In James Ellroy’s neo-noir classic L.A. Confidential (1990), later adapted into a film starring Kevin Spacey, Russel Crowe and Guy Pearce, a mass murder is committed at the café joint, The Nite Owl, which later makes the straight-arrow lieutenant, Edmund Exley, infamous. The film, interwoven with great music from the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, Dean Martin and Chet Baker, also has two themes scored by composer Jerry Goldsmith.
Goldsmith’s famed score for Badge of Honour, a snappy, pseudo-noir jazz tune, lasts all of 21 seconds before the album propels into a series of great, classic songs straight out of the 50s detective era. Dean Martin’s The Christmas Blues is a staple song for the holiday season, while Chet Baker’s Look for the Silver Lining and Baker’s and Mulligan’s Makin’ Whoopee encompass old world jazz and charm. Mulligan’s The Lady is a Tramp is a golden work, followed by Kay Starr’s passionate number one hit Wheel of Fortune.
Goldsmith’s main theme for the movie, L.A. Confidential, opens with a sentimental, orchestral/jazzy sound, with a soaring atmosphere that eventually turns into the famous gritty tune complete with ominous drums. The jazz score in the background adds depth to what could have become a typical Hollywood score. The upbeat, spicy tunes are characteristic of the time in which they were recorded: the post-war era eager to add optimism and flair to an otherwise pessimistic situation. Despite the lightness with which Mulligan and Baker tear it up (as they often did at the legendary joint ‘The Haig’), this soundtrack is a darker ode to jazz.
Meanwhile, for those looking for jazz with a slightly more peppery tone, there is Thomas “Spats” Langham’s music, the soul of which is captured brilliantly in his The Night Owl: Spats Langham and his Hot Combination album. Langham’s work sounds like Django Reinhardt rediscovered, or possibly reinterpreted.
The first track, ‘leven Thirty Saturday Night sounds as though it’s pouring straight out of a Woody Allen film soundtrack, most notably Enoch Light and the Charleston City All Stars’ Ain’t She Sweet from Allen Midnight in Paris (2011). Langham’s Melancolia, meanwhile, reminds me of Stephanie Wrembel’s Bistro Fada from MIP. Langham and Allen would do well to work on a project together.
Langham’s peppery banjo injects a bit of neo-western ‘silent movie’ flair into the music. Sing Song Girl provides an oriental twist on the album, with a subtle 50s twist. The track the album is named after, Night Owl, is a romantic, Spanish themed winner; drunken and soft with lazy chords and poetic lyrics, the sound trips off the disk (sadly a CD format only), and infuses the room with atmosphere. Moanin’ Low is a bittersweet lost-love serenade with the vocal styling’s of Debbie Arthurs, who sounds similar to Mama Cass Elliot in Dream a Little Dream, with smooth, velvety vocal chords. While Ghost of the St. Louis Blues provides pep and a dark, slightly sinister rockabilly sound. Combining sounds of Parisian, Spanish and American music, Langham’s work is a global fiesta of intricate, eccentric styles.
The two albums offer similar interpretations of jazz, both conveying its necessity in various other genres. Goldsmith and Langham show how jazz as a periphery note functions especially well, not just as the sole sound (no pun intended), highlighting the genre’s underestimated, subtle stint in the music world. Like cinnamon in cooking, it offers something subtle but powerful.