June 2004

Henry Mancini - Ultimate Mancini
Concord Records CD-CCD-2237-2
Released: 2004

by Joseph Taylor

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

If you're a baby boomer (or thereabouts), Henry Mancini rattles around in your musical memory more than you realize. If you doubt me, play the first track on Ultimate Mancini, the new tribute CD to the eminent film composer on Concord Records (a CD/SACD hybrid featuring a 5.1 mix will be available in the next few months). The opening piano trill, cymbal splash, and ascending vibraphone line from "The Pink Panther Theme" will bring back as many memories of the '60s as songs by pop singers you still listen to often. Mancini’s work registers so strongly in part because it appeared in so many films from the '60s and '70s, but also because his melodies were staples of the FM easy-listening radio our parents played in the kitchen.

Henry Mancini was born into a musical family in 1924. He attended Julliard and, after a stint in the Air Force during World War II, joined the Glenn Miller-Tex Beneke orchestra. Mancini took a job with the Universal Studios music department in 1952 and began work as an independent composer and arranger in Hollywood in 1958. That year he did the music for Blake Edwards' TV detective series, Peter Gunn, the first of 26 film and television scores Mancini would do for Edwards. He wrote music for countless other movies and TV shows, and Ultimate Mancini centers on work which received awards or award nominations from the motion-picture and music industries. Mancini, who died in 1994, earned four Academy Awards and 20 Grammy Awards.

Mancini’s daughter Monica is the featured performer on the disc, and she sings on nine of its sixteen tracks. Her voice is clear and pure and shows the hallmarks of careful training. Her eponymous 1998 debut was also a tribute to her father, and it included the songs she sings here, with different arrangements. Monica isn’t a jazz vocalist, especially on this disc, where she sings with great feeling but doesn’t allow herself much interpretative liberty. She does the songs straight, in the way a pop singer like Eydie Gorme or Vikki Carr would. She demonstrates impressive control over her voice -- you can’t help but notice how careful her breathing is and how measured her phrasing. She avoids the excesses of current pop divas and, therefore, impresses by her restraint and her respect for the melody.

Jazz critic Gene Lees, who co-authored Mancini’s autobiography, noted that, "More than any other person, he Americanized film scoring." Mancini often used jazz in his scores and some of his best -known melodies swung beautifully. Ultimate Mancini uses the composer’s original arrangements and the "The Pink Panther Theme" shows how he convincingly he could blend lush strings with big-band horns. The tune gives Joey DeFrancesco and Plas Johnson (who played the distinctive sax line on the original recording) a chance to show off their chops. The classy strings and Latin percussion that open "Charade" give way to a very witty, very '60s fuzz guitar line and a jazzy interlude, with the opulent melody remaining in the foreground. What makes these tunes so enjoyable is Mancini's knack for bringing a high level of craftsmanship to music that is so much fun.

In addition to DeFrancesco and Johnson, a number of featured musicians do good work on Ultimate Mancini. Tom Scott adds some very nice touches to "Moment to Moment," "Peter Gunn Theme," and "Dreamsville." Kenny Rankin's duet with Monica Mancini on "Dreamsville" is a high point of the disc. Stevie Wonder's distinctive harmonica and Take 6's vocals don't really dispel the notion that "Moon River" is easy listening, but it's a solid arrangement, done well. The quality of the playing throughout Ultimate Mancini is first-rate and the recording serves everyone well. It’s a big, spacious recording that captures the smallest instrumental detail even in the most heavily arranged selections. In two-channel it’s stunning, so I imagine a 5.1 mix would be worth waiting for.

There were some surprises here for me. I expected to like "The Pink Panther Theme" and "Peter Gunn," but I wasn’t quite prepared for the wit, fun, and melodic cleverness of "Charade" and "Mr. Lucky" (great solo by De Franceso). I wouldn’t have expected "Anywhere the Heart Goes (Maggie’s Theme)" from The Thorn Birds to stay with me, but it did, in part because of Monica Mancini’s fine vocal, but also because her father was incapable, it seems, of writing a hackneyed melody. Henry Mancini was a class act and so is this tribute.