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.