Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Jazz In High Heels

To avoid any misunderstanding, this post is going to be about film music, but I would like to start the story from an "improper" point which is charged with some risque themes - this point is a shot.

The shot below, from the opening credit of Satan In High Heels (1962) takes us to one of the hilarious moments of the fetishist cinema, of course, if one doesn't consider the whole film-loving affair as a fetishist obsession. What this credit-shot suggests, no matter how ridiculous, is truly justified in the film which follows: In Satan In High Heels the role of furs, leathers and lingerie which suppose to cover the voluptuous strip dancers is more significant than the work of actors or the direction. 

Starring burlesque queens of the big screen, Meg Myles and Sabrina, Satan In High Heels is built around a strip dancer, her junkie husband and a lesbian club owner and filled with the utmost use of "body presence," as much as possible for a legally distributed and highly publicized film in the early 1960s.

The director Jerald Intrator, according to his filmography and titles in it such as Striporama and Orgy at Lil's Place was an expert in the field, but none of his films, except Satan, doesn't bring any particular memory to mind . However. among many forgotten sexploitation films of the 1960s which only keep their appeal to their serious fans, Satan has found a cult status, mostly for a reason I'm going to discuss later. Nevertheless, the appearance of Meg Myles and Sabrina represent that crossover between the mainstream cinema and the underground sex films that eventually left the red lines and the weakening censor behind. Roger Ebert, talking about familiar elements of the 1950s sex films, mentions Satan In High Heels and "the tightly corseted waists, the high boots, the long shirts, the tight bodies, the lash of lipstick," of Meg Myles in the film which historically was the next step after films like Johnny Guitar[1] 

Also, thanks to Satan In High Heels, I learned about the existence of one Norma Ann Sykes from Cheshire, UK, who was known as "the British Jayne Mansfield," or simply, Sabrina. After touring Australia as a model, this film was her cinematic debut in the US, but when it commercially failed, she was forced to move back to the UK and her American film career was prematurely over. I cannot hide my amazement about the cult status of Sabrina, when I discovered an online encyclopedia dedicated to her.

Now, back to the film. 

The British Jayne Mansfield, Sabrina
Believing every film can engage us in a slightly different way, my interest in Satan is almost solely because of its tasteful jazz soundtrack, composed by guitarist Mundell Lowe. Started as a country music guitarist, Lowe switched to jazz and played a wide range of musicians, from the big bands of Benny Goodman to Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday. In the 1950s he recorded half a dozen of small group albums for Riverside and then became active on NBC TV. In 1961 a producer invited him to write for cinema.

"I think I have recorded about 10 or 12 other albums of my own," says Lowe, "and [Satan] is the first time I can say I was really pleased." Indeed, the tight arrangements of this relatively ambitious project, as well as the support of the great musicians who attended the session, makes this one the most underrated jazz soundtrack of that period which suffered from the film's low status and contemptible production. Alas, Jerald Intrator wasn't a Preminger.

Listening to the recording today, it sounds modestly innovative by making subtle harmonic touches and rhythmic inflections, while never losing the swing Lowe took from years of studentship in big bands. Lowe, regarding the impact of the album and the intensity of listening to it quotes one his friend who was present at the session: "George Duvivier, my friend and probably the world's greatest bass player today obviously felt the same way, because [after the recording] as we got into his car for the trip home, he turned to me and said 'old buddy - this album is gonna shake a lot of people up.'"

The two sessions and ten tracks which materialized the soundtrack for Satan In High Heels featured some of the greatest names in jazz history: 

First five track (the title theme, Montage, The Lost And the Lonely, East Side Drive, Coffee, Coffee) are recorded in November 30, 1961 in New York City and aside from Lowe playing guitar, they feature Clark Terry, Carl Severinsen and Joe Newman on trumpet, plus Urbie Green and Buster Cooper on trombone. The reed section presents Al Kink, Walter Levinsky, Ray Beckenstein and Al Cohn. In that section Sol Schlinger plays baritone. Even French horn is used and James Buffington takes care of that. After Lowe, the most prominent name behind this all-star session is Eddie Costa who switches between vibes and piano. The eminent George Duvivier is on bass and the drum chair is filled by Ed Shaaughnessy.

Mundell Lowe
For the second date, recorded again at the RCA studios, almost a month after the first session, five more tracks were recorded (Lake in the Woods, From Mundy On, The Long Knife, Blues For a Stripper, Pattern of Evil). For this complementary to the November date, guitar is played by the prolific session-man Barry Galbraith. In trumpet section Bernie Glow replaces Newman and Ernie Royal introduces the fourth trumpet. Saxophone section becomes dramatically unanimous by further additions of Phil Woods and Oliver Nelson, respectively on alto and tenor. Also Gene Allen replaces Sol Schlinger for baritone. Finally, in trombone section Jimmy Cleveland fills the chair previously occupied by Green. 

I believe this must be the first Mundell Lowe session as a composer/arranger of the whole set, although his desire to write music can be traced back to the 1950s: "I would like to be a serious composer someday. Until then the only way a writer, a good writer can grow, is to keep studying and keep writing and then be lucky enough to hear a good orchestra playing his work. I can't begin to count the hours I have spent over drawing board, exploring Percy Goetschius, Robert Farnon and a 'few other guys' like Mozart, Ravel, Beethoven etc. or over the kitchen table enjoying chicken and dumplings, and bacon pie." While Lowe's statement sounds like the film itself (unholy juxtaposition of chicken and Amadeus), but the result shows a solemn attempt and good results in channeling the sound of the modern big bands of the day, for a relatively cheap and unimportant film. 

Lowe's professionalism in composing for this sex flick reminds me of the seriousness of New Orleans musicians in the early days who were pushing the boundaries of jazz in the most unlikely environment of  the brothels and gambling houses.

original vinyl cover

It must be pointed that all these ten tracks were exclusively written for the film and meant to accompany certain scenes. Lowe, admits that writing for films is a scary task, remembers: "It all starts with a deadline being set to record music. The studio is booked for certain hours, and the musicians are called. Then you start the 'panic' routine. Hours of watching film footage and trying to really understand the 'message' (whatever that happens to be). Then you go to the drawing board and start scratching away. So after days, weeks, and sometimes months of trying to get the right tunes on paper, the work really begins."
Lowe continues: "The next thing is the sketch for the orchestration, then the orchestration. For some reason or other, things don't usually start to happen until the evening before the next morning's session. Then starts the race with the clock."

I've selected two tracks from the album, both from the second session of December 22, 1961, which in my opinion is superior to that of November. 

First, The Long Knife which features a Tristano-ish solo by Eddie Costa and then Blues For a Stripper that sums up Lowe's abilities as a composer and arranger, while gives its name for the title of another album released from the same recorded material. [see picture above]

The album is available from Charlie Parker Records, a label established in 1959 by Charlie Parker's widow, Doris Parker and her bushiness associate Aubrey Mayhew.

It worth noting that, ironically, both stars of the film had tried singing jazz before appearing on this film. Meg Myles recorded two LPs, one for Mercury (At the Living Room) for which Johnny Carson wrote the liner notes, and one more interesting session with no one but Jimmy Rowles, which Mr. Rowles provokingly titled Just Meg and Me. Sabrina, too, gave the blues a sexy try that you can play here. It's so bad that you might find it good.

Satan In High Heels never saw the light of the screen in the UK, as the British censor promptly rejected the film. But luckily, after reaching an agreement between Parker Records and MGM for global sale, the album was released overseas. In the UK EMI distributed the Satan LP, and along with some Charlie Parker recordings and another soundtrack (Duke Jordan's brilliant Les Liaisons Dangereuses) it became one of the very few Parker label recordings which were heard outside the US. ●


[1] Ebert, Roger, Great Movies III, p.194.

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