A quick throwback to one of John Williams’ most incredible works as arranger in his early days in Hollywood and how it still reverberates into his current work
by Maurizio Caschetto
At the moment of the writing of this piece, John Williams is rehearsing with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein for the concerts he will perform on March 12 and 13, 2022. After the historic European debut in 2020 and the dazzling performances in Berlin in 2021, Maestro Williams is returning to the cradle of classical music, i.e. the city of Vienna, to conduct a program featuring his beloved film music, but also his recent Violin Concerto No. 2, a major work composed specifically for Anne-Sophie Mutter that premiered last summer at Tanglewood. The choice to feature a spotlight on music written for the concert stage in this context is another milestone in the career of John Williams, who is being recognized by one of the world’s greatest musical institutions not just as a composer of great music for film, but as a composer of great music tout court, without distinctions of genre, style, or purpose.
Beyond this very important acknowledgement that finally is breaking down the walls of cultural prejudice built by classical music intelligentsia throughout the decades, it’s interesting to reflect on how the seeds John Williams’ artistic greatness were planted very early on in his career and what we’re seeing now is the marvelous, rich harvest of a life spent in pursuit of excellence and staying true to his own love for music nurtured since childhood. In this regard, it’s interesting to find the surprising and beautiful connections between an ambitious concert work like the Violin Concerto No.2 and one of the composer’s most dazzling early works as arranger and orchestrator in Hollywood, a collection of jazz charts recorded and released more than 60 years ago on an album called Rhythm In Motion.
The album is a great testament of the first steps of John Williams as a young, up-and-coming composer in Hollywood. After a few years spent working mostly as a session pianist in film orchestras in the late 1950s, Williams started getting his first works as arranger and composer both for film and television and the thriving recording industry of the era. His classical formation, coupled with his impressive knack for jazz, equipped him as an ideal figure for creative arrangements exploring new textures and interesting instrumental combinations. At that time, Williams was also writing music for the detective television series Checkmate (1960), which featured a killer jazz-based title theme in the vein of Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn (on which Williams performed the now-iconic low piano solo introduction, by the way). The arrangements showcased a composer very much in tune with the jazz sensibilities of the era, but at the same time applying techniques of the classical repertoire into his own charts, similarly to what popular composers/arrangers like Nelson Riddle and Gil Evans were doing in the same years. In this regard, Rhythm In Motion is an absolute masterpiece of highly creative arrangements which sparks a new, shining life to standards from Broadway and Hollywood.
Rhythm In Motion was conceived by Columbia Records producer James Harbert as a vehicle for the talents of a young John Williams, who just signed a contract with Columbia and produced a soundtrack album based on his music from Checkmate, which went to become an unexpected commercial success and put the composer on the map of the recording industry. “Everybody dug that album—New York and all over,” recalled Harbert in 2006. In the early 1960s, the recording industry was in the middle of a revolution brought by the success of pop and rock ‘n’ roll perfomers, but there was still a market available for refined jazz recordings and sophisticated concept albums. Rhythm In Motion offered the chance to experiment with newly-available stereo recording techniques which producers hoped would help selling more records. “It was the year that stereo was getting very big—ping-pong stereo, Enoch Light, that period.” said Harbert. “We planned a whole series of ‘…In Motion’ albums… trying to get into that market. That fad passed very quickly.” While Checkmate album featured all John Williams compositions, Rhythm In Motion was a collection of standards from Broadway (primarily songs from the 1920s and ’30s), including tunes by George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hammerstein. “John and I got together and chose the songs,” continued Harbert, “and he put together a wonderful orchestra”. As it happened for the Checkmate soundtrack album, Williams gathered some of Hollywood’s best jazz players including Pete Candoli, Shelly Manne, Dick and Ted Nash, Gene Cipriano, Bob Bain, and Jimmy Rowles. Williams’ orchestrations are conceived for a large jazz big band augmented with traditional symphony orchestra instruments like tuba, harp and French Horn (among the players we find legendary studio musicians like Vince De Rosa and Dorothy Remsen), having the sax players doubling on oboe, bass clarinet and flute, and expanding also significantly the percussion section, in which we also find Williams’ father, John Sr., and his brother Jerry.
Williams’ charts are incredibly complex and vibrant, often adding horn countermelodies, complicated woodwind passages (prefiguring some of his virtuosic film scores of a decade later), with percussion and harp often doubling some of the main lines or even having their own spotlight. Williams also features solo writing for trumpet, piano, guitar and saxophone, showcasing the brilliance of the above-mentioned instrumentalists. The opening cut of the album (George and Ira Gershwin’s “Fascinatin’ Rhythm”) is an absolute masterpiece in this regard, in which Williams also plays creatively with dissonance and changing rhythmic patterns.
All the charts found in the album contain bizarre and creative arrangements that sound fresh and exciting still today (some of these were even repurposed and performed by Williams with the Boston Pops in the 1980s and ’90s, like “The Varsity Drag” and “Buckle Down Winsocki”). Williams’ take on Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” is another example of the composer having fun and experimenting at the same time, adding harp, tuba and piccolo to create a unique musical tapestry.
Some of the orchestration techniques used in these charts were Williams’ way of paying homage to composer Claude Thornhill, one of his childhood musical heroes and considered one of the progenitors of the sophisticated jazz sound also known as “the cool” (Gil Evans was one of his pupils), who used traditional orchestra instruments like French Horns in his own jazz arrangements, creating interesting vertical sonorities which were sometime referred as “jazz impressionism”.
And this is the connecting link that brings us to Williams’ Violin Concerto No.2. The piece is the culmination of the artistic relationship between Williams and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who became a muse in this phase of the composer’s career. After a short concert work written for her in 2016 (the wistful composition Markings, for solo violin, harp and strings) and a big collection of new violin arrangements of several film themes that spawned the recording project Across The Stars, Williams embarked on the ambitious venture of writing a new violin concerto expressely for Mutter. The instrument was already the subject of one of his most personal and fascinating concert works (written in 1976 and dedicated to the memory of his late wife Barbara Ruick), but the challenge posed by the soloist pushed him to explore a different character of the instrument with a piece that illuminates Mutter’s unique performing skills, but at the same time morphs into a chance to return to some of Williams’ childhood loves.
In the case of the Violin Concerto No.2, the core of the piece lies in the second movement, where the composer introduces what is the concerto’s sort-of principal theme. In the program notes written for the world premiere of the piece at Tanglewood, the composer says:
In the beginning of the next section or movement, a quiet murmur is created by a gentle motion that I think of as being circular, hence the subtitle Rounds. At one point you will hear harmonies reminiscent of Debussy, but I ask you to reflect on another Claude… in this case Thornhill, a very early hero of mine who, it can be justly said, was the musical godfather of the Gil Evans/Miles Davis collaboration. It is also in this movement that a leitmotif or theme appears, later restated in the Epilogue.
It’s not the first time that Williams pays homage to Thornhill in his music for the concert stage—in 2002, he wrote a piece for cello and orchestra called Heartwood (composed for Yo-Yo Ma) which Williams referred as inspired by “the rich, impressionistic harmonies favored by Thornhill”. And in 2013, Thornhill was one of the subjects of his Conversations for solo piano, composed for Gloria Cheng.
The second movement of the Violin Concerto No.2 contains another exploration of a musical landscape that feels very close and dear to Williams’ heart, this time in the context of a very ambitious work that is already a major addition to the repertoire of the instrument and Williams’ own catalogue of works written for the concert stage.
The charts heard in Rhythm In Motion have a very different character, personality and purpose of course, but it’s fascinating to see the nexus that somehow brings together two apparently very distant worlds, i.e. a collection of arrangements by a 29-year old up-and-coming composer and a major symphonic work for the concert hall written by a venerable master at almost 90. They’re part of the same person, an artist who has not forget to stay in touch with the things that made him fall in love with music in the first place and keeps alive this child-like wonder for music and music-making.
It’s with this feeling that we now embark on our flight to Vienna to attend what promises to be another historic event.
Quotes by James Harbert taken from the liner notes written by Jeff Eldridge for Checkmate/Rhythm In Motion, Film Score Monthly, 2006
Rhythm In Motion available on Fresh Sound Records: https://www.freshsoundrecords.com/johnny-williams-albums/6289-rhythm-in-motion-so-nice-2-lps-on-1-cd.html
Listen to Rhythm In Motion on Spotify