Alex North: The Racers; Daddy Long Legs ballet. Varese Sarabande: Masters Film Music. SRS 2015; orchestra conducted by Lionel Newman, Peggy Lee, vocal.
Reviewed by Michael McDonagh
Though Varese Sarabande has an active pop and jazz catalog, its chief distinction has been its series of new recordings of film music classics, as well as first releases of significant scores by masters like Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith, and Alex North. To date it has issued five fresh versions of seminal North scores from the unused 2001(1967), to the one that started it all, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Its latest entry is his score for Henry Hathaway's 1955 Fox pic The Racers. Though it's been decribed as a cliche-ridden CinemaScope epic with a weak script, it nevertheless managed to elicit strong and varied music from North, and it's conducted here by Alfred Newman's right hand man at the studio, his brother, Lionel.
The main title, with its bracing repetitions, is actually from the third movement finale of North's piano concerto, which was played in full in Jack Sher's Four Girls In Town (1956), but works perfectly here. North's distinctive brand of cool jazz colors much of this worldly score, and his love theme, "I Belong To You"—lyric by Jack Brooks—sung here by the inimitable Peggy Lee, suffuses the score. The tune also has a very elegant bridge, or release, comparable in its way to the much more famous one in the love theme from Spartacus (1960), though there are others equally exquisite in the North canon. His arrangement for Lee is subtle—especially the smoothly voiced saxes—and entirely supportive. And North, being the psychological composer he always was, digs deep in "Decision", which could be called a passacaglia, with freely developed episodes. The main tune here is a variant and fragmentation of the love theme, which North heightens through typically acute and highly expressive instrumental combination—piano with harp, double bass, and tympani, and compositional choices like drones on lower strings, a very gradual chromatic decent in the upper ones, and an affective use of tremolos. The writing in "3 A.M. Blackjack" is equally piquant, with halting winds, a serpentine flute solo which is taken up by the sax, then returned to the flute, and an effective use of hand held percussion instruments. And speaking of percussion, North's Daddy Long Legs fantasy ballet for the 1955 Fred Astaire—Leslie Caron vehicle of the same name—it was scored by Johnny Mercer—gets lots of its color and drive from it. He uses all manner of drums, what sound like cowbells, as well as tambourines, cymbals, gongs, and he even treats the mandolins as if they were percussion. There are many amazing moments in this three-movement piece—1. Paris; 2. Hong Kong; 3. Rio—not least of which are in the finale, with its crazy quilt of Near Eastern and Latin rhythms and textures. And North's approach here foreshadows some of the things he'll do later in the percussion rich Spartacus and Cleopatra (1963). The remastered sound is good, not great, and producer Robert Townson's notes provide a strong framework for both pieces.