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Film Music Review (Volumes 1-7)






Vol. 1-50 Years of the Music of Laurie Johnson


50 Years of the Music of Laurie Johnson, Volume 1

Music composed and conducted
by Laurie Johnson.

Disc One: 35 Tracks (Playing Time = 71:06)

Disc Two: 23 Tracks (Playing Time = 76:57)

Disc Three: 8 Tracks (Playing Time = 40:21)




Features the London Studio Symphony Orchestra, the Laurie Johnson Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Jazz Orchestra, Masses Bands of the RAF, the Band of the Coldstream Guards, the London Brass Chorale, Fanfare Trumpeters of the Scots Guards, London Philharmonic Choir, RAF Central Band, RAF Squadronaires, London Big Band, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Project coordination by Laurie Johnson and Val Jennings. CD Mastering by Peter Rynston at Tall Order. CD Package design by Tony Hodsoll at Wildlife.

Edsel Records 2017

Rating: ***1/2


Laurie Johnson is less well-known to American film music lovers. His most familiar film score is perhaps that for Stanley Kubrick’s comedic masterpiece DR. STRANGELOVE. Fans of British TV fans will recall his work on the popular show THE AVENGERS. The reality is that Johnson is to Britain what Morricone is to Italy in that he has some 400 film and television scores to his credit.

Johnson’s music tends to superbly mix string writing with whatever contemporary sound was popular at the time. His musical background is somewhat informed by his training at the Royal Academy of Music, but like John Barry’s, also by his own pop and jazz recordings. Fortunately, we now have a chance to hear samples from all aspects of this great composer in this first collection of his music. This is an amazing set that features television, film, pop singles, and concert music amassed over three discs.

Disc one features music exclusively from the 1960s television classic, THE AVENGERS. The main and end title music bookend a series of tracks all making their first appearance on CD here. Many of the selections are specific opening music sequences for individual episodes. Musical selections cover seventeen episodes each with distinct musical features. The first selection, “Treasure Hunt” from the episode “Dead Man’s Treasure,” is perhaps best described as a combination of 1960s pop with a Vic Mizzy sound familiar to fans of American television of the same period. But this not the primary sound of the succeeding tracks which feature musical depictions of different time periods with interesting eerie sounds (in “Escape in Time” or “Hidden Tiger”), a delightful somewhat humorous march (from “What the Butler Saw”), ethnic musical inflections (for “Honey for the Prince”) in a “Fantasy Dance” with Eastern musical insinuations, science fiction styles (in “Invasion of the Earth Men”, “Return of the Cybernauts”, and “The See-Through Man”), horror music styles (“Joker” “The Living Dead”), or even pastiches of popular music (“Joker”, “Quick Quick Slow Death”). There is a host of spy music and tension building underscore for a number of the other episodes included as well to follow the many mysteries investigated by the Avengers team. The set would be highly-recommended for the inclusion of this disc alone which is an excellent companion to other 1960s television music making it to CD (i.e. THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.). One does get a sense at Johnson’s versatility in scoring for the series being able to create music more specifically for each episode that fans will probably be able to recall with great fondness. The disc plays rather smoothly as a listening experience with a freshness that belies the age of the music and it provides an overview of the variety that Johnson brought to this series. Each track is provided a subtitle and includes a brief explanation of how or where the music was used in the episode. The sound is crystal clear and beautifully imaged throughout.

The second disc of this collection is the most varied. It is set in four distinct sections covering television themes, pop singles, film themes, and concluding with a five movement symphony. The eight television themes presented here run the gamut of 1950s lush string writing (THIS IS YOUR LIFE), a Mizzy-esque lightly scored theme (ANIMAL MAGIC), and 1970s jazz and pop styles (THE NEW AVENGERS, THE PROFESSIONALS). A series of wonderfully scored singles from the Johnson band demonstrate a complete mastery of big band and swing styles. The selections begin with the first two commercial recordings issued under the composer’s name with covers of “Hallelujah” (a Vincent Youmans tune) and Kern’s “Pick Yourself Up.” Petula Clark fans will find her rendition of “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” an amazing jazz performance for the then 21-year old unknown. Johnson’s styles are similar to those being explored here by Billy May and Nelson Riddle in their arrangements, though there is a lot more playfulness in these selections. This group finishes off with an arrangement of Neal Hefti’s “Buttercup.” Film music fans then get a chance to hear a wide sampling of Johnson’s 1960s film music including the familiar “Final Bomb Run” from DR. STRANGELOVE to the opening very classic film style a la Holst for the “Main Title” of FIRST MEN IN THE MOON. The earliest selection is a beautifully crafted theme from Tiger Bay (1959) and the latest comes from 1975’s HEDDA. Throughout these selections one hears Johnson exploring classic film styles and melding them with his jazz arranging styles with results that are unique from those being explored here by Bernstein or North. The films cover science fiction, romance, documentary, period drama, and screwball comedy (a Baroque-styled jazz titles selection from HOT MILLIONs). The final segment of the disc is given over to a half-hour, five-movement symphony subtitled “Synthesis.” The work uses a large symphony orchestra (with triple woodwinds) and a jazz group melding together the sounds of a jazz band with orchestra which was a big deal in 1969 when the work was composed. The groups are set up separately and though the work bears the title “symphony” it sounds often like a modified concerto grosso with the opposing groups creating a unique musical experience. This is not out of the Schuller third stream school of composition. Johnson takes these ensembles and casts his material in both styles almost like a conversation between the classical and jazz sounds. Formally, things are a bit freer for the opening movements with a beautiful central adagio framed by two scherzos (an intriguing blend of big band with West Coast lightness). His orchestral writing is similar to his narrative film scoring style (a bit lighter than Malcolm Arnold’s pop-styled concert pieces). The jazz styles are fabulous 1950s/1960s styles with gorgeous saxophone playing recalling Stan Getz albums from the period. Overall this is a fascinating piece and a real surprise find that will bear repeated listening. If you are a fan of the much later Claude Bolling chamber orchestra suite, you will be blown away by this far superior work. This is easily the strongest of the three discs included here whose variety makes it the most enjoyable. Some of these selections predate their more well-known counterparts in American jazz which is worth noting as one listens to these pieces whose freshness may be otherwise lost.

The final disc displays yet another aspect of Johnson’s creative output. It features an ample portion of music composed for military band with patriotic undertones. The first selection commemorates the 25 th anniversary of the Falklands conflict starting with a traditional “Fanfare for the High Prince of Wales” before moving into a classic British march style (more Goodwin than Walton or Holst) with a wonderful closing harmonic progression. The “Royal Tour Suite” follows and was written to accompany the Queen on her visit to America for the bicentennial celebrations. It includes an opening fanfare, a rich arrangement of “Greensleeves,” and a final march with nice syncopated rhythms against a catch tune (including an organ in its final pages!). It is a far more intricately scored piece which deserves a place on concert band concerts. A work featuring mostly trumpets and drums, Echoes, is the most recent composition (2007) and explores historic military band sounds. The final work is the three-movement To the Few written to commemorate the 50 th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. The first movement, “Scramble,” recalls the underscoring of the flight sequences of many WWII films. It is followed by a slow dance number reminiscent of 1940s band music with prominent clarinets (“Juke Box”). The final movement, “Fly Past,” is a brass driven main theme with woodwind interpolations set in fast four-beat rhythm pattern that zips along the engaging lyrical lines in the outer segments. The second portion adds a full chorus and organ with moving lyrics and gorgeous harmonic writing that slows down considerably (one does wish here for a coda that returns to the opening material though). The disc will be of interest to those who enjoy concert wind band music and one wishes that it had been filled out as well in its timing as the previous two discs. Throughout is some extremely difficult and perfectly idiomatic writing for trumpets. The recording is nicely-detailed with woodwinds a bit more recessed in places than in American band recordings.

This late 2007 import release is selling for around $25 and is a wonderful historical document covering this lesser known, in America, composer. A recent semi-autobiographical book by the composer would be worth picking up as well to further enjoy the wealth of music presented here. Would that more of our film composers could create similar career overviews of their music with such loving care as is seen in this release.


--Steven A. Kennedy , 19 August 2008

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