The Passing of John Leach, Who Helped Make Spy Movies Cool

1280px-Modern_Concert_cimbalomJohn Leach has passed away. He was a multi-talented composer and musician with many artistic achievements to his credit. He also made a small but important contribution to the ambience of the spate of espionage films that emerged from Britain in the 1960s and eventually became a world wide phenomenon.

The theme music of many of these movies featured sonorous notes — at times evocatively asynchronous — that came from a cimbalom, a hammer dulcimer from Hungary that Leach mastered. The musical touchstone is the theme to The Ipcress File (Michael Caine’s superb first outing as Harry Palmer). The music was written by the legendary John Barry with Leach adding his own magic, and the resulting style was widely copied in later films using either a cimbalon or other instruments that could generate a similar effect (e.g., the plucked strings of a piano or a properly tuned electric bass guitar).

When I hear those intoxicating notes, I see in my mind a hundred ultra-cool, glumly professional spooks in overcoats, walking down dark streets and battling it out with their opposite numbers in The East. Music really can help define and enrich a film genre. Well done Mr. Leach. R.I.P.

Two girl groups

My wife’s mixed chorus gave its spring concert this weekend and performed Randall Thompson’s Choose Something Like a Star. This is an exquisite, choke-up beautiful, number that I had first heard performed as SSAA, but it seems that SATB arrangement is the original, and the piece has been rearranged so that women’s groups can enjoy it too.  Revising a paper last night, I teed up a Spotify station from a Patrick Saussois song and after a while,  along came a cut from Christine Tassan et les Imposteures that brought work to a stop.  This is a Montréal quartet in the middle of widespread revival of the “gypsy” jazz form that traces back to Django Reinhardt and has popped up all in the usual, and some unlikely, places with some really fine musicians.  A gang of Scots that call themselves Havana Swing, for example, and the Canadian group The Lost Fingers.  The jazz manouche  crowd likes to blur the boundaries, cover songs from all over, and bring in straight-ahead jazz musicians, and people like Peter Beets and David Langlois are happy to jam with Dorado Schmitt at Birdland every year or so.
But I digress, even from the threadlike theme of this post.  Tassan’s quartet combines drop-dead instrumental chops with a really good set of pipes, and they have the kind of radiant delight performing that illuminates the most watchable baseball players, like Willie Mays and Dustin Pedroia. Women jazz musicians have always been scarce except for “the ladies who sing with the band” that Fats dissed; someone like Deanna Bogart consequently has to be two of them (tenor sax too, indeed three, if you count vocals).  This group is mainly instrumental; the rhythm guitarist, bass player and fiddler mostly sing as backup for Tassan, like the golden-era rock and roll girl groups, though they have some fine four-part riffs.  They have three CDs out, two on Spotify; the latest one doesn’t seem to be available in the US.  Come on, Amazon!
Listening to them I was reminded of what may be the best ever, the Quarteto em Cy, four sisters who have recorded and performed, alone and with the top Brazilian talent, over four decades.  They’ll probably be back in the next samba post. Listening to them is a time machine that will remind you of voice qualities impossible to discern in the mechanized, processed popular music of today, stuff like, um, intonation and rhythm…and ensemble, hoo boy.  This is really difficult harmony, and only works if the singers are in complete control and together.  No melismatic shopping around for a note here, either; they’re very exposed, and punch every one.  One of my favorite cuts on the linked album is the charming Loura ou Morena, about a guy who can’t decide if he likes blondes or brunettes more, that Tassan’s Les Blondes reminded me of in tone.

Brazilian Music 2: Early sambistas

We might as well start a tour of the most famous and distinctive music of Brazil with the wonderful recipe and hagiology in Samba da Bénção (“Blessings Samba”) by Vinicius de Moraes.   Vinicius was a remarkable figure: poet, diplomat, and songwriter who partnered with Jobim and (as in this song) the guitarist Baden Powell.   I think de Moraes has it right in emphasizing that samba, even without lyrics, is not just party dance music, but weaves together (in various proportions), sadness, joy, and resignation. There’s a good English translation here.  He also gives us a sort of hall of fame, thanking a constellation of great sambistas from early days to the present. You could skip this whole post and just hop across tracks by the masters called out in this song, and you should anyway, because I will not hit more than a third of them. Continue Reading…