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Vol. 2-50 Years of the Music of Laurie Johnson

50 Years of the Music of Laurie Johnson, Volume 2

Music composed and conducted by Laurie Johnson.

Disc One: 52 Tracks (Playing Time = 71:06)

Disc Two: 25 Tracks (Playing Time = 75:48)

Disc Three: 9 Tracks (Playing Time = 62:42)




Features the London Studio Symphony Orchestra, the Laurie Johnson Orchestra, the London Brass Chorale, the Band of the Coldstream Guards, RAF Central Band, RAF Squadronaires, London Big Band, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Also featuring Guy Barker, trumpet, and Tommy Whittle, alto saxophone (in the concerto); Lord Bernard Miles, narrator, and William Davies, organ (in THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO). 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 UK 2021

Rating: ***1/2


Laurie Johnson fans continue to receive another surprise this year with the appearance of this second volume of music from one of Britain’s finest film composers. As the first volume likely caught the eye of a generation familiar with his work in the 1960s THE AVENGERS television series, this one will catch fans a bit younger since it is focused on music from THE PROFESSIONALS, and includes more music from Johnson’s other television, film and concert work. The bulk of which comes from the 1970s.

THE PROFESSIONALS was a bit grittier 1970s crime drama following two members of Criminal Intelligence 5 as they investigated high-profile crimes and fought terrorism. The ample disc features the main title theme and a selection of music from twelve episodes, making its CD debut here. For this series, Johnson focused on the addition of guitars and drum sets often creating his own unique take on the urban police drama. Brass predominates along with interesting little musical effects spread throughout. The music is often like a long late 1970s jazz session with some rock music elements from the period. The style of the series’ theme perfectly encapsulates the musical style of much of the music included here. Some string ensemble support appears, but the arrangements tend to focus on electronic keyboard sounds, brass (with some great trumpet work), and winds. The music is very much typical of its period paralleling other television work for similar programs. Johnson brings his own unique musical stamp which often allows for interesting orchestral color and a wonderful hybrid of jazz styles making this a quite listenable disc. Unlike THE AVENGERS disc (from volume one) which featured more scene specific cues, most of the tracks here are simply labeled by section labels. There is plenty of great music here to enjoy though.

Like its predecessor volume, the second disc features a variety of music from Johnson’s television, recording, film, and concert work. The most popular of the four television themes presented here is likely for JASON KING, but fans of the REN AND STIMPY show will recognize the pizzicato portions from HAPPY GO LIVELY. Four selections from Johnson’s commercial recordings are among the most enticing choices with superb session musicians captured at their best throughout, featuring the drum work of Phil Seaman. Johnson’s commercial records bear a personal stamp that recalls some of John Williams 1960s arrangements with his orchestra, especially those soaring French horns. The inclusion of well-composed woodwind flourishes really make some of these pieces engaging musically. The classic Christmas song “Winter Wonderland” receives one of the best arrangements you might hear and makes you wish Johnson would consider releasing additional holiday covers.

The central portion of the disc features more substantial portions of music from two film scores. The first is from the 1964 Ray Harryhausen fantasy, THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON. Apart from the “Main Titles, the disc focuses primarily on music from the second half of the film. The music included here features some of the more bizarre scenes featuring the many monsters that appear. Johnson’s style here is quite similar to that of his close friend, Bernard Herrmann, featuring motivic ideas with very odd scoring choices that lend the music an otherworldly quality. There are some moments as well that recall the visceral energy of Stravinsky. The score is otherwise similar to that heard in other Harryhausen films for the most part and it is unfortunate that all of the score could not be made available. The other score represented here is for HEDDA (1975). Johnson ‘s music for this film finds a way to underscore the character’s need for romance while also getting to the heart of the repression of the title character. The disc concludes with an interesting Concerto for Trumpet, Tenor Sax and Orchestra cast in three movements. The first is an opening “prelude” that features a more freer form with a jazzy angular theme. Strings hang under the texture while the soloists take different aspects of the motivic ideas of the theme and add improvisational qualities.

The orchestra seems a bit further recessed in the sound picture while the drum set and soloists are recorded more like a traditional combo. Johnson does manage to find interesting ways to play with the tone color of his chosen solo instruments and percussive energy tends to almost overwhelm the orchestra. (Moments of this piece often reminded me of Eddie Sauter’s arrangements for Getz’s classic Focus album but with a bit more edge.) A gorgeously romantic slow movement is warmed by a lusher string orchestration and more winds appear as well providing nice harmonic shifts. Some segments tend to feature the orchestra just holding chords while the soloists create variations on the thematic improvisations. Johnson tends to be more interested in subtle color shifts than any larger formal considerations here and this works to disadvantage in these sometimes meandering long movements that come close to reaching a real climax before falling back unfulfilled. The final movement is more of the same. It is still brilliantly orchestrated music that has some delightful moments but the thematic ideas are not engaging enough to sustain the flow. This is not helped by some sloppy trumpet playing(intonation and difficulty in upper registers is obvious in several places). The work feels more like random film and television music forced into a concert dress and comes off as a pops trifle. (Note that this is not the case with Johnson’s wonderfully engaging Symphony found in volume one.)

Disc three focuses on more music for concert and military band. There are two multi-movement suites for band followed by an extensive symphonic-style poem that adds narration and an organ to depict The Battle of Waterloo. The first suite, Three Paintings by Lautrec, is a real delightful light work almost like a Leroy Anderson pops piece (especially the opening “At the Circus”) with wonderfully engaging themes and a real command of the sound of the band in classic style. Like other good band pieces it allows for lyrical contrast in its second waltz movement (“Girl with the Red Hair”) shifting the themes to a richer wind harmonization with brass getting a bit of a rest (though there is a beautiful trumpet thematic statement). The final movement is a ragtime number with a bit more fun for the percussion section, and the addition of a banjo to the texture (artificially miked). For the next suite, Colours, Johnson incorporates the sound of a traditional big jazz band and combines those sounds in this concert band version (though with the addition of a harp it has some unusual additions to the traditional complement). This is a mostly successful suite helped by fine and committed performances that capture some of the many older styles presented throughout as Johnson returns to some of the arranging styles of his earlier commercial music days. The Battle of Waterloo is a massively conceived tone poem that includes historic snippets of actual brass fanfares and calls used during the battle appear. The narration helps provide a good overview of the battle, adding a personal aspect through a first person narrative from the Duke of Wellington’s own dispatches and other contemporary commentary. A work that is likely quite effective on stage as the sounds come from differing parts of the large amassed brass ensemble, the separation in this recording still manages to recreate the ongoing calls back and forth quite well. The final selection on the disc is a tone poem that takes its title from it inspiration: The Wind in the Willows. The piece is an interesting musical essay with its roots in English impressionism, but with a more contemporary musical language that resembles Johnson’s fantasy film music.

Overall this is a great set of music for fans of TV, film, or contemporary classical composition (especially that for wind band). What is unfortunate is that more detailed information is not provided. It would seem if the composer wants to be recognized for setting trends or writing music that would later become popular elsewhere that he would want to give session dates for the pop recordings. The classical pieces only occasionally give dates of composition which makes it more difficult to appreciate them historically. While we can admire the breadth and scope of Johnson’s output, film music fans would probably want more of that music represented on disc than these other catalogue curiosities, interesting though some are. Each disc has its own booklet (suggesting that they may be sold individually at some point) with less information this time than in volume one, though there are more extended paragraphs taken from Johnson’s recent book about his musical life, notes by Christopher Palmer are also undated. These are small quibbles though for this otherwise superb overview of Johnson’s music and one which has even more to recommend it than its predecessor volume. One eagerly awaits volume 3!


--Steven A. Kennedy, 18 August 2008

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