Thursday Sep 20

Notes and tones for film noir as imagined by TV

In its original incarnation, Fallen Angels is a TV series of six half-hour film noir mysteries produced for the Showtime cable network. The stories are set around Los Angeles in the '40s and '50s. This CD of the same title offers a selection of period musical performances used on the TV shows soundtracks. The performances come from the vast archives controlled by Polygram. They're mostly jazz pieces that originally appeared on the Verve, Mercury, Emarcy, and Keynote labels.

Obviously this isn't exactly an "Original Soundtrack Recording" as the cover blandly states. Only two tracks are original works created for the Fallen Angels series: "Main Title Theme" and "End Title Theme." "Main" has the job of setting the mood for the series and composer Peter Bernstein takes it very, very seriously. He calls on veteran west coast tenor sax player Teddy Edwards to intone a deep, dark paean to the mean streets over an ominous yet alluring background of piano and strings. It's far from subtle, but it's effective.

The "End Title Theme" is the figurative end in '50s slang sense as well as the literal end to the CD and presumably to each of the TV episodes. This theme was written by Elmer Bernstein. His jazz-based film score masterpiece was the soundtrack for The Man With The Golden Arm and this short wrap-up piece captures the mood of the era and its soundtrack iconography to perfection. How could it be otherwise?

The two themes--which clearly deserve titles of their own--sandwich a dozen performances of standards and pop tunes by the likes of Billie Holiday, J.J. Johnson, Stan Getz, Benny Carter, Chet Baker, Nat Cole (piano only), Charlie Parker, and Clifford Brown. Most are as well done as you might expect, but Parker's marginal "Why Do I Love You?" gets squeezed between Dinah Washington's lugubrious wailing of "My Heart Cries For You" and Patti Page's fluffy "Why Don't You Believe Me?"

The sound varies with the original source material. The worst of the batch afflicts the J.J. Johnson performance of Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays," one of three versions of that piece on the disc. It's from the familiar 1957 At the Opera House live recording, but with a totally unfamiliar crinkly, squeaky sonic film over it. The two newly recorded "Theme" tracks appear to be encoded for Dolby Surround playback, but the notes make no mention of this possibility.