I grew up watching and listening to that great TV show. Everyone knows the ‘Peter Gunn Theme,’ but far fewer seem to know there is about an hour and a half of gorgeous music recycled in various forms throughout the show’s three seasons. Even our musicians were in the dark about this. They were happily surprised at the wonderful music, so skillfully written and arranged. We were all thrilled to play it.
Grammy-nominated conductor Steven Richman and pianist Lincoln Mayorga both played with Henry Mancini decades ago. They and their Harmonie Ensemble/New York are on this new record covering Mancini’s jazzy, snazzy, Grammy-winning television score for the private eye series of 1958-1961, Peter Gunn.
They aren’t necessarily blazing new trails. But their approach serves the original compositions — some unknown to the musicians in the orchestra — with quiet evolutions, rather than blasting caps. The solos are busty, the movements pregnant with soulful, bluesy punch. But mostly, one track swings easily into the other, background music for a generation growing up to the instrumental, stereo soundtracks of the ‘60s-‘70s — over cocktails and tetherball.
A French horn player, the veteran musician Richman and pianist Mayorga — who played on the Ensemble’s 2010 album, Gershwin by Grofé — anchor the elaborate, 16-track set of Henry Mancini Music For Peter Gunn. The harmonia mundi release comes out on August 12, 2014, and is the group’s 12th album, Richman’s third for the record label. Previous works sought also to recapture the flavor of seminal big band leaders — Gershwin by Grofé and last year’s Nutcracker Suites Tchaikovsky/Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn.
Personnel on this record included a horn section split into French horns, trombones, and Lew Soloff’s trumpets. Tenor saxophonist/flautist Lew Tabackin (also present on the Nutcracker album) is the driving force of the reed section. The rhythm section completes the picture with guitarist Bob Mann, vibes player Christos Rafalides, and percussionists Francois Moutin and Victor Lewis.
The selections are from the first and second Mancini albums devoted to the TV show. Everything’s quite wonderfully recreated, understated, and perfunctory. Go to “Dreamsville,” and drift along to the warm, but not sodden, tones of the horn section, Mann trying to aerate the faint memories even further on his strings, Mayorga on keys.
“Blue Steel” livens up as the horn solos slice through the orchestral splendor, threatening to break and take hostages. It’s a daring, snazzy, almost dangerous affair. Saxophonist Tabackin all the way.
Of course the title track kicks off the retro-fit in true Mancini style. Somehow, though, the overall impression is that of a truly faded memory, frayed photos in a forgotten album. The orchestra barely comes through, as if on a vibraphone filter. The horns should go sharper, the bumper-car turns louder, the vibrancy of the dynamics and the crescendo — from pianissimo to forte — more volatile.
Most of the rest of the tracks seem to require the volume turned up. It’s as if the entire album is muffled.
The problem probably lies in devoting an entire album to the sound effects of an old TV show. It’s not a surprise the “Peter Gunn Theme,” the music written to open this series, is the most dynamic. It has to be.
Otherwise, nobody really wants to sit through “The Brothers Go To Mother’s,” a meandering piece of filler, or “Session At Pete’s Pad,” a traipsing, sleep-inducing waltz featuring a small bit of vibes before the orchestra tries to power through a big band-like series of horn solos — tepid at best.
The musical touches might be better appreciated if the listener had the time and the patience to really go through each composition thoroughly, over and over again with nothing else going on. But that’s what a soundtrack is for, to play in the background when you’re doing an important or necessary task, like the laundry.
Steven Richmand and Harmonie Ensemble/New York take their second chance at Music For Peter Gunn seriously. They just can’t seem to muddle their way out of that time frame.