Dreams of New York

I’ve had a lot of fun with this superb compilation CD New York City: Manhattan Moods (RIGHTEOUS PSALM 23:43), the latest from the UK Righteous label and another revelation in terms of orchestral easy-listening hidden treasures from the US which are new to this listener. The CD compiles three items, starting off with the Moondog eight-track release On The Streets Of New York, which I think probably came out as a ten-inch LP originally. Already quite familiar with this early piece from the life of the famed blind composer who liked to be out on the streets, and it’s got the glorious mix of his stark percussion music with traffic sounds and the hooters of river boats. Slightly odd of course to find this “art music” in mixed company with short LPs from Gordon Jenkins and Morton Gould, but given the New York theme it makes perfect sense. Jenkins’ Views From The Manhattan Tower (original on Capitol records, 1956) is another one of those quasi-cinematic LPs, blending songs, spoken words by actors and actresses, and instrumental portraits of the Manhattan cocktail-party high-life. Its narrative ambition is truly something that boggles the mind, as the listener is swept from one vignette to another in these fast-moving miniatures, depicting a whirlwind romance that even a modern speed-dater couldn’t hope to match. Six tracks by Morton Gould from his Manhattan Moods (Columbia, c. 1950 we suspect) LP close down the record, offering us that perfect syrupy dose of instrumental music that is both cloyingly sentimental and strangely moving, what with its ‘Nocturne’ and ‘Park Avenue Fantasy’ titles suggestive of tinted postcards from an urban paradise now all but vanished. Personally I always trip out on the rich and amplified sound of the orchestras on these 1950s records, and the infidel inside me sometimes wonders why classical music records can’t emulate this very full and ample surface, but I suspect it’s because it’s too “popular” and too “processed”.

The same day I spun this it so happens I also watched On The Town on Film Four, which likewise spins a delirious dream of life in New York City and also has a very lush orchestrated soundtrack, courtesy of the great Leonard Bernstein, although not all of his original music was used in this 1949 Hollywood version of the Broadway success. Without being able to pinpoint exactly why, I find some connections between the music here and that on the Morton Gould LP – there’s the same wistful longing and gorgeous stirring chords, particularly during the movie’s wordless ‘A Day In New York’ ballet fantasy sequence. I always enjoy On The Town (along with Singing in the Rain and An American In Paris of course) and have long wondered why this all-time American classic has never been cleaned up and remastered for a proper DVD release, particularly as the vibrant colours are starting to look a bit washed out on the print we normally see on TV. While I love the energy, the sassy characters, the dancing and the songs, I also gotta admit it’s not really a great storyline and half the time the narrative doesn’t really know where to put itself. This viewing however I was struck by a singular image of the three sailors and their dates on top of the Empire State building, with the camera filming them from below and showing a sharp perspective of the tower behind them, doubtless arrived at by studio composite methods. Yet it’s beautiful – a masterpiece of artificial lighting and colours, and it’s got the same unreal and dreamy qualities you can hear on the above CD.