The great film music composer, conductor and performer Henry Mancini, whom Donald Fagen called the "High Priest of Hollywood Cool," has now been gone for ten years. In commemoration of this and the 80th anniversary of his birth, this is the Year of Mancini. The U.S. Postal Service will issue a commemorative stamp on April 13, 2004 and a first day issue dedication ceremony will at the Music Center Plaza in downtown Los Angeles. The same day there will be a "Tribute to Henry Mancini" at the new Walt Disney Concert Hall, hosted by Julie Andrews and Senator John Glenn, with performances by Michael Feinstein, Jeanne & James Galway, Quincy Jones, Monica Mancini and John Williams. Wow.
And at the center of all this is a great new recording, due out March 23 on Concord Records, Ultimate Mancini, a rerecording of some of Mancini's Oscar and Grammy-nominated compositions (72 Grammy nominations, 20 awards; 18 Academy Awards nominations, four Oscars), with his daughter, vocalist Monica Mancini, the Ultimate Mancini Orchestra under the guidance of Patrick Williams, and guest stars including Stevie Wonder, Take 6, and Kenny Rankin.
Saving the best for first, the album opens with Mancini's ubiquitous "The Pink Panther Theme," with saxophonist Plas Johnson reprising his classic prowling feline lead from the original, recorded 40 years ago, as well as adding a growling solo in the middle. Adding to the hypercool nocturnal mysterioso mood are Hammond B-3 organist Joey DeFrancesco and vibe-man Gary Burton. DeFrancesco runs wild over the keyboard like a cat on a hot tin roof before the orchestra recapitulates the pungent main theme. Purrrfect.
Similarly bespeaking mystery, sweetened with a kiss of romance, is the orchestral "Charade," with Latin rhythms and a hint of arabesque in the familiar melody. Stevie Wonder's sliding, swooping chromatic harmonica presents the touching melody of "Moon River" before Take 6 take over with their flawless jazzy harmonies, against which Stevie riffs with an almost audible smile. It almost made me forget Andy Williams.
Monica does a clean, warm job on the lightly Latin ballad "Moment to Moment" against some dramatic alto work by Tom Scott, that never lapses into melodrama. Scott also rocks a taut, swinging, audacious "Peter Gunn Theme" that reeks of big suits, gun molls, and tough talk. "Dear Heart," another timeless melody, gets a gentle, classical guitar and strings arrangement behind Monica's vocal. Michael Lang lends elegant piano to a lovely That's Life-Victor/Victoria-10 movie medley. A very fine tribute.