Friday, June 22, 2012

Empire Jazz: What Could Possibly Go Right?

I was quickly flipping through the recent arrivals of used vinyl at Generation Records when I came across a odd little gem that I had never heard of before: Empire Jazz, music from The Empire Strikes Back arranged by the legendary bassist Ron Carter and featuring Bob James on piano, Billy Cobham on drums, and Hubert Laws on flute (among others). I was intrigued. It was a horrible concept with an even worse cover (is Darth Vader drinking cosmos?). How could something made by this group possibly be as bad as it looked like it was going to be?

It was a steal at $5.99. I told everyone I encountered on my way home that I had found the “best-worst jazz album” of all time, and showed them the cover as evidence. What was this thing going to sound like? The presence of Bob James made me think smooth. I was surprised to see that he would not be playing any electric piano.  Billy Cobham made me think that maybe the album might have a bit more energy behind it, though.  The album was released on RSO records, not Ron Carter’s usual label, but, in fact, the label that issued the all the Star Wars soundtracks. Was this album his idea or a commission job or sorts? Would this end up being one of my crazy guilt pleasures or utter shit? Arriving home after midnight, I was irked that I would have to wait until morning to find out, lest I inspire the wrath of my neighbors. They don’t know good music when they hear it.

The next morning, while sipping my coffee, trying to wake up just enough to fully appreciate the album, I checked out I found that this album was never released on CD, nor is it available as a download. Not a great sign, but hey, a lot of great music is out of print. Besides, some guy thought enough of it to call it a collector’s item and is asking fifty bucks for it. Just think, I got it almost 90% off.

After the second cup of coffee I felt ready.

The album begins with a straight forward outline of classic "Imperial March" arranged for the small horn wind ensemble before breaking down into a series of competent solos and all too brief moments of real swinging. Mock film-noir music meets cocktail jazz.  Hubert Laws does a fine flute solo which almost threatens to take the piece into the stratosphere but is shot down prematurely. Billy Cobham’s subsequent drum solo became evidence of the lifelessness of the recording, with the normally dynamic and fiery player sounding like his kit was set up in a shoe box.  Overall, not a good start.

However, the bossa-nova, lounge take on the "Asteroid Field" has just enough schmaltz dripping off it to bring a smile to my face from the opening notes. As the track goes on, the solos reveal the impeccable musicianship that make this track a bit more than merely an exercise in swankiness. Though the theme, based around the powerful cascading melodies that accompanied the Millennium Falcon’s pursuit by Empirical T.I.E. fighters through (you guessed it) an asteroid field, is one of my favorites in the movie, it is sadly not recognizable or iconic enough to give the track the appropriate kitsch factor. Still, it is the most enjoyable piece on the album.

At this point, looking at the track list, I indeed noticed that the pieces are (aside from the "Imperial March") arrangements of less instantly recognizable bits of scoring. Evidently, Carter was not trying to do a winking, ironic twist on a pop-culture phenomenon. There was not even a take on the epic title theme (perhaps he was only allowed to do music from The Empire Strike Back and not the first movie). Maybe he was simply arranging and repurposing movie music as a vehicle for jazz. Nothing new, I guess. How is it any different from Dave Brubeck’s Dave Digs Disney?

Side 2 begins well enough. "Han and Leia’s Theme" opens with some beautiful and elegant acoustic piano playing by Bob James (a man well known for beautiful and elegant, if not terribly ballsy, playing) before Ron Carter’s bass enters into the conversation. The horns, arranged with just the appropriate amount of dissonance added to arrangement, are used sparingly enough to add color without wearing out their welcome.

"Lando’s Theme", while lovely when played by an orchestra, seems too boring when set up by this jazz ensemble, and fortunately the melody is abandoned immediately in favor of the soloists. Still, it sounds hopeless dated (even more than the rest of the album), sounding like soundtrack music to a 1970’s romantic comedy about neurotic urbanites. Much the same could be said of "Yoda’s Theme", the album’s closer. While the melody is one of the most lyrical and sensitive in the movie, it does nothing here. More cocktail jazz. I suppose that I should have taken the cover as a warning, but I really expected more from an ensemble of this caliber.

Yeah, I suppose this album is justifiably out of print. The problem is clearly not a lack of good musicianship, and the lifeless recording isn’t it either. It’s not even the fact that the album feels like a grab for a quick buck or a joke that the creators weren’t in on. Sure, part of it could be blamed on the fact that 1980 was terrible time for jazz when a neutered version of traditional jazz was emerging in response to the excesses of fusion. However, if all of these things came together perfectly, it could have created an album so spectacularly horrible that it would be an underground classic. Sadly, the actual results are just below mediocre, at least for this crew. Much like my copy of The Best of Marcel Marceau, this is an album I will keep on my shelf to show to friends, but will probably never play it for them. The fact is, the cover aside, the album largely eschews kitsch without making up for it with quality. Though there are a couple enjoyable cuts, they are not likely to end up getting a lot of play. If it was just a little worse, it would have earned a few novelty spins, but hey, I suppose you can’t lose them all.

For the curious, here is a link to "The Asteroid Field"