Jazz: Who glows there?

Phil Johnson hears the 'Afterglow' soundtrack burning bright

When Miles Davis recorded his music for the soundtrack of Louis Malle's Ascenseur pour l'Echafaud (Lift to the Scaffold) of 1957 the legend goes that the film was projected on a sheet in the studio and Davis simply improvised the score as the reels unwound. Whatever the truth, it's probably the best jazz film score ever, and full of the most exquisite melancholy.

Afterglow, the CD of American composer and trumpeter Mark Isham's music for Alan Rudolph's new film starring Julie Christie and Nick Nolte, is so good that it deserves a place alongside Davis's score. The themes float in a misty atmosphere of impossibly romantic love and longing, borne up by saxophonist Charles Lloyd's fluttering phrases and Isham's own plangent trumpet sound, and the effect is very Milesian.

Unlike Davis's score for Malle, however, the music for Afterglow was partly the inspiration for the film in the first place, and the soundtrack was considered so important by director Rudolph that the actually re-edited the film to accommodate more of it, hardly the usual practice.

Isham, whose previous film scores have included Quiz Show, A River Runs Through It and Robert Altman's Short Cuts as well as many previous soundtracks for Alan Rudolph, has shown his devotion to Miles Davis before. His last album, Blue Sun, was a kind of contemporary reworking of Kind of Blue, and his muted trumpet echoes Davis's signature sound on most of his four scores for Rudolph, particularly in the brilliant Trouble in Mind from 1985.

"The film of Afterglow actually started with the music for Blue Sun," Isham says. "Alan wrote the script with the music playing in the background and he originally intended to use it for the soundtrack. But there were a few tones that the album didn't really cover so we let the music for Afterglow find it's own level, and when Alan started shooting I started writing more music.

"When Alan started looking for other music to put on it he came across an old Charles Lloyd album and I said I knew Charles, and so we put an all-star band together very quickly to record new original music.

"These movies don't usually have much money, but everyone was going to be on the West Coast one weekend so we just went into the studio and did it in two days."

The band Isham assembled was a dream: pianist Geri Allen, vibes player Gary Burton, violinist Sid Page (who was "Symphony" Sid Page with Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks in the Seventies), together with Charles Lloyd, his bassist Jeff Littleton and the legendary drummer Billy Higgins.

The method Isham chose for organising the music was almost unique within the normally brusque and functional practice of recording film soundtracks. "With musicians like this you can't just give them a click track to play along to, or tell them what to play," Isham says. "You have to capture what it is that they do and I knew I had enough material to assign each character in the film a particular instrument to represent them emotionally."

He then proceeded by a series of oblique strategies worthy of Brian Eno, whose experiments with ambient soundscapes influenced some of Isham's own recorded work for ECM and other labels in the Eighties.

"I figured out mathematically a method whereby the emotional tones assigned to each character intersected within each composition, and made a list of what should go where. We made a brave decision not to do any of the recording to picture but instead just went through the list. I then gave Alan a copy of the completed music and we spent two or three weeks editing to picture. There were a few areas where we agreed the picture needed altering to suit the music so we asked the editor to do this."

It's in this sense that Afterglow is so unusual, for the film was made to serve the music rather than the other way round. "I've been composing for movies for 15 years and this is the first time I've ever had such a creative experience", Isham says.

The particularly melancholy flavour of Isham's music for Afterglow, and perhaps of his music generally, comes, he says, "out of an obsession with Miles Davis. I'm a reasonably happy fellow actually, but Miles was the first person to lead me into a trumpet style and within a month or so of hearing him I had everything he'd done.

"It's that sense of space and a real desire to make a statement that people will get that appeals to me. People get so obsessed with complexity but Miles showed that you don't have to do that to make a soulful expression. It's simplicity as an art-form and I'm drawn to that point of view. My music is not overly complex. And that's why it works as film music."

'Afterglow' by Mark Isham featuring Charles Lloyd is out now on Columbia/Sony CD. The film is released in May.

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