Ennio Morricone, now and then

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There was something sweet about Ennio Morricone getting a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars on Sunday night, watching him sit impassively with his wife by his side and Quincy Jones one seat over—wearing one of the ugliest tuxedos ever made—and getting emotional when he gave his acceptance speech in Italian. But there was nothing sweet about the performance of “Knew I Loved You” by Celine Dion—a ballad from Once Upon a Time in America that was given lyrics last year and opens a strange new album called We All Love Ennio Morricone (Sony Classical). The album features a truly bizarre hodge podge of musicians fronting several different orchestras on popular themes written by the maestro over his long career (he’s scored more than 500 films). Among the guests: operatic cheese ball Andrea Bocelli, smooth jazz trumpeter Chris Botti, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, Bruce Springsteen, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Brazilian singer Daniela Mercury with the great arranger/keyboardist Eumir Deodato, classical vocalist Renee Fleming, and, oh yeah, Metallica. While the range of talent certainly speaks to Morricone’s broad appeal, the album is kind of a train wreck, albeit one perfectly timed to coincide with the Oscars and the composer’s first ever U.S. concert at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

Morricone is, of course, best known for the spaghetti western scores he created for filmmaker Sergio Leone—movies like For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly—that are instantly recognizable thanks to the twangy guitars, sound effects, wah-wah’d brass, and dynamic arrangements. But he’s been more successful scoring a wide range of mainstream films, from The Mission to The Untouchables to Cinema Paradiso, in a more conventional fashion. In 2005 I wrote about a killer collection called Crime and Dissonance of his more outré work (Morricone has scored all kinds of obscure genre flicks in Europe that most of us would know nothing about), but most overlooked in career overviews was his participation in the radical Italian free improvisation ensemble Gruppo Di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, which formed in 1964. Each member was a composer, but their work was all improvised.

Last year the fantastic Italian label Die Schachtel released an elaborate box set—beautifully packaged with 2 CDs, a DVD, and a thick booklet—called Azioni that featured some powerful, rare recordings that showcased the ensemble’s grip on extended technique in the improvisational setting. (They may even predate similar discoveries made in England by guitarist Derek Bailey with the Joseph Holbrooke Trio.) There’s little surprise the general public knows nothing about this phase of Morricone’s career—where he was mostly playing trumpet—because it’s pretty out there. (On the other hand, I don’t know why GDINC aren’t more famous among fans of experimental and improvised music—maybe their academy training cursed them in such eyes.) Conventional elements like melody and fixed rhythms weren’t concerns of the group, who instead explored texture, dynamics, and careful interaction, but if you’re open to this sort of thing I’d say this item is worth its hefty price tag ($58 from this mail-order source). Once you hear it you’ll cringe even more knowing that Morricone would choose to be represented on American TV by a gloppy, overwrought tune sung by Dion.

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