October 31, 2018 | by Andrew K. Lau
It’s rather striking to see the faces of Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster on the cover of a record, but that’s exactly what I discovered one day while at my former job at a notorious East Bay record store flipping through a pile of garbage LPs set aside due to their condition or lack of sale-ability. Every morning there’d be a stack (sometimes several) of rejected records on the floor upstairs put there by the owner who had been pricing them out the previous night. Anyway, Curtis and Lancaster have this condescending look on their faces that I found amusing — it was a bold enough image to momentarily distract me from realizing it was the soundtrack to Sweet Smell of Success as played by The Chico Hamilton Quintet. Ah yes, another ragged jewel snatched from oblivion.
By the mid-1940s, the worlds of jazz and film noir intersected into a short-lived but vital paring, as each perfectly complemented the others' reach for specific emotions; both were oftentimes mysterious, moody, and an acquired taste. Also, both accentuated the dark underworld of Life; the difference being some jazz musicians actually existed in that dark world (with their narcotics and sometimes lives of crime) while film noir was a reflection and a fantasy. Either way, it was a perfect, dark match.
The two arty genres would collectively raise movie soundtracks to a high art by the mid-'50s, to a point where films were bursting with so much quality music there would be two records released: one with the score and another with the incidental music. Robert Wise’s 1958 I Want to Live is such an example, with a stellar album of the Johnny Mandel-composed score and a second record of white-hot "jazz themes" performed by Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer, and Shelly Manne. Mulligan would later contribute more of his usual brilliance for the soundtrack to the 1960 film The Subterraneans, as well as appearing as a cameo playing Reverend Joshua Hoskins.
Sweet Smell of Success is a wonderfully snide look into the entertainment industry, with Lancaster playing the stone cold columnist J.J. Hunsecker (based on the life of real-life gossip columnist Walter Winchell) while Curtis plays struggling press agent Sidney Falco. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick and shot in black and white with brutal cinematography by James Wong Howe, the dialogue is quick, tense, and could be credited with making Sweet Smell of Success one of the greatest films of the noir genre, even though it’s not often considered as such since there aren’t any detectives running around. Once again, the soundtrack reflects the film’s darker angles; part of the plot is Hunsecker’s anxiety over his sister getting involved with a jazz musician. Though not a hit upon its release, the film has since become a benchmark, and as with I Want to Live, produced enough good music to justify Decca to release two LPs. Coming off his success with writing the score to another dark, jazz-themed film, 1955’s The Man With the Golden Arm, Elmer Bernstein was eventually chosen to compose the score to Success. For the soundtrack itself, however, a subtler touch was needed.
By the time of this release, Chico Hamilton, then only 36, had already played with some of the greats (Lena Horne, Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, Billy Eckstine), and his first real success as a bandleader came with the formation of his first quintet, which was unusual as it blended both jazz and classical influences by incorporating a flute and cello. Some referred to it as “Chamber Jazz” at the time, which is kinda clever, I guess. Add those elements to Hamilton’s already distinctive, subtle approach to drumming, and you have a sound somewhere in that sweet spot between the more refined Modern Jazz Quartet and the stomping joy of Charles Mingus.
When Hamilton brought in the blazing, razor-edge talents of Eric Dolphy the year after this record came out, it underscored his constant stride to push forward. Naturally, he took it one step farther by recording Dolphy’s mercurial baritone clarinet phrasing against the lush backdrop of a full orchestra as heard on the With Strings Attached LP that same year. So, it makes sense that this kind of thinking would fold perfectly into the world of broken mirrors that film noir often represented.
Fred Katz was the cellist in Hamilton’s band, and the two of them actually wrote the original score to Success, which was rejected in favor of Bernstein’s work. Undaunted, Hamilton and Katz wrote all the “Jazz Themes” on the record. Where Mulligan and Farmer go from hazy opiate swing to a wonderful amphetamine racket on I Want To Live, Hamilton and company leans back into the abstract noir shadows for almost the entire LP, recording a tense, mysterious set of music.
Side one has the lonely slide of “Goodbye Baby” and “Susan (The Sage)”; the frantic “Cheek To Chico” and “Sydney’s Theme” (starting off with a one bar solo from, well, everyone) and “Jam,” a glorious minute and a half rush. It’s “Night Beat”, however, that steals the show on side one, as Hamilton and company channel Stravinsky (or at least Bartok) for the first half of the song, which is made up of languid, meandering woodwinds, low-tone brass, and purposefully heavy-stepping, muted drums. They somehow manage to effortlessly shift into tense percussion and piano duel a minute later, culminating into a fantastic 10- second, piercing weave of two careening notes, G# and A. With a runtime clocking in at a mere two minutes, one might feel cheated out of what may be one of the tensest pieces of movie music committed to wax. Thankfully, the themes hinted in “Night Beat” are expounded further in “Concerto of Jazz Themes” which takes up the entirety of side two.
The uncredited liner notes on the back of the record jacket point out how this track "is one of the most unusual jazz recordings ever attempted." By that they mean the music was improvised using themes from side one as their guide. While that may have been a novelty for film soundtracks in 1957, there’s been more of that kind of stuff in the past 60 years, perhaps most notably Neil Young’s completely improvised soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film, Dead Man.
At just over 16 minutes, "Concerto of jazz Themes" serves as an extension to "Night Beat" and as a summation of the overall project. Musical dark corners are explored with Paul Horn’s flute and clarinet, John Pisano’s staccato guitar picking, and Katz’s cello. As per usual for a lot of jazz recordings from this time, the bass is somewhat buried in the mix; unless he’s taking a few bars by himself or duetting with Pisano, Carson Smith's fine work is often cancelled out, much of the time by the cello. At any rate, this side-long track boils down into an improvisational loop that takes a cello-centered tension leap, finally cresting at 11:30 when Hamilton takes his solo. It’s at this point when it becomes clear just how well they recorded this music. The uncredited engineer raises the echo on Hamilton’s kit to counterbalance the scratch 'n' thwap of his brushes on the snare with the warm thud of his kick drum.
At one point Hamilton ditches the mallets and hits the drums directly with his hands while Katz drops his bow and plucks the strings. Speaking of all things muted, it’s Hamilton’s understated approach to the instrument (and his ear for new sounds) that makes this music is so successful — had he been more of an attacker behind the kit, the music’s fragility would be wrecked. That isn’t to suggest Hamilton can’t hit —there’s plenty of evidence here of his strength (particularly during “Jam”) — but it’s his decision to be a more musical drummer and bandleader that makes this record so indispensable. By creating an album’s worth of distant and tense music, Hamilton and Katz not only successfully meet the film’s narrative arc, they compound it.
That I found this record by chance in the garbage is something I’m sure Tony Curtis’ nail biting, scavenging press agent character, Sidney Falco, would surely appreciate. He’d be the first to tell you that sometimes one has to really dig in order to find absolution.
Listen to Concerto of Themes from the Soundtrack of Sweet Smell of Success