While you may not be aware of the Mancini-related events planned to celebrate the legendary composer’s contributions to American culture, as well as to American music and film, by summer of 2004 you will be. In the works are a 60-city concert tour with his daughter Monica; the donation to 30,000 U.S. high school music departments of a CD-ROM featuring arrangements of his compositions; a concert hosted by Julie Andrews and John Glenn at Walt Disney Music Hall in Los Angeles; the issue of a new Mancini-dedicated U.S. postage stamp in April.... and the release of Ultimate Mancini on Concord Records.
As a tangible reminder of the breadth of Mancini’s talent, Ultimate Mancini succeeds. As a recorded souvenir associated with the year’s events, Ultimate Mancini would fulfill attendees’ need to take away a permanent sampling of the music heard during concerts. As a showcase for artists affected by Mancini’s songs, Ultimate Mancini is effective through its range of participants, who--except for Monica Mancini and the Ultimate Mancini Orchestra led by Patrick Williams--appear no more than twice, typically in brief segments.
A very busy studio singer in L.A., Monica Mancini now has recorded her third CD for Concord, lavishly produced and perhaps the one to receive the most exposure. As an interpreter of her father’s songs, Mancini, who of course has her own insights into his music, breathes life into the lyrics of such well-known--actually, such Academy-award winning--tunes like "Dear Heart," not to mention those of less recognized ones like the Meggie’s theme from the TV production of The Thorn Birds.
However, on "Dreamsville," a sleeper of a song from Peter Gunn that has gone on to be recorded as often as the TV show’s theme itself, Kenny Rankin takes the lead with right-on pitch and more legato attention to notes than expected before Monica Mancini joins him in a duet. "The Pink Panther Theme" is special because the saxophonist on the original recording, Plas Johnson, appears once again, to be joined by Concord recording musicians Gary Burton and Joey DeFrancesco. When the liner notes reveal that Stevie Wonder is on "Moon River," speculation leads one to expect him to sing. But no, Wonder plays the harmonica part--and only the harmonica part--leaving the singing to Take 6 as they prismatically break the original purity of the song into multi-hued richness that thankfully doesn’t approach the plainness of Audrey Hepburn’s wistful singing in the movie.
Proof of the endurance of Henry Mancini’s music is that fact that his theme songs have remained more memorable than the television or cinematic productions that set up their visual components or their sentiments. A generation later, everyone immediately identifies the "Peter Gunn Theme" from its first two measures, but the show itself is no more memorable than "Mr. Broadway." (Who starred in either of those shows? And what legendary musician wrote the theme song for "Mr. Broadway"?) Who can remember the plot of "Two for the Road," and who can forget the theme song? Ditto for "Moment to Moment". Who doesn’t associate "Baby Elephant Walk" (which Don Byron recently revived) with the image of a baby elephant’s walk, and who can remember what John Wayne was doing when he swaggered through "Hatari"?
And then there are the Mancini themes inextricably intertwined with the shows. "The Pink Panther Theme" animated The Pink Panther during the opening credits and even launched The Pink Panther as a successful product endorser for many years. Such a simple vamp in fifths, and such an indelible hook. "The Days of Wine and Roses" helped revive Jack Lemmon’s career, but the movie can’t be thought of without likewise thinking of the unforgettable theme song.
The Academy Awards broadcast occurs in less than a week. Chances are that very few of the nominated "best songs" are known by the viewing public. Chances are that no one will remember that winner a year from now. Even some of the most successful of the present film composers like Danny Elfman, despite their talent for characterizing a scene, can’t claim the imaginations of movie-goers and TV-watchers as successfully as did Mancini. Eventually, Mancini’s music has been absorbed by the entire culture as he incorporated elements of jazz, popular music, visual musical cues, the American songbook and orchestral sweep as appropriate to the composition at hand. In this, the "Year of Mancini," Ultimate Mancini is but one element, albeit an important one, in the celebration of one of the twentieth century’s great film and TV score composers, who is missed but never forgotten.