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Ellington's score still celebrated

By MARK STRYKER • Free Press Music Critic • January 20, 2009

Though heard only in bits and pieces during the film, Duke Ellington’s score for “Anatomy of a Murder” contains some of his most evocative and eloquent music. The sound track, reissued by Sony in a deluxe edition in 1999, beckons with the alluring scent of a femme fatale.


The score, which includes a small contribution by Billy Strayhorn, is recognized by film historians as a landmark -- the first significant Hollywood film music by African Americans comprising non-diegetic music, that is, music whose source is not visible or implied by action in the film, like an on-screen band. In a “History of Film Music” (Cambridge, $24.99), Mervyn Cooke writes that “Anatomy” avoided the cultural stereotypes that previously characterized jazz scores and rejected a strict adherence to visuals in ways that presaged the New Wave cinema of the ’60s.

Musically, the score employs a handful of themes, endlessly recombined and re-orchestrated. Ellington never wrote a melody more seductive than the hip-swaying “Flirtibird,” given an irresistibly salacious tremor by alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. A stalking back-beat barely contains the simmering violence of the main title music. Everything carries the scent of the blues and Ellington’s orchestra bursts with color.

“Anatomy of a Murder” came three years after Ellington’s celebrated 1956 comeback at the Newport Jazz Festival jump-started the final phase of his career.

Though indispensible, I think the score is too sketchy to rank in the top echelon among Ellington-Strayhorn masterpiece suites like “Such Sweet Thunder” and “The Far East Suite,” but its most inspired moments are their equal.

Contact MARK STRYKER at mstryker@freepress.com.

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