The Mancini Touch: “Robbins’ Nest” (1959) with Ronny Lang

“Robbins’ Nest”

Composed by Illinois Jacquet and Sir Charles Thompson; arranged by Henry Mancini.

Recorded by Henry Mancini and His Orchestra for RCA Victor on August 11, 1959 in Hollywood, California.

Henry Mancini, directing: Dick Nash, first trombone; Jimmy Priddy, John Halliburton and Karl De Karske, trombones; Vince DeRosa, John Cave, John Graas, Dick Perissi; French horns; Ted Nash, Harry Klee and Ronny Lang, saxophones; John T. Williams, piano; Bob Bain, guitar; Rolly Bundock, bass; Shelly Manne, drums; Victor Feldman, vibraphone; David Frisina, Lou Raderman, Felix Slatkin, Dan Lube, Sam Freed, William Miller, Ambrose Russo, Samuel Cytron, Danny Guglielmi, Sarah Kreindler, Mort Herbert, Benny Gill, violins; Milton Thomas, Stanley Harris, Harry Hyams, Bob Ostrovsky, viola; Raphael Kramer, Edgar Lustgarten, Kurt Reher, Armond Kaproff, celli.

The story: The name Henry Mancini (1924-1994) is not usually associated with jazz or swing. This is because Mancini’s great work and success as a composer of film scores (four Academy Awards), and music for television shows (the memorable music from Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky), have almost completely overshadowed his life-long love of jazz and swing, and obscured his skill in these idioms. But in the late 1950s and into the 60s, Mancini produced a series of albums that clearly demonstrated just that.

Mancini’s great success in producing best-selling albums usually involved including only compositions he composed for television and movies on those albums. These packages fit neatly into the “concept albums” marketing strategy that was widespread in the recording industry in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Still they often included much swinging, jazz-oriented music. In addition, Mancini was able to make a number of albums over those years that included many classic jazz and swing compositions he did not compose played by some of the most talented jazz musicians in Hollywood. These included: The Blues and The Beat (1960), Uniquely Mancini (1963), and The Mancini Touch (1959). What made the music in these collections “Mancini music” is that they were all arranged by him, and featured a cadre of musicians with whom Hank had developed an ongoing creative relationship. Among those musicians were: trombonist Dick Nash; saxophonists Ted Nash and Ronny Lang (and later Plas Johnson); trumpeters Conrad Gozzo, Pete Candoli and Don Fagerquist; pianists John T. Williams and Jimmy Rowles; guitarist Bob Bain; and drummers Jack Sperling and Shelly Manne.

The following synopsis of Mancini’s early career is drawn from a very good, concise biography of him on Wikipedia: “Mancini was born in the Little Italy neighborhood of Cleveland, and was raised near Pittsburgh, in the steel town of West Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. His parents immigrated from the Abruzzo region of Italy. Mancini’s father, Quinto (born March 13, 1893, in Scanno, Italy) was a steelworker, who made his only child begin piccolo lessons at the age of eight. When Mancini was 12 years old, he began piano lessons. Quinto and Henry played flute together in the Aliquippa Italian immigrant band, ‘Sons of Italy.’ After graduating from Aliquippa High School in 1942, Mancini attended the renowned Juilliard School of Music in New York. In 1943, after roughly one year at Juilliard, his studies were interrupted when he was drafted into the United States Army. He initially served in the infantry, later transferring to an Army band. In 1945, he participated in the liberation of the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria.

Newly discharged, Mancini entered the music industry. Entering 1946, he became a pianist and arranger for the newly re-formed Glenn Miller Orchestra, led by Tex Beneke. After World War II, Mancini broadened his skills in composition, counterpoint, harmony and orchestration during studies opening with the composers Ernst Krenek and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco.

In 1952, Mancini joined the Universal Pictures music department. During the next six years, he contributed music to over 100 movies, most notably Creature from the Black LagoonThe Creature Walks Among UsIt Came from Outer SpaceTarantulaThis Island EarthThe Glenn Miller Story (for which he received his first Academy Award nomination), The Benny Goodman Story and Orson Welles‘ Touch of Evil. During this time, he also wrote some popular songs. His first hit was a single by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians titled I Won’t Let You Out of My Heart(At left: Mancini in the recording studio – 1959. The trombonist his left hand is pointing toward is Dick Nash. To Nash’s right is LA studio legend French horn virtuoso Vince DeRosa.)

Mancini left Universal-International to work as an independent composer/arranger in 1958. Soon afterward, he scored the television series Peter Gunn for writer/producer Blake Edwards. This was the genesis of a relationship in which Edwards and Mancini collaborated on 30 films over 35 years. Along with Alex NorthElmer BernsteinLeith Stevens and Johnny Mandel, Henry Mancini was a pioneer of the inclusion of jazz elements in the late romantic orchestral film and TV scoring prevalent at the time.”

The music: “Robbins’ Nest” was written in 1947 by Texas tenor saxophone jazz star Illinois Jacquet, and pianist Sir Charles Thompson, and was first recorded by Illinois Jacquet and his All-Stars in that year. Count Basie also recorded “Robbins’ Nest” in 1947. A few others made recordings of it in the late 1940s, then it pretty much dropped from sight for several years. A spate of artists recorded it in the middle and late 1950s, and since then it has been a jazz standard.

The Mancini version, which is a showcase for the brilliant playing of saxophonist Ronny Lang, (shown at right)  begins with drummer Shelly Manne setting the leisurely tempo on his ride cymbal, with bassist Rolly Bundock then picking up the rhythmic lead. Lang, a most versatile musician who often played alto saxophone and flute for Mancini, here sets forth the melody of “Robbins’ Nest” on his baritone saxophone. Lang’s sound on this large instrument is similar the sound Gerry Mulligan got on baritone, but his jazz ideas are all his own,and his technical facility allows him to express them with sovereign ease. Lang’s melody statement (a full chorus), swings most effectively, and is followed by him playing a half chorus of tasty jazz. (Notice how Mancini provides some colorful backgrounds for Lang in the first melodic chorus: warmly harmonized strings and syncopated Harmon-muted trombones.) The excellent 16-bar jazz piano solo is played by John T. Williams, later to achieve fame as John Williams, film composer supreme (five Academy Awards), and long-time collaborator with film director Steven Spielberg. Behind Williams, vibist Vic Feldman plays multi-hued chords as guitarist Bob Bain (who chorded the second eight bars of Lang’s melody statement beautifully) lays out. Then, the four man trombone section, led in exemplary fashion by Dick Nash, plays the bridge, with glistening asides from Feldman’s vibes. Baritone saxist Lang returns with 8 bars of jazz followed by 8 bars of melody, and then a humorous tag ending.

I must also comment about the great drumming of Shelly Manne in this performance. (Pictured at left in 1959.) His playing is simple, colorful and swinging. It supports and inspires both the ensemble and the soloists. I have always thought that he took the basic drumming style of the great Dave Tough, and extended it very successfully into modern jazz.

This is joyous, swinging music, played at a virtuoso level by extremely talented musicians. It was pulled together and facilitated with wit and skill by Henry Mancini. Bravo Mancini!

“Robbins’ Nest,” by the way, was named for a New York radio personality, Fred Robbins, who featured jazz on his radio show which was called Robbins’ Nest.

This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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