Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Listen to the Mockingbird


Today’s formative-album replay: The Sting: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. My parents heartily regretted taking me to this movie when I was 5 years old, less for its labyrinthine hustlers’ plot than for the indelible scene in which the fetching brunette with whom Robert Redford has just had a casual one-night stand with gets plugged in the forehead by a gloved assassin on the street the next morning. They didn’t regret buying this soundtrack album, though, which more than any single record may be credited with my youthful wish for a piano, granted just a few years later (a used Baldwin, price tag: $1,000). I didn’t immediately take up ragtime on that old 88, as my piano teacher would only teach classical music; it wasn’t until many years later, in high school, that I taught myself Scott Joplin’s “Solace,” which remains the only instrumental piano piece I can still play through by memory.

This revisit was a homecoming, in other words, to a soundscape as integral to my childhood as the summer whine of cicadas. And it's a convivial place to return to: Like Henry Mancini’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s soundtrack, this soundtrack is digestible as a collection of complete tunes rather than chopped-up bits of score--diegetic music in spirit, if not in practice (I don’t recall how the songs were used in the film). As a child, of course, I didn’t register the inspired anachronism of using vintage ragtime in a Jazz Age setting; it was all “old time” music to me. Now, even as I can parse the differences among the Joplin originals, Marvin Hamlisch’s Sousa-fied orchestrations of same, and assorted dips into burlesque, Big Band, and hot-club jazz, the whole thing hangs together as tightly as a shave-and-a-haircut cadence.

The record has two basic modes, ebullient and elegiac, of which I’m roughly equally enamored. I’ll grant that the irrepressible brightness of some of the uptempo tunes--“Pineapple Rag,” “Easy Winners”--can edge into a glare, and the sugary simplicity of the album’s biggest hit, “The Entertainer,” wore out its welcome for me decades ago. That Joplin hit, though, does sit neatly on the cusp of the album’s divided weepy/cheeky spirit, and it’s accordingly mined for its rubato pathos as much as its chin-up pluck. Topping the wistful side of the ledger, of course, is “Solace,” a sad tango aching with apoggiaturas and suffused with longing--Chopin by way of Chaplin. I’d forgotten how wittily Hamlisch breaks that tune's bones and grinds them into the whimpering hangover variation, “Luther”; woodwinds have never sounded so winded. And I was especially happy to revisit “Little Sister,” a perfect bon-bon featuring some jazzy pirouettes by fiddler Bobby Bruce which surely paved my way to Reinhardt/Grappelli swing. Clearly I have to credit The Sting with more than simply pointing me to the keyboard.

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