On this blog, his name is cherished. I revere this man. Not a day goes by that I’m not grateful for his positive influence on my life. If I had the means, I’d shake his hand and tell him so personally.
When I hear his name, I think Star Wars. Indiana Jones. E.T. Superman. Jurassic Park. Jaws. Schindler’s List. And the list goes on. And on. And on and on. If you explore some of those scores, he’s got some interesting jazz work laced in there. Most people might automatically think of his “Cantina Band” themes from Star Wars, or Spielberg’s 1941. Modern audiences might be familiar with The Terminal or The Adventures of Tintin. The man is a creative dynamo, and for my money, I think his secret is his jazz roots. That’s the fire in which he was forged, and that’s what keeps him sharp.
Like everyone else, Williams had to earn his stripes. If you go back into his archives, you learn about his work on TV shows like Gilligan’s Island or Lost in Space. Or perhaps you’ve heard of a TV series that Henry Mancini scored called Peter Gunn. “Johnny” Williams, as he was known then, was the piano player on that score. And therein lies the in-road to discover those early jazz years. Oh, the books that need to be written on this man. No, really, someone needs to write those books. In the meantime, there is the internet. Fans talk. Sooner or later, someone spotlights his jazz work, and classic albums get discovered by new fans.
That sort of thing is precisely what this particular blog project is about for me, to spotlight some of my collection and share these gems with those of you who might be interested. I don’t know about you, but I love jazz. The very nature of it is a kind of controlled improvisation. It can be a conversation, or even an argument in some cases, between different players, with the vocals provided by their instruments of choice. That’s assuming, of course, there is no actual vocalist present.
That’s where we begin. Let me first drop in the back of the album cover so you can reference the track list.
Following his service in the Air Force, 24-year-old classically-trained Williams had largely provided piano accompaniment for vocalists. But talent like his must find an outlet, so it wasn’t long before he led up his own sessions. The first CD represents his first jazz recordings from 1956 to 1958. If you want to characterize it, you could simply call it “happy jazz.” It’s virtually impossible to stay in a bad mood while listening to these pieces. The liner notes reference the fact that most of these pieces began life as waltzes, and Williams begins them that way, in three-quarter time, before spinning them into a four-four swing. There is reverence, there is charm, and there is precision. It’s the kind of thing that shows off both his thoughtful understanding of the classics and his talent for the improvisational nature that makes jazz come to life. Fans will want to take special note of track 15, “Anything Goes.” This is the Cole Porter tune that opened his score to Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
CD 2 kicks things up a notch, both in terms of professional seasoning and creativity. Different musical arrangements are used, which shows Williams’ mastery of what different tonal color can bring to works that were already part of the American Songbook at that time. And we already know how he’d bring that skill set to bear later on. Starting with track 13, the instrumentals subside to make way for vocalist Johnny Desmond.
The original album for this was a Desmond spotlight, with Williams and his orchestra given second billing. You have Frank Sinatra to thank for setting that paradigm into motion, and to be fair, it was Desmond’s project. Even so, unless you really know your crooners, we all know who the real star is on these recordings. And that’s really the point: this is Williams leading an orchestra, the bridge between everything else on these discs and the film scores we know so well.
Sadly, I could only find one recording from this album to share with you, a solo piece called “Hello” (CD 1, track 12). Still, I hope you enjoy it all the same. If you do, I would heartily encourage you to seek out more. The genius was there from the beginning. It merely had to have opportunity to develop and shine.