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




Anonymous said...

Wow, I just listend to the compilation clip.
What a great find. It's a shame this album is for almost 30 years out of print.
More playful than the jazz versions of SW themes on the album "Scetches on SW" by the Trotter Trio.
I really like what I hear. And I would really really like to hear the full album versions of the tracks.
My email adress: Polonius.Marc@gmx.de

By the way: Your blog is really great. Amazing how much an old SW nerd can still learn about SW music.

Jedi Bodhisattva said...

My next treat is digging out the Trotter album for comparison. It's been a few years, but I remember it fondly.

Thanks for the wonderful comment. I'm trying to find a way to edit out your email, but it appears Blogger won't let me do that AND there are no such hacks for the new Blogger. Anyone reading this who can help, please do!

Links to the files should be in your box. Let me know if they need to be resent. And feel free to post your own review of the album here!


CoherentAxe said...

Thanks for the tracks, JB. Some interesting stuff. Although I'm not much of a jazz fan, the reworkings are very nice; "Han Solo and the Princess" especially opens as a classic 30's romance piano cue. "The Asteroid Field" is fun, and it's always great to her "The Imperial March" reworked -- from this to the heavy rock version found on the "Force Commander" score. Unfortunately (for me, at least) the tracks descend into free-form melodies between statements of each theme, which seems basically like padding. I'd've liked to hear further Williams themes woven in, rather than the unfocused bridges used. However, when each theme is reinstated, they do so quite gloriously; particuarly "Han Solo and the Princess", whose sweeping second part is initially quite close in style to the original.

Still, it's an interesting find, and I'm glad JB gave me the opportunity to listen to one of the most unusual Star Wars albums I've heard.

Keep up the good work, JB: John Williams' themes can never get enough exposure, whatever form they take!

Jedi Bodhisattva said...

As a SW music blog I realize most people visiting here are likely to be most interested in Williams' melodies, so in my clip compilation I featured only that. It might come as a surprise to many (though not necessarily CoherentAxe) that the "free-form melodies between statements of each theme" are actually the point of jazz, as least as Carter is playing it. The head (the theme, in jazz parlance) is just a kind of frame or hanger. A great head, of course, can inspire great soloing, and I think at least with a couple of songs here, especially the Imperial Theme and Han Solo and the Princess, we get just that.

More jazz covers coming soon. If anyone has any leads to SW jazz covers, or actual copies, don't be shy in contacting Jedibodhisattva.

Anonymous said...

great find man, the music from empire is my favorite in the entire saga. as a jazz fan as well i'd love to listen to it in full, if you could email it to me that'd be great!