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Henry Mancini's Film Soundtracks

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I love Henry Mancini's film scores. I could listen to them all day, and I often do when writing. There's something about his music that makes you feel cool when the orchestra swings and reflective when the strings sigh. But there's more for me. I saw my first film in 1963—It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, which wasn't scored by Mancini. I was 6, and the movie was a pretty big deal when it came out. It featured so many characters you felt you were in it. Around that time, nearly all feature films were in color, which was necessary given the rise of television and need to compete for audiences. Whenever I hear Mancini's scores (The Pink Panther and The Great Race, for example), they remind me of those days, when a movie theater was the only place you could see the moving image in color, which made everything on the screen seem juicier and more personal.

As I write in today's Wall Street Journal, Mancini was starkly different from most film composer-arrangers who preceded him. Many had been trained in the European tradition, and their scores labored under the weight of Old World pomposity and density. Mancini, by contrast, had been seasoned by the efficiency of big bands, the psychology of mood music and the hipness of jazz. As I write in the paper, Mancini's scores “expressed a new American modernism that embraced simplicity, sleekness and space. Mancini's music was streamlined for sensuality, with many of his soundtracks becoming more memorable than the film’s actors and plots."

This week, Sony releases Henry Mancini: The Classic Soundtracks—an 18-album set on 9 CDs that features remastered classics as well as albums that haven't been in print for some time. The set is terrific if you love Mancini, though some of his '70s material is a bit heavy on screwball numbers and daffy incidental music rather than his signature slinky jazz themes. 

Among the unexpected joys in the box are High Time (1960), Experiment in Terror (1962), Gunn (1967), The Party (1968) and Me, Natalie (1969). The classics are Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Charade (1963), The Pink Panther (1963) and Two for the Road (1967). All of the others feature plenty of bright moments but are a bit heavy on novelty numbers.

All in all, the Mancini box is a trip back to a period in time when his music helped audiences understand the characters on the screen, and even wacky ones meritted theme music.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find the Henry Mancini: The Classic Soundtracks boxed set (Sony) here.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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