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The Cool World

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Album Review

Finally available again after a 30-plus year absence from American shelves is the soundtrack to Shirley Clarke's gritty but brilliant 1964 film, Cool World, about young people growing up in Harlem. The score was written and arranged by pianist Mal Waldron but was performed and recorded by Dizzy Gillespie's quintet of the time. This set is one of Diz's best records of the 1960s (which is saying something), and one of the best jazz film scores period. Diz's band at the time included James Moody on tenor and flute, a young Kenny Barron on piano, bassist Chris White, and Rudy Collins on drums. The 11 cues that range between two and five minutes are deeply rooted in the language of hard bop and blues with some excellent, if brief, modal touches by Waldron. The opening theme, the set's longest cut, sets out all the tropes the quintet will visit over and again; lean, tough, expressive blues. Barron's piano sets out a fast, hard swinging groove that sets a pace for the cut time, skittering snare, and frenetic bassline; they urge the two horn players to wail the head and they do. The three solos are as intense and popping as anything on Blue Note at the time, and offer a portal into the rest of the set. The blues articulation of every cue here is on purpose because, if anything, Cool World is a film drenched in them. Waldron's sense of economy in picking both impressionistic and expressionist avenues for blues to speak through jazz in an inspired quintet like this is remarkable — the temptation would be to excess at every turn, especially given Waldron's gift for sophisticated harmonies and spacy lyrical concerns. There is little that is subtle about this music, but there is nothing overblown about it either. Check the happy-go-lucky flow of "Enter Priest," which signals the arrival onscreen of Duke's (main character) mentor: though he is an underworld figure and a gang leader, his outward appearance to Duke, and his first impression of him, is one of freedom and admiration. The free-flowing cut-time rim shot from Collins and the breezy, open horn section underscores this; Duke's eyes are wide and happy because he thinks he's found a way out of his predicament. On "Duke's Awakening," Waldron deviates — momentarily — from the blues/hard bop lexicon. He uses a minor-key modal theme in the intro before unfolding a slow blues. Waldron follows this with a stunning hard bebop cue called "Duke on the Run," that echoes back to the '40s in its unrelenting action and pace — though Moody's solo is a deeply soulful one. There is also the wonderfully lilting "Coney Island," (where the main character escorts his Bonnie, his love interest, to the seashore, it's her first time seeing the ocean despite having grown up in Harlem). The open octave spill between saxophone and muted trumpeter are the character's voice, and the drums and bassline become the sea and sand — the only place the pair is free is on the shore. Moody solos on flute to outline just how different this moment is than either character has known before. Ultimately, the soundtrack to Cool World is an enormous success artistically, standing head and shoulders over virtually every other such effort of the period, and a welcome addition to the Gillespie catalog, offering a very keen and muscular view of his 1964 band. Previously available only as a very expensive import, this disc is a must for anyone interested in '60s Gillespie and in hard bop jazz in general.


Born: October 21, 1917 in Cheraw, SC

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s

Dizzy Gillespie's contributions to jazz were huge. One of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time (some would say the best), Gillespie was such a complex player that his contemporaries ended up copying Miles Davis and Fats Navarro instead, and it was not until Jon Faddis' emergence in the 1970s that Dizzy's style was successfully recreated. Somehow, Gillespie could make any "wrong" note fit, and harmonically he was ahead of everyone in the 1940s, including Charlie Parker. Unlike Bird, Dizzy was...
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