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CHECKMATE (1960)

Music composed by Johnny Williams.

Tracks 1-12 (CHECKMATE) (Playing Time = 34:17)

Tracks 13-24 ("Rhythm in Motion" )(Playing Time = 34:21)

Original Albums Produced by Jim Harbert. CD Producers: Didier C. Deutsch and Richard King. Execuitive Producer: Lukas Kendall. Mixing/Mastering Engineer: Richard King. Tape Research: Matt Kelly and Mike Kull. CD Album Notes by Jeff Eldridge.

CHECKMATE and Rhythem in Motion both previously released on Columbia Records LPs in 1961. Music recorded at Columbia Records, Hollywood, California.

CD Art Direction by Joe Sikoryak. CHECKMATE Consultant: Jon Burlingame. CD notes by Jeff Eldridge.

Film Score Monthly Vol. 9, No. 8

Rating: ***

 

As an admirer of John Williams scores, including when he was known as "Johnny" Williams, I was intrigued by this new release from Film Score Monthly, the first TV soundtrack featuring only the music of Williams. And it was worth the wait for the CHECKMATE soundtrack album to be released on CD. The other LP included is less of a milestone and more of a filler.

CHECMATE was a TV show running only two seasons in 1960-61. There were three stars: Anthony George (Don Corey), Doug McClure (Jed Sills) and Sebastian Cabot (Dr. Carl Hyatt). Many guest stars also appeared on various weeks, such as Peter Lorre, Mickey Rooney, and Donna Douglas (who played a Checkmate secretary).

As Jeff Eldridge's very through CD notes explain: "While Williams's music for the show did involve jazz, it was not, strictly speaking, a jazz score." He continues to tell about the TV series theme "heard each week as the credits appeared over a mesmerizing background of amorphous, swirling patterns--was prepelled forward by a reapeting 12/8 electric guitar ostinato, but the melody was introduced by unison French horns before being handled off to blaring big band brass." This main theme (2:14)is a similar style to Henry Mancini's milestone 1958 TV score for PETER GUNN, in which Johnny Williams played piano. In fact much of the CHECKMATE has echoes of Mancini's fluid melodic style in it. For example, the second track, "The Isolated Pawn" (3:25), with its use of solo piano and subtle flute in a sustained pattern for the ensemble, who are made up of the following musicians:

4 trumpets (Conrad Gozza, Pete Candoli, Frank Beach, Ollie Mitchell)
3 trombones (Richard Nash, Richard Noel, Lloyd Ulyate)
3 horns (Vince DeRosa, Richard Perisi, John Cave)
4 saxophones (Ronjald Langiner, Ted Nash, Gene Cipriano, Charles Gentry)
solo piano (Jimmy Rowles)
solo guitar (Robert Bain)
percussion (Shelly Manne, Jerry Williams)
bass (Joe Mondragon)

The TV soundtrack has plenty of interesting thematic twists. There are slower cues, like "Fireside Eyes" (3:12), featuring a lovely muted trombone played by Dich Nash, with piano fill-ins provided by the accomplished Jimmy Rowles. That is followed by the catchy, upbeat cue known as "The Bishop's Retreat" (3:13). Some of this technique would be used much later in Williams film scores focusing on jazz elements, such as the 2004 film, THE TERMINAL. The use of the same instrumentation, such as use of his favorite French horns, has been used in many Williams film scores.

Though lasting less than 35 minutes, CHECKMATE is very pleasant music for casual listening, but hardly has enough to satisfy those used to the later Williams film scores, especially those composed for the STAR WARS films and the HARRY POTTER series.

The second half of the FSM CD is devoted to 12 popular songs and was described by LP producer Jim Harbert this way:

"It was the year that stereo was getting very strong--ping-pong stereo, Enoch Light, that period. We planned a whole series of '...in Motion' albums...trying to get into that market. That fad passed rather quickly."

This is the song list and tracks:

13. "Fascinatin' Rhythm" (2:47)
14. "The Varsity Drag" (2:44)
15. "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top" (3:09)
16. "Let's Do It" (2:49)
17. "Put on a Happy Face" (2:12)
18. "Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets)(3:42)
19. " Johnny One Note" (2:14)
20. "An Occasional Man" (3:22)
21. "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" (3:15)
22. "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries" (2:54)
23. "Sunny Disposish" (2:24)
24. "Buckle Down Winsocki" (2:58)

Listening to these charts written by Johnny Williams, I'm struck by how ordinary they sound. It's very much in the same style of big band brassiness, like Billy May, Neal Hefti, or Nelson Riddle. Sure the playing is hot and swinging, but these particular pop tunes don't come off so well in the process. Many of them are Broadway tunes which don't translate to such brassy arrangements. Strangely, many of these Williams arrangements sound like they would fit perfectly in a Boston Pops program. Maybe that's why Williams led that Boston institution for over a decade and is now its Laureate Conductor. I wonder how many of these arrangements have been programmed in Boston Pops concerts.

The stereo sound is excellent on this CD and Joe Sikoryak has done his usual outstanding art design work on the CD booklet.

This CD is worth having mainly for CHECKMATE to hear the beginnings of the world's most famous film composer as he transforms himself, like a butterfly, from TV composer to film score master. It might be said that CHECMATE was his caterpillar stage. But it still has the elements that would be found later in the great film scores.

--Roger Hall, 1 June 2006

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