04 September 2008

Ukulele Force Star Wars Best Covers - VA (2005)

Much of the charm in tribute productions is in the incongruity between the sound you associate with favorite songs and the sound delivered on the recording. And what could be more incongruous than playing the music for Star Wars - perhaps the most well known orchestral music of the 20th century, big, bold, and brash, with blaring trumpets, soaring strings and pounding percussion - on an instrument with a thin, delicate sound and associations with Polynesian culture?

Ukulele Force is a 2005 release from Japan's Geneon Entertainment, one of several in a series of ukulele tribute projects covering Ultraman, Gibli Studios, Elvis, The Beatles and Mozart. All but one of the seven featured artists are Japanese; perhaps the two best known being conductor, composer and arranger Akira Miyagawa, and ukulele/guitar player Kiyoshi Kobayashi, who contribute one track each. The lion's share of the music comes from Ukulele Cafe Quartet (3 tracks), a group that grew out of an early 90's amateur ukulele practice and performance club called Ukulele Afternoon, and Kuricorder Quartet (4 tracks), a group active since 1994 that has recorded its own projects as well as music for film and television.

On some songs the arrangements and instrumentation seem quite fitting, such as the Cantina Band song played hot swing gypsy style (think Django Reinhardt on ukulele); Leia's theme as a Hawaiian lullaby, with ukulele playing melody over guitar chords and harpsichord accents; or Across the Stars (the love theme from Attack of the Clones) as a ukulele duet given a slight Latin shading with castanets, and in the middle section a dreamy, theremin-like sounding pedal steel.

But then there are the jaw dropping, laugh-out-loud moments of incredulity, like the Tie Fighter Attack, with a thumping tuba and ukulele chorus playing the orchestral string sections while a ukulele plays the lead brass line. Or the Imperial March played on tuba and recorder, an amusing contrast in sound and tone that conjures up cartoon images of big and small, like Laurel and Hardy, or Yogi and Boo-Boo.

My congratulations go out to whomever it was that had the audacity to propose a ukulele Star Wars cover project and to Geneon for taking the risk. Most record companies would have probably turned it down. Don't make the mistake of writing this off a frivolous commercial project. Sure, Geneon is counting on Star Wars fans to cover their costs, but they've provided music fans with what has to be one of the most amusing tribute albums ever recorded.

Because Japan is still something of a closed market, particularly in media products, Ukulele Force is an expensive item, even purchased in Japan. Consumers would quite naturally like to hear some of the album before deciding to buy, but unfortunately the record company has been quite miserly in providing samples. Fortunately, I'm here to help you with a hefty medley of clips, which you can download here.


1. Twentieth Century Fox Trademark - Ukulele Cafe Quartet
2. Star Wars - Main Theme - Akira Miyagawa & the Galactic Ukulele Orchestra
3. Tales Of A Jedi Knight - Kuricorder
4. Mos Eisley Spaceport - James Hill
5. Princess Leia`s Theme - Kiyoshi Kobayashi & the Ukulele Swing Gang
6. Here They Come - Mikihiko Matsumiya
7. The Imperial March - Kuricorder
8. Han Solo And The Princess - Hajimeni Kyoshi
9. Yoda`s Theme - Kuricorder
10. Anakin`s Theme - Mikihiko Matsumiya
11. Love Theme From Attack Of The Clones - Ukulele Cafe Quartet
12. Augiez's Great Municipal Band - Ukulele Cafe Quartet
13. The Throne Room And The End Title - Kuricorder

Kuricorder (Chestnut Recorder) Quartet
3. Tales Of A Jedi Knight
7. The Imperial March
9. Yoda`s Theme
13. The Throne Room And The End Title

Ukulele Cafe Quartet
1. Twentieth Century Fox Trademark
11. Love Theme From Attack Of The Clones
12. Augiez`S Great Municipal Band

Mikihiko Matsumiya
6. Here They Come
10. Anakin`s Theme

Akira Miyagawa & the Galactic Ukulele Orchestra
2. Star Wars - Main Theme

Hajimeni Kyoshi
8. Han Solo And The Princess

Kiyoshi Kobayashi
5. Princess Leia`s Theme

James Hill
4. Mos Eisley Spaceport

Geneon Entertainment Ukulele Force page.


22 August 2008

The Cantina Band: The Swingtips - Roswell (2007)

I've not seen much in writing by Star Wars fans or critics suggesting that the Galaxy Far, Far Away was a precursor to our own. Most of us think of it as a kind of parallel universe, one that could be or might have been, but which has no connection to our own (except, of course, that it is entirely the product of the imagination of beings of ours).

The liner notes for the 1997 Special Edition release of the Episode IV soundtrack, though, suggest a rather amusing relationship, in which beings of the Star Wars universe discover an artifact from our own. Describing the concept of the Cantina band, the liner notes mention "several creatures in a future century finding some 1930's Benny Goodman swing band music ... and how they might attempt to interpret it".

The story of how the Modal Nodes found 20th century American sheet music may be best left to comic book or novel writers. I'm here now to tell you about a 6-piece band out of the US southwest that found the Modal Nodes. The Swingtips were founded in the mid-90's by saxophonist Kregg Barentine, whose jazz credentials include playing with two of America's greatest legacy big bands, The Glenn Miller Orchestra and The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra. For the Swingtip's third album, 2007's Roswell, the group recorded a rockabilly tinged version of The Cantina Band, complete with honky-tonk piano. Imagine The Brain Setzer Orchestra while you're downloading it here.

The Swingtips are still actively touring and may be coming to a venue near you soon. Check their website for a complete schedule, links to purchase cds and downloads, a video clip, and more audio samples.


09 August 2008

Review: The Clone Wars Soundtrack (2008), Kevin Kiner

Kevin Kiner's composing credits at the Internet Movie Database include 67 scores, most of them for American television. I've seen a few episodes of some of these programs, though I can't say that I ever remember hearing of Kevin Kiner until his name was announced as the composer for the new Star Wars animated feature, The Clone Wars. And in fact I suppose that's true for most Star Wars fans, and the general public, as well. The composer doesn't maintain a web presence, but perhaps he's too busy. In a recent interview he noted recording 400 minutes of music for the new animated Clone Wars television series.

Kevin Kiner, if you will, is a skilled craftsman, a technician who can on demand compose, conduct, perform, and produce the music required in the high pressure world of weekly television serials. He may show flashes of brilliance now and then, but very few of those moments seem to have been captured in the soundtrack to the Clone Wars feature.

Not having seen the film, I can't say how well the score compliments the story, though judging from the music itself I'd say the film is not likely to have many moments of quiet reflection. What's most immediately noticeable is how well Kiner's work blends in with John Williams' oeuvre. Surely this was intentional, to make viewers feel at home in a well-known universe, while preserving and then building on Williams' and Lucas' musical traditions. Within the first half a minute, you know right away that something old is being presented wrapped as something new, the familiar opening theme on brass, but with a staccato punch, the rhythm accentuated by powerful percussion.

Besides Luke's Theme there are only a couple of moments where it appears Kiner quotes directly from Williams. But these moments are so short they could be dismissed as coincidence, making this Kiner's work entirely, a score built on classical orchestral themes but including as well voices until now not a part of the Star Wars universe, including synthesizer, electric guitar, erhu (2-stringed Chinese violin), duduk (Armenian flute), oud (Arab lute), and taiko (Japanese drum). Kiner uses them sparingly, giving each their moment but not letting any run loose to dominate the score.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about this as a Star Wars soundtrack are the number of cues, 32, more than any of the individual scores for the previous six films. Eight are less than one minute in length, six less than two minutes, nine less than three. That leaves only nine cues longer than three minutes. Compare that with Williams' most recent Star Wars score, Revenge of the Sith, with 15 cues, only two under three minutes. Typically cues for television programs are shorter than for film, and as the decision to begin The Clone Wars animated series with a full-length feature came rather late in the development process, it seems likely that Kiner was writing for television, rather than the cinema. What we get on this CD are aural vignettes, not fully developed themes. And so far, none of them seem to be stand out compositions, no Luke's Theme, no Imperial March, no Duel of Fates, Across the Stars, or Battle of the Heroes.

But not everyone gets to be John Williams. On the other hand, it took Williams a number of years before he hit his stride. (Who remembers his score for “I Passed for White”?) Perhaps Kiner's about to hit his and we can look forward to more memorable cues from the new Clone Wars animated television series.

Streaming clips from The Clone Wars can be heard here.


06 August 2008

Star Wars upside down: Roger Williams & Born Free

Roger Williams is no relation to John Williams. His birth name was Louis Weertz; his stage name was given to him by his record producer.

Both Williams graduated from the Julliard School of Music and went on to be major figures in 20th century music, John America's most recognizable film composer, and Roger one of America's best known and best selling pianists. He racked up 22 hit singles between 1955 and 1969, plus Top Ten albums in 1957, '58, '62, and '66. Like his namesake, one his big hits came from cinema, a cover of John Barry's theme to Born Free, a feature film of the same year based on the life of an American game warden in Kenya.

The song was massively popular in 1966, going on to take the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Three decades later Roger Williams was continuing to feature Born Free in live performances. One such was captured in 1999 at St Louis' Sheldon Concert Hall, a recording broadcast later that year on American television under the title, "Roger Williams: Pop Goes the Ivories." The concert audio was released on CD in 2000.

Of interest to those of you visiting this blog is Williams' claim that the Star Wars theme is nothing but Born Free turned upside down. Listen for yourself here.

You'll never hear Born Free the same again.


02 August 2008

Music From Star Wars (1977) - John Rose, organist

This is perhaps one of the first recordings covering Star Wars music, a 1977 organ transcription of John Williams' score for what is now known as A New Hope. Recorded in the Cathedral of St Joseph, Hartford, Connecticut in late 1977, just months following the release of the film, it features organist John Rose, just 20 years old and serving in his first position as organist for Trinity College. He has since gone on to record 16 albums, but is apparently remembered in organ circles - sometimes favorably, sometimes not - for this Star Wars recording.

Much like synthesizers today can mimic any number of band instruments and arrangements, organs with a large number of pipes can mimic the sounds of an orchestra. In the nineteenth century orchestral scores rewritten for the organ were an inexpensive alternative at a time when there was no recorded music.

You'll have to use a bit of imagination to conjure up an orchestra from this recording. The sound is rather distant and flat and Rose's playing is herky jerky, sounding rather like an under-rehearsed novice. According to the liner notes, Rose was learning and recording parts as they arrived by courier from the transcriptionist.

There's not a single track here worth recommending for a compilation of Star Wars covers, though Leia's Theme might do in a pinch. The Cantina song could be used, with a little volume tweaking, on any carnival merry-go-round, sounding more like polka than swing. The rest is historical curiosity. Buy this because you are a collector of Star Wars or pop culture kitsch. You'll be sorely disappointed if you buy it for any other reason.

Click here to download a compilation of clips from eight of the album's ten tracks.

Other links:


31 July 2008

Empire Jazz (1980) - Ron Carter, Hubert Laws, Billy Cobham, Bob James

Record producer Meco demonstrated there was profit in marketing popular cover arrangements of John Williams' Star Wars compositions. Despite his Space Disco theme achieving hit status in 1977, three years later, even though Williams served up another memorable melody in The Empire Strikes Back, the enthusiasm for such projects seems to have waned. Boris Midney gave it a go, but who remembers him? Maybe it was just that no one could figure out what to do with the Imperial March.

Leave it a jazz musician to give it a try.

Ron Cater is one of the most prolific bass players in the jazz world. By 1980, at the age of 43, he had already 17 albums issued under his own name and had appeared as a sideman on many, many more. (Today he's 71 and has released a total of 48 albums.) I don't know what he found inspiring about Williams' music for Empire. Perhaps it had some effect on his selection of musicians for this project, some of the best of the age and known for their cross-over appeal to young audiences, guys who played what was then known as “fusion,” a popular form of rock-tinged jazz, or a funkier inflected form known as “soul jazz.” Flautist Hubert Laws was a member of the Crusaders, drummer Billy Cobham the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and a young Bob James (best known at the time as the composer of the theme for the television show Taxi) went on to be a defining voice of pop/jazz crossover music of the 80's and 90's. Not coincidentally, all three of them in the early 70's were working with CTI records, James as a producer/arranger, Cobham as a studio drummer, and Laws as a featured artist. All three figure prominently on Empire Jazz, though the typical head-solo-head arrangements and the performances are more standard acoustic jazz typical of Carter's projects.

The disc opens on the album's most forceful performance, with piano, bass, drum, flute, guitar, and brass pounding out the Imperial March, the trumpet stepping out of formation to solo in high register, followed in half-time by Laws' more unhurried flute. But it's the quieter songs that offer the more memorable performances. Accompanied by soft brass and electric guitar, James' piano and Carter's bass dance gracefully through Han and the Princess, while Yoda's Theme fairly glows, a lush warm sound of muted horns led by flugelhorn and trombone in an understated bluesy swing. Perhaps the album's most interesting track is the Bossa Nova flavored Asteroid Field, featuring four instruments trading solos in sets of two, first the soprano sax and flugelhorn trading licks, followed by the flute and trombone, then back and forth again in paired succession.

In spite of some wonderful moments, Empire Jazz is a not an outstanding jazz album. But neither is it a complete hack job. As a jazz fan, I probably won't be making repeated listenings. As a Star Wars fan, I'm very happy to have found such lovely versions of Han Solo and the Princess and Yoda's Theme and will add them to my playlist of favorite covers.

Empire Jazz seems never to have been released on CD, nor officially on MP3, so for now you'll have to hunt down an LP if you want to own an official version of the music. If you'd care to sample the album, you can download a compilation of clips here. For those interested in the full album, please leave me your email in a comment and I'll get back to you.

In one of those strange coincidences that are too bizarre to have been concocted, there is more connection between Meco and Ron Carter than both having recorded covers of John Williams compositions. Apparently the pair performed together in their students days as members of the Eastman School of Music jazz band, back when Meco played trombone.


Album Notes

Empire Jazz
Produced and arranged by Ron Carter
Executive Producer Bill Oakes

Ron Carter – bass
Bob James – acoustic piano
Billy Cobham – drums
Ralph McDonald – assorted percussion
Hubert Laws – flute
Jon Faddis – trumpet and flugelhorn
Joe Shepley – trumpet and flugelhorn
Frank Wess – tenor and soprano sax
Jay Berliner – electric and acoustic guitar
Eddie Bert – trombone

Side One
The Imperial March (Darth Vader's Theme)
The Asteroid Field

Side Two
Han Solo and the Princess (Love Theme)
Lando's Palace
Yoda's Theme

Special thanks to Sanford Allen, Tony May, and Alan Bergman

Engineers: Tony May, Clyde Kaplan
Art Direction: Glenn Ross
Illustration: Jeff Wack
Design: Tim Bryant, George Corsillo/Gribbitt

©1980 RSO Records



27 July 2008

Williams cops a riff

Humans learn by copying. The process of creation is one largely of cutting and rearranging all the stuff we've copied.

In the 30 years since its release, A New Hope has been picked apart by fans and critics looking for antecedents in the story and the visuals. A long list of those are available at many fan sites. I've made a humble list here at Amazon.

If you make it all the way to the bottom of the list, you'll find the one item that doesn't fit the set, a CD in a list of DVDs. George Lucas wasn't the only one who borrowed ideas in cooking up Star Wars. Have a listen to Austrian composer Erich Korngold's, theme for the 1942 film, King's Row and you'll hear something entirely familiar.

What I'd like to know is, has Williams ever acknowledged riffing on Korngold? And, who was Korngold copying?

Erich Korngold wiki
Erich Korngold fan site
Erich Korngold CDs


24 July 2008


, this is only tangentially related to SW, but I'm just getting started here and I need some content for the blog and as it's about Bollywood (a pleasure about as nutritious as SW) and features SW' most beautiful leading lady (again playing a princess), well . . .

If it was a crappy song I could easily resist. But it's actually a quite catchy tune.

What you'll see below is the latest music video from Venezuelan singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart , who happens to also be Natalie Portman's boyfriend and who recruited her to appear in this spoof on Bollywood.


OneIndia news item


What's this all about?

I got a new LP the other day, a collection of Star Wars covers from a rather tight jazz ensemble. There aren't many reviews of this album on the internet. I suppose since it was published in 1980 and hasn't been issued on CD it has been forgotten.

It took a bit of work to track it down and to get it to where I could listen to it. I don't have a record player anymore, so in addition to finding a copy of the album I also had to find (and pay) someone to record the LP to digital and burn it to CDR.

After all that work, why keep this to myself? Why not share this with others interested in Star Wars music, I thought. I can post about the album to a few forums - OR - perhaps I can whip out a little blog that will be accessible to a larger number of people. And while I'm at it, I can share my reviews and samples of other SW music in my collection. And meet a lot of collectors with whom I can trade music. (And make a bigger collection that I will someday need to get rid of.)

And so, after a couple of hours of tinkering, here it is. My new blog. Not too spiffy, but good enough to get the job done.

I hope.

May John Williams be with us.