Review: Mark Crooks plays Mandel




Leon Nock gets a mellow afterglow from the Mark Crooks Quintet's presentation of the music of Johnny Mandel at London's Pizza Express

Like, I suppose, most other non-musicians in the UK, I first became aware of Johnny Mandel – now basking in his ninety-second year – via his heavily jazz-inflected score for the Oscar winning (Best Actress: Susan Hayward) film I Want To Live, in 1958.

He next surfaced in my particular ocean when Johnny Mercer crafted an exquisite lyric to Mandel’s equally exquisite melody Emily for the film The Americanization Of Emily, released in the UK in April 1965, followed a year later with what is arguably his best-known ballad The Shadow Of Your Smile (lyric: Paul Francis Webster) from what was, hands down, the worst of the three films (Emily being the finest) The Sandpiper.

To make it four aces on the bounce, in 1970 he composed the theme for the movie M*A*S*H which provided prime anecdotal fodder when director Robert Altman allowed his teenage son Mike to provide a nonsense lyric, Suicide Is Painless, which subsequently netted him millions.

Because my first musical love has always been the popular song personified by titans like Cole Porter rather than modern-day pygmies it was relatively easy for me to chronicle Mandel’s career in terms of popular song but had I been more of a serious jazz buff in my youth I may well have been cognizant that, after studying at Juilliard, he was active a good two decades prior to I Want To Live, having played trumpet with Joe Venuti in 1943 and trombone with Boyd Raeburn, Buddy Rich, Georgie Auld, Jimmy Dorsey and Chubby Checker. By 1953 he was back on trumpet as well as writing charts for the orchestras of Bob Cooper – and, by definition, behind June Christy – and Count Basie as well as a stint on bass trumpet for Zoot Sims. Original compositions around this time included Not Really The Blues (1949) for Woody Herman, Hershey Bar (1950), Pot Luck (1953), for Stan Getz, Tommyhawk (1954), for Chet Baker, and Straight Life (1953), and Low Life (1956), for Count Basie.

With a CV like that it’s not difficult to understand why Mark Crooks (pictured above right) – who can himself boast a tasty CV if anybody asks you – was moved to offer an evening of Mandel material and lay it on an appreciative audience at Pizza Express on 6 March.

By the time you read this, Mark Crooks Quintet Plays Johnny Mandel will be jockeying for a place in the ether somewhere between the Gettysburg Address and Bransby Williams declaiming The Green Eye Of The Little Yellow God but I’ll be happy to give you my take on it. I don’t have that much use for white bread writing but in a nod to clarity I’ll name-check the quintet because for one thing they’re well worth naming. At the piano Gabriel Latchin, barely out of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and already acknowledged as a comer; on the bass Simon Thorpe, a leading light in Midlands jazz; on the drums, Matt Home, of whom nuff said and on guitar a man with a CV that can give Mark’s a run for its money, Colin Oxley. In the unlikely event this is your first time with Jazz Journal allow me to say that Mark Crooks blows the bejesus out of both clarinet and tenor (last time I used that word in JJ one of the colonels from the shires had a hot flush so I could be going to bed supper-less again).

The five guys named Yo laid an even dozen numbers on us, a fairly even split between ballads, bouncers and "was that a mazurka?" seven of which I namechecked in my once-over-lightly of Mandel’s CV. A sucker for ballads I kvelled when they unleashed Emily and Just A Child but there was not a lot wrong with El Cajon, the MASH theme … aw, what the hey, it was a great gig, period.

As head honcho Mark had the lion’s share of the licks as well as contriving to trade some tasty fours, but he also saw to it that everyone had his moment in the sun. All in all a gig that left a mellow afterglow.


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