Nocturne for Ava isn’t the first time such a concept was recorded. Of course, Charlie Haden’s Quartet West of a decade ago received much notice for its determined efforts to explore the nuances of the genre. The Sneider-Locke band previously recorded Fallen Angel, which evidently was so gratifying or so much noirish material remained that Nocturne for Ava just had to follow. Sneider and Locke do have a point that film noir movies often used jazz to create moods of danger, sadness, doubt or sultriness for critical scenes.
Moreover, the instrumentation of the octet supports the feel of the music, with the patina of Locke’s vibraphonic tones adding a gloss to the proceedings and the percussiveness percolating and dampening to a smolder that underlies film noir characters’ motivations. Rather than merely performing the songs as they have been repeated over and over again on other recordings, the arrangers have reworked the material to suit their premises and the personal sounds of the musicians. "Laura" benefits from arranger Locke’s newly conceived flow, arising from pianist Paul Hofmann’s quietly undulating phrase and bassist Martin Wind’s bowed melancholic atmospherics before and after the improvisational sections. Locke transformed the melody itself, stretching and and collapsing it from the confines of metrical regularity. The same is true for Michel Legrand’s "Windmills of Your Mind" when guitarist Bob Sneider perceives it through a quasi-flamenco lens during his introduction. As the song proceeds in unison fashion, trumpeter John Sneider’s harmonic lines enhance its beauty.
Some of the more interesting tracks of Nocturne for Ava are arrangements of exceptional but underplayed gems like the ambling coolness of Johnny Mandel’s "I Want to Live" (made even more famous in the jazz world by Gerry Mulligan’s recordings), with its dense major-vs.-minor tension of augmented ninth chords akin to those of "Sidewinder." And then there’s "Flirtibird" from Anatomy of a Murder, which musically depicts Lee Remick’s sensuous character with sauntering finger-snaping swayfulness. Cannily, Locke and Sneider also call attention to Marcus Miller’s haunting "Los Feliz," written for Siesta, directed by Mary Lambert of Pet Sematary fame. But, as is the case with many movie themes, they become better remembered than the film it embellishes, and "Los Feliz" is noted by jazz enthusiasts for Miller's and Miles Davis’ album with James Walker on flute.
The new compositions for Nocturne for Ava are memorable themes without a movie, which may be just as well when songs like "The Shadow of Your Smile," for example, surpasses the dramatic aspects of The Sandpiper, the movie for which it was written. Locke’s title track is a slowly winding, mysterious, minor-key tune suggesting dark streets and trepidation, and more importantly serving as a excellent showcase for the synthesis of piano, vibes and guitar for describing mood. Hofmann’s show-stopper, so to speak, is "Kiss Me, Kill Me," which veers from initial light-heartedness, then swing and groove, and then successive improvisations before Locke ends it all with a burbling fade. John Sneider’s "Black Dahlia" suggests menace and temptation too with the suavity of Grant Stewart’s presentation of the melody, the trickle effect of Hofmann’s vamp and the Frisell-like guitar effects so much so that Black Dahlia was the original working title of the album.
With total dedication to the possibilities of the genre, The Film Noir Project has produced an accessible yet subtle and complexly arranged recording that deserved much notice. I hadn’t heard Fallen Angel, but Nocturne for Ava has inspired me to buy it, especially to hear how the group treats other overlooked themes like those from Body Heat and Chinatown, more recent, though by now decades old, noir classics.