There are precious few jazz movies, even fewer half-decent ones. Round Midnight, with...
John Eyles 2002
There are precious few jazz movies, even fewer half-decent ones. Round Midnight, with its portrayal of an ageing American exile in Paris, is one of the very best ever made. Essential elements of its success are Dexter Gordon's bewitching central performance plus Bernard Taverniers direction and screenplay. Despite that, this soundtrack won the films only Oscar, for Herbie Hancock. However, the actual music is most usually praised in the context of the movie - the authentic 50s club atmosphere that it helps create is vital to the film rather than in its own right. This reissue provides an opportunity to reassess it.
Hancock assembled a stellar company that was also something of a Blue Note reunion; they include the classic pairing of Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums, John McLaughlin on guitar, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Wayne Shorter on saxes, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Cedar Walton on piano, Billy Higgins on drums, Pierre Michelot on bass, and Bobby McFerrin on vocals. Although they did not aim for faithful reproductions of late 50s jazz, they could not include obviously anachronistic elements. This can give the music rather a mannered feel. There is often a sense of the musicians playing in role, rather than letting go and being themselves. Ironically, one of the best tracks, the Hancock composition "Bérangéres Nightmare" is the most anachronistic; dissonant and rhythmically inventive, it would have been revolutionary in 1959.
This album should really be credited to Hancock, not Gordon. The pianist's arrangements, rhythm playing, solos and compositions underpin the whole venture. His duo with Hutcherson on "Minuit Aux Champs-Elysées" is an understated gem. Despite Gordon's starring role in the movie, he is not central to the music, appearing on less than half of the tracks. He produces a pleasantly languid version of "Body and Soul", but his best performance here is the bonus version of "Round Midnight", which is from his 1976 Homecoming album, nothing to do with the movie at all!
On the two tracks where he appears - a tenor joust with Gordon on the up-tempo "Una Nocha Con Francis", and particularly with his soprano playing on "The Peacocks" - Wayne Shorter steals the sax honours. The most poignant track here is "Fair Weather" with Chet Baker typically fragile on vocal and trumpet. Although the central character in Round Midnight was based on an amalgam of Bud Powell and Lester Young, he contains elements of Baker's own notoriously self-destructive personality.
All of the music here evokes the period well, but it is ultimately best enjoyed as a soundtrack, with the added pleasure of the visuals. I'd recommend you to get the DVD or video not the CD.