Often movie soundtracks feature an "all star" roster of artists; sometimes this approach works, and other times it can disappoint. One instance where the approach truly gelled was on 1986's soundtrack for Round Midnight. Featuring a who's-who of jazz legends and emerging talent, it represents the rare album that stands alone from the film.
Round Midnight tells the story of self-destructive tenor sax player Dale Turner, played by real-life musician Dexter Gordon. Dale is invited to play in Paris, where jazz is even more revered than in the US. There he meets a Parisian fan determined to rescue him from his demons; the rest of the film explores their developing friendship and Dale's brief revitalization as an artist. While the film alone is poignant, mostly due to Gordon's amazing performance, the soundtrack dazzles even more. It reignited Gordon's career as well as trumpeter/vocalist Chet Baker's, and it introduced Bobby McFerrin to a larger audience.
In addition to the aforementioned people, get a load of other guest appearances: Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Pierre Michelot, and Wayne Shorter. The group works amazingly well together, complimenting one another and granting each other ample solos (particularly for Gordon).
The album begins with an astounding version of Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight" featuring a gorgeous vocal by McFerrin. Anyone who still thinks of him as the "'Don't Worry, Be Happy' Guy" should listen to his artistry on this track, with his trumpet-like vocals floating over Hancock's moody piano. The duo reunite on the Hancock and Stevie Wonder-penned track "Chan's Song (Never Said)," a beautiful instrumental that captures the intimate spirit of the film.
Actress Lonette McKee proves her singing chops on "How Long Has This Been Going On?" which showcases her deep, rich voice. Drums, bass, and piano subtly back her, evoking the sadness of the Gershwins' lyrics. But the most heartbreaking cut has to be "Fair Weather," with a clearly fragile Baker singing lead and playing trumpet. Ravaged by drug and alcohol abuse, he slightly slurs over the words, adding world-weariness to such lyrics as "It will know that hate will die and love will win." Knowing that Baker would soon pass away, hearing him sing "Gabriel will blow as he never has blown before/There'll be fair weather, together side by side" is a sobering experience. His heartfelt performance gives the impression that Baker somehow knew his time was getting shorter.
Not all of Round Midnight evokes sadness, however. The group jams on Monk's "Rhythm-A-Ning," with Cedar Walton's piano leading the band in hard bop. "Una Noche Con Francis" has an almost Latin rhythm, with Gordon's saxophone effortlessly gliding over the rapid rhythms. Shorter's fluttering sax dominates Jimmy Rowles's "The Peacocks," whose tone does evoke a bird in flight. Hancock's "Bérangère's Nightmare" has an edgy, jumpy quality, with some quick tempo changes. John McLaughlin's guitar picking assumes a major role, with Billy Higgins's drums and Michelot's almost frenetic bass adding to the nervous tone. It's one of my favorite tracks off Round Midnight for its originality and quirky quality.
Henri Renaud's "Minuit Aux Champs-Elysées" provides a lovely showcase for Hutcherson's exquisite vibes, while Hancock's "Still Time" allows Gordon to display his artful saxophone playing skills. His melancholy tones set the tone for this quietly powerful tune, one of the other highlights of the soundtrack. Gordon's finest moment, however, is reserved for the classic "Body and Soul," which proves why he was a vastly underrated artist until the film's release.
Round Midnight represents a great deal to me, as it cemented my love of jazz. It shows how emotionally powerful music can be, and the universality of jazz's lyrics and overall message. In addition, the album highlights the broad spectrum of jazz, from hard bop to quiet introspection. Some of the artists on Round Midnight are no longer with us, and this work is a testament to their legacy. Listen to this underrated album, and perhaps you will begin a long love affair with jazz, too.