East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Turntable: In Phil Marlowe’s Shoes

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The first post in the Turntable series was so consistently ignored, one would be tempted to just close the lid of the record player and forget about the whole thing, but I actually like the idea of talking, here on my blog, of a different form of storytelling… and then I prepared a banner for the series!
I can’t use the banner just once, right?
I might as well do another post and see if something changes…

The old Ricordi music store in Via Roma/Piazza CLN, Turin, was on three floors – at ground floor they had pop and rock records, downstairs in the basement they had classic and opera, and upstairs they kept jazz and blues. If you happened to visit the store on a Saturday afternoon, you’d get crowded in the pop and rock section, but in the classic and jazz departments there would be precious little people, and air conditioning.

The jazz shop upstairs was also graced by an extremely pretty sales girl, with frizzy blonde hair and Harold Lloyd glasses, and one day as I was hanging out among the jazz stalls, this girl put on a CD.
It started with Humphrey Bogart ringing a doorbell and asking for Colonel Sternwood, before moving to a very smoky jazz ballad. I traded a look with the girl at the counter, then asked her what that record was.
It was Always Say Goodbye, by the Charlie Haden Quartet West.
It was 1994.

The first track has a very “means streets” sort of vibe that is a perfect introduction to the the hour-long follow-up set. I bought the record, and I was hooked.

Charlie Haden was a legend in the jazz scene of the second half of 20th century (seriously, check out his Wikipedia entry), the man that revolutionized bass playing in jazz, first with his Liberation Music Orchestra, then with countless collaborations with giants of jazz, and finally with the Quartet West, a “fun project” built on Haden’s and his collaborator’s passion for the old ’40s and ’50s atmospheres.
The Quartet’s lineup included

  • Charlie Haden – bass
  • Ernie Watts – tenor saxophone
  • Alan Broadbent – piano
  • Larance Marable – drums

The records of the Charlie Haden Quartet West are often built as soundtracks for movies that do not exist. Always Say Goodbye is one of these – a set that talks about rain-slick pavements and night alleys, directly inspired to the works of Ray Chandler and the hardboiled and noir mythology of the post-war years.
And if you ever listened to the soundtrack of the old Mike Hammer TV show and wished for more, well, be my guest.

The period feel of the music is achieved with a series of neat tricks.
The set is book-ended by snippets of Hawk’s The Big Sleep, as I mentioned – that was what caught my attention back then.
Then, some of the pieces feature strings backing the quartet, and this gives the music that classic movie soundtrack sweep.
Finally, Haden picked a few items from his record collection and mixed the tracks in the CD, so that his quartet accompanies and interacts with great performers of the past, blurring the time frame. Here you get,anìmong others, Stephane Grappelli, as a guest musician, in a duet with his younger self and the great Django Reinhardt.

The end result is a love letter to classic hard boiled, but also something more, as this was built as a soundtrack: there is an underlying story, one that we can try and imagine based on the titles of the tracks and the musical suggestion, one we can piece together.

  1. Introduction
  2. “Always Say Goodbye”
  3. “Nice Eyes”
  4. “Relaxin’ at Camarillo”
  5. “Sunset Afternoon”
  6. “My Love and I [Love Song from Apache]
  7. “Alone Together”
  8. “Our Spanish Love Song”
  9. “Background Music”
  10. “Ou Es-Tu, Mon Amour? (Where Are You, My Love?)”
  11. “Avenue of Stars”
  12. “Low Key Lightly [Variation on the Theme of Hero to Zero]”
  13. “Celia”
  14. “Everything Happens to Me”
  15. Ending

What’s the story?
The Big Sleep can be the inspiration but it’s probably Out of the Past that this record references, or possibly The Long Goodbye – there’s a returning theme of a lost relationship, of an idyllic time south of the border that’s past, and a main character that’s trying to put the pieces back together.

This is a night-time record, the sort I like to put up after sunset, with the windows open, and a cool drink.
When I was in Turin, I looked at the lights of the city from my balcony, and felt a little hard-boiled myself.
These days, when the countryside is silent, I listen to it while reading an Hard Case novel or something by Hammett, Chandler, Spillane…

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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