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Chico Hamilton/Elmer Bernstein (Composer/Conductor): Sweet Smell of Success: Jazz Themes from the Movie Sound Track

Album Notes

The themes from the film Sweet Smell of Success (originally issued on the Decca label) surround the seedy side of Broadway/New York City social life. The plot involves syndicated gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (played by Burt Lancaster) and talent press agent Sidney Falco (portrayed by the brilliant young Tony Curtis), and their underhanded attempts to fabricate stories that touted or smeared certain clientele. Together they set up a highly publicized incestuous love affair including Hunsecker's sister and a jazz guitarist, much to the demise of all concerned. While the music is typical '50s film noir dark and passionately hued, it is also indicative of the jazz-oriented West Side Story style of intrigue that fit with the raconteur/mafia/gangster motif of earlier times. Elmer Bernstein's orchestra plays the principal music on this, his fourth movie soundtrack, with Chico Hamilton's groundbreaking quintet playing a handful of other tracks (also included on the Fresh Sound label Complete Studio Recordings) and participating onscreen during select scenes. Hamilton's sextet, and his cellist Fred Katz leading his own band complemented by other Los Angeles musicians expanded to an orchestra, provide the rest of the sounds. The Bernstein Orchestra, organized by Bobby Helfer, features such notable West Coast jazz stars as Pete Candoli and Conte Candoli, Ted Nash, Herb Geller, Bob Cooper, Bill Holman, Dave Pell, Shelly Manne, Milt Holland, and a 16-piece string section with lead cellist Armand Kaproff. They play image-provoking music like the investigative Elliott Ness-flavored main theme "The Street," jump, jive, and wailin' "Hot Dogs and Juice," lovers' interlude "Sidney and Susie," slinky and sexy "Nite Spot Rock," Benny Goodman cum Duke Ellington "Ain't Necessarily So"-styled ballad "Goodbye Baby Blues," and calypso-infused "Tropical Island Mood." Parallel three-note phrases from the classic West Side Story theme "Maria" can be heard during the dark death dirge waltz "Hunsecker's Price," a "Mood Indigo"-based string thing "The Smear," and the bluesy "Toots Shor's Blues." Whether foreshadowing impending dramatic revelation, setting up tension and release, or preluding shock and awe, the big band plays short themes that fit the plot lines well, like all good jazz storytelling should. Hamilton's ensemble takes a different tack, more melodramatic than overt, suggesting calm-before-the-storm motifs on the dour, sorrowful "Goodbye Baby" and drawing similarities to "Motherless Child," while "Cheek to Chico" and "Sidney's Theme" are modern bop numbers with a chamber music flair accented by Paul Horn's flute, the cello of Katz, Carson Smith's lithe bass, the quick-witted guitar of John Pisano, and Hamilton's flashy brush work. The Katz-led twelvetet does "Night Beat," an exotic, sensual prelude featuring Dominic Fera's suggestive clarinet, while Hamilton's sextet, minus Horn and Katz plus Conte Candoli, pianist Ernie Hughes, and trombonist Frank Rosolino, plays the "C-Jam Blues"-based hard bopper "Jam." Certainly this is a period piece, belonging to a different place and time, standing tall as a prelude to Duke Ellington's Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Stan Kenton's West Side Story (1961). ~ Michael G. Nastos


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