Johnny Mandel & Gerry
Mulligan's Jazz Combo,
I Want to Live
(original soundtrack)
Ryko, 1999

Jazz enthusiasts might accidentally miss this latest release in MGM's superlative series of soundtrack recordings, which should also be shelved in the jazz section of every on-line and off-line CD store. The reason is that the soundtrack from I Want to Live, the 1958 film starring Susan Hayward as convicted killer Barbara Graham, is one of the finest jazz scores ever written for the movies, with a band that included Dave Wells, Shelly Manne, Mel Lewis, Red Mitchell, Pete Jolly, Bill Holman and many other great west coast players of the '50s. As if that's not enough, the CD also includes a second album, originally released as Gerry Mulligan and the Jazz Combo from I Want to Live, with a classic lineup of Art Farmer on trumpet, Shelly Manne on drums, Bud Shank on alto sax and flute, Frank Rosolino on trombone, Pete Jolly on piano, Red Mitchell on bass, and naturally Mulligan on baritone sax.

All the music is here, and it sounds better than ever, newly remastered and as fresh as the day it was released. The package is up to Ryko's usual high standards on these soundtrack reissues, with lengthy new notes, a mini-poster and over twenty photos from the film, and a CD-ROM playable theatrical trailer. But it's the music that's the real star.

The soundtrack starts off with a full band sting, then a moment of bongos (ah, the '50s!), and goes into some moody blowing. This is "noir" jazz, meant to support a story of self-destruction in the very hip world of '50s L.A. I Want to Live was one of the first films to dispense with a full-blown symphonic score and rely on jazz for its underscoring, and it worked beautifully -- due primarily to Johnny Mandel's daring orchestrations. Instead of the expected instruments, he gave lead parts to such seldom heard instruments as the contra-bass clarinet, bass trumpet, bass flute and contra bassoon, among others, making for a wild and disquieting sound that, at times (such as in "Gas Chamber Unveiling") becomes nightmarish in its brooding intensity.

It's the Mulligan tracks, though, that are most likely to appeal to the jazz fan. The seven-piece Mulligan-led aggregation takes Mandel's themes and lays down great grooves with them, letting loose with extended solos unrestricted by the necessity of adhering to scene lengths. Mulligan and Art Farmer are in fine fettle, Red Mitchell's bass provides a firm and melodic support, and the voicings and harmonies are clean and sweet. It's west coast jazz at its best, smooth and cool and classic, and we should be glad to have it back at last. There were giants in those days, and they're blowing again. Don't miss it.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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