March 2000

Route 66: That Nelson Riddle Sound
Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops "Big Band" Orchestra
Telarc CD-80532
Released: 2000

by Srajan Ebaen

Musical Performance ***
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ***

[Reviewed on CD]For every successful remake of an undisputed classic -- say Sabrina with Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond -- there are countless movie-from-a-movie adaptations that fail miserably. While its makers clearly intend to have the original’s halo transfer intact and burn the brighter with modern FX and production values, most such efforts pale in ailing hues of sickness precisely because of the unavoidable comparisons they invite. "Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke" still is a good piece of advice. On the other hand, you can’t condemn a priori those impudent enough to appropriate a proven recipe just because they’re convinced they can push it further still. Maybe they don’t hope to outdo the original. Maybe they’re content to merely but sincerely pay homage. Is a tribute not a worthwhile endeavor? Or do such attempts pay lip service only while intending by association to prompt the unsuspecting consumers into buying on impulse? We’ve all fallen for it numerous times. A movie ad sets up the automatic response by quoting sure-fire hits -- from the producers of Aliens and Die Hard -- while disguising the fact that financial investors and fund raisers have little to do with creative artistry.

So Riddle me this: Can classic swing numbers made famous by Old Blue Eyes himself, now orchestrated for big band under the able baton of the most successful Billboard Classical Crossover artist of all time, be truly a worthwhile thing? Proudly quoted in the pre-publication press kit by Telarc’s PR department, Erich Kunzel’s phenomenal sales don’t necessarily equate musical maturity. Billboard is a barometer of popular taste. Democracy and free-market policies insist that the lowest common denominator can win by sheer volume. Raw popularity doesn’t guarantee quality even though it can be nearly synonymous at times.

Case in point: Would you want to listen to adaptations of Beatles songs for string quartet even if they were immaculately performed by ardent devotees who named their kids Ringo and Paul? Would you groove to Bob Marley hymns arranged for piano and orchestra as this very label attempted a few months ago?

Upon some honest reflection, I think I have the answer. If the music’s played well and you can forget the original or never knew it to begin with, yes, such tribute albums can be enjoyable. And Route 66 is played more than well, it is masterfully suave big-band swing, top-drawer stuff if you fancy the kind. As with all music originally intended for dancing, it’s best enjoyed on the dance floor. The physical activity will overlook the absence of vocals easier than pure listening can. Had I been a consultant on this project, I’d advised Telarc to contract one of the many singers currently working the clubs in Las Vegas who are fully versed in the style of Nelson Riddle. The appearance of some smoky vocals would have added immeasurable to the inherent appeal and turned what I peg as merely average for sit-down listening into a real gem.

The current swing movement and its devotees, younger folks not around to hear the original Frank Sinatra tunes, should really dig this album while gliding around the parquet in dapper finery with partner in arm, reliving a particular period of American music history. At home and in the background, drinking a fine old Port whilst contemplating the changing twilight through the terrace windows, this album will instill nostalgia in those remembering the real thing. Listened to it on its own merit, I suspect that most will find Route 66 charming, but it won’t last for many exits before they grab a different avenue to their destination of true musical satisfaction. Enjoying it while actually driving, you’d probably stay with it through the end and have a grand time.