Cool Jazz Scores You Need To Hear

Oliver Lunn

Part of the joy of watching movies, for me, is discovering new music. It was through cinema that I was first introduced to the howling, idiosyncratic tunes of Tom Waits (Down By Law). It was in a darkened room where I was first introduced to Miles Davis’ inimitable horn skills. Cinema and jazz, it seems, go together like pepper and eggs. 

Speaking of Miles Davis, his seminal score for Louis Malle’s 1958 noir classic Lift to the Scaffold (aka Elevator to the Gallows) is once again echoing in everyone’s minds as the film is being re-released on February 7th. With that in mind, we’ve put together the ultimate jazz playlist for all you cool film cats out there. Ya dig?

Shadows (dir. John Cassavetes, 1959)
(Score: Shafi Hadi)

Originally, director John Cassavetes intended to have jazz maestro Charles Mingus do the score, but apparently Mingus failed to meet various deadlines set by Cassavetes so was dropped and presumably wrist-slapped firmly by the director. Filling his shoes was Shafi Hadi, a jazz tenor and alto saxophonist known for his recordings with Mingus. Hadi's improvised score for the film, which captured the youthful gusto of the Beat Generation circa 1957, earned him plaudits and soon after landed him back in Mingus' hip clan. 

Anatomy of a Murder (dir. Otto Preminger, 1959)
(Score: Duke Ellington)

If you watch Preminger's courtroom drama with a beady eye you might spot famed pianist Duke Ellington, in the role of Pie-Eye. On Duke's score, one music critic had this to say: "Though indispensable, I think the score is too sketchy". Sketchy?! Pah, that's exactly why it's so damn great, dude. 

Down By Law (dir. Jim Jarmusch, 1986)
(Score: John Lurie)

Although John Lurie provided most of the film's atmospheric score, Tom Waits's catchy numbers ('Jockey Full of Bourbon' and 'Tango Till They're Sore' from Rain Dogs) ultimately stick in your head after the curtains close. Both musicians starred in the film and, each with their own unique yet similar artistic vision, were key in evoking that sweaty, languid Deep South vibe. If Jim Jarmusch, John Lurie and Tom Waits formed a band, you can bet it would be the best band on the goddamn planet. 

She’s Gotta Have It (dir. Spike Lee, 1986)
(Score: Bill Lee)

Spike Lee's old man, Bill Lee, provided his son's stellar debut feature with its heartbreaking, sombre score. His bass skills heightened the poignancy of Ernest Dickerson’s monochrome cinematography, while his own head popped up briefly as Sonny Darling. Bill scored his son's first four films but the pair never collaborated again following Bill's arrest in 1991. 

Taxi Driver (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1976)
(Score: Bernard Herrmann) 

Possibly the catchiest on our list, Bernard Herrmann's pulsating jazz score (sadly his last) is moody as hell and wonderfully brings to life 70s New York City, in all its grimy glory. Like the best of Angelo Badalamenti's scores for David Lynch, Herrmann's music transitions from dark and brooding (as a lone Travis lugs his cab around during the early hours) to sweet and romantic (as a love-struck Travis eyes Cybill Shepherd's Betsy in the street). Scores like this come around once in a lifetime.   

Breathless (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)
(Score: Martial Solal)

A few deep notes on a piano. Who knew it would become so iconic? Martial Solal's score is equal parts frenetic and romantic, soundtracking the spine-tingling romance between the American in Paris, Patricia, and Humphrey Bogart wannabe Michel. If I ever learn the piano, these will be the first notes I attempt to play. 

The Conversation (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) 
(Score: )

In contrast to the simple piano tapping of the Breathless score, this is some advanced up-and-down, super speedy piano-caressing, but yet totally chilled at the same time. Like the film's protagonist, the music is lonely, tentative and intelligent. A classic.    

Lift to the Scaffold (Louis Malle, 1958) 
(Score: Miles Davis)

In terms of jazz and film, this is pretty much unsurpassable. I mean, not only did it herald the dawn of jazz as a go-to score for the film noir genre, it was actually pivital in the progression of Miles Davis' career, earning him countless accolades and pushing his near-boiling creativity ever further. 

Permanent Vacation (dir. Jim Jarmusch, 1980)
(Appearance by John Lurie)

Let's talk about sax, baby. Watch John blow his horn, and swoon. 

Lift to the Scaffold is re-released in UK cinemas on 7 February.

Main image via.

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