both black and white), blues, soul, R&B, Cajun, even some jazz.

Tom Piazza’s excellent new book The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax – Words, Photographs, and Music (Norton) is a chronicle of that event. Piazza puts everything under the microscope, from Lomax’s musical and ethical philosophy, to his dealings with the musicians he uncovered, their response to being in the limelight for the first time, and his overview of the South.  Though his main   goal is to highlight the music and musicians, Piazza closely examines Lomax, a complex and quirky figure who was anything but some benevolent missionary type. He had an agenda and strong ideas about what he wanted to hear, who he wanted to see, and what songs he felt should be the focus. Piazza neither sugarcoats nor demonizes Lomax. Instead, he cites facts, situations and incidents, letting readers decide what motivations and views should be drawn from them.

The Southern Journey has numerous stunning photos, most of them taken with subjects completely relaxed, or at least not so self-conscious they become stock caricatures. There’s also an inclusive CD that gathers examples of every genre Lomax encountered on this truly important voyage. Tom Piazza has previously delivered first-rate works on subjects ranging from jazz to bluegrass. The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax is a sterling addition to his legacy.

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About Ron Wynn

Ron Wynn is a music critic, author and editor. His features, reviews and articles have run locally in the Nashville Scene, The City Paper (Nashville) and on ArtNowNashville.com among others. Wynn is currently sports editor for the Tennessee Tribune and a contributor to Jazz Times. He is former editor of the New Memphis Star and former chief jazz and pop music critic for the Bridgeport Post-Telegram and the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Wynn has contributed to such publications such as Billboard, The Village Voice, Creem, Rock & Roll Disc, Living Blues, The Boston Phoenix, and Rejoice. He was the editor of the first edition of The All Music Guide to Jazz (1994), and from 1993 to 1994 served as the jazz and rap editor of the All Music Guide. Wynn is the author of The Tina Turner Story. He has contributed liner notes for numerous albums; his liner notes for “The Soul of Country Music” received a 1998 Grammy nomination.