Shelly Manne: Checkmate

The previous item about the Blackhawk triggered thoughts of Shelly Manne (1920-1984) and the quintet he led in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. As chance would have it, this morning I encountered videos of a superb edition of that band. The pieces are from Manne’s 1961 album Checkmate. The drummer’s group had pianist Russ Freeman, trumpeter Conte Candoli, tenor saxophonist Richie Kamuca and bassist Monty Budwig. For the 2002 CD reissue of the album, I wrote this summary:

Long before he composed the music for Jaws, the Star Wars series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and dozens of other major motion pictures, John Towner Williams was Johnny Williams, jazz pianist. He began writing for films and television in the early 1950s, and in much of his earlier work the jazz influence was still strong. Shelly Manne worked with Williams on Hollywood sound stages and was taken with his music for the TV series Checkmate. Manne adapted seven of Williams’s themes from the show for his band, Shelly Manne & His Men. Because Williams was tuned in to trends in jazz, some of the pieces reflected modal approaches recently taken by forward thinkers like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. “The King Swings,” as an example, is nearly identical in form to Coltrane’s “Impressions.” Accordingly, Manne and his quintet, one of the best small groups of the 1960s, plumb Williams’s unusual television music for all of its considerable improvisational possibilities.

Here is “The King Swings” from a1962 installment of the excellent Jazz Scene USA program hosted by Oscar Brown, Jr.

Budwig and Freeman introduce “The Isolated Pawn,” also from the Checkmate album. The modal bent is again strong. Candoli’s muted trumpet may not be the only thing that reminds you of another quintet of the era.

Concord seems to have dropped Checkmate from the OJC catalog. It has become an expensive collectors item, although used copies of the CD or LP occasionally pop up for less than twenty dollars.

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  1. David says

    Several years ago I saw Williams interviewed on television. Asked about possible rivalry with another Hollywood composer, Andre Previn, Williams remarked that he was a better jazz pianist than Andre. I haven’t heard enough of Williams’ piano playing to reasonably speculate on how close to the truth that statement might be, but skepticism is obviously warranted. Also active in that period was another John Williams, an excellent jazz pianist who recorded with Stan Getz and many others.

    At first I thought that the article was going to be about an album that I have which includes a track called “Checkmate.” However that album is The Gambit and was recorded in ’57 with the same rhythm section but with Mariano and Williamson on sax and trumpet. The “Checkmate” on that album is part of a suite by Mariano.