CD Review: Shaft Anthology

Composers: Isaac Hayes / Gordon Parks / Johnny Pate
Label: Film Score Monthly
Suggested Retail Price: $34.95
Grade: A

You could say the sound of “black” jazz and rhythm and blues has been in Hollywood since Alex North used it for the white trash of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. And while every brilliant honky from Elmer Bernstein to Henry Mancini followed suit with scores like THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS and PETER GUNN, the urban vibe definitely sounded more authentic when brothers like Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones and Miles Davis finally got into the movie act with such soundtracks as PARIS BLUES, THE PAWNBROKER and ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS. But if there was a composer who shut Hollywood’s mouth, and opened up their ears to the uptown vibe, then it was Isaac Hayes. And it was the moment that his theme song from SHAFT accompanied the cocksure walk of film’s most famous sex machine and private dick. It was unapologetically ethnic, from its wah-wah guitar to fat brass and hot rhythms, all graced with lush strings. Hayes catchy wall of sound that was the defining moment of real urban funk in the movies, ushering in Hollywood’s “blaxploitation” craze and making Hayes the first colored musician to ever win an Oscar.

That the gold went to Hayes for Best Song is no surprise, as SHAFT’s theme is arguably one of the most instantly recognizable motifs this side of STAR WARS. But what fans used to SHAFT’s understandably song-heavy CD might not be aware of is the terrific, sexy groove of Hayes’ Oscar-nominated score- an r & b boudoir and crime vibe that would be carried on by Gordon Parks for SHAFT’S BIG SCORE and Johnny Pate for SHAFT IN AFRICA, as well as the brief ABC TV series. It’s a sad, if joyous irony that these SHAFT underscores (minus AFRICA) are now getting their due so shortly after Hayes’ passing. And leave it to Lukas Kendall and Film Score Monthly to pay the Black Moses proper respect with their fantastic sound and groovy packaging for the SHAFT ANTHLOGY- three CD’s that reveal the remarkable variety, and continued vitality of the sound that Hayes pioneered back in 1971.

Before Isaac Hayes arrived in the cinematic Promised Land, he’d traveled long and hard as a Stax session player and rhythm and blues singer. In the process, Hayes’ long form experimentations with gospel and r & b roots won him acclaim with albums like “Hot Buttered Soul.” Hollywood soon tuned in to a biblically cool baritone voice and melodic talent. With only a score for Norman Mailer’s MAIDSTONE behind him, Hayes sultry power and masculine, musical strut proved to be perfect for Harlem’s coolest private dick. Sensual melody and percussive action were the appeal of SHAFT’s score. And while Hayes’ musky voice filled such great songs as “Groove It” and “Do Your Thang,” SHAFT’s instrumentals were a virtual love pad of music that ran the black musical experience from uptown jazz to the Delta blues and smoky nightclub stylings. It was raw and hot, with a groove guaranteed to get you laid.

The record-shattering SHAFT album fans are used to was a re-recording that was mostly comprised of Hayes’ songs (including one extended riff that went for twenty minutes). This three disc ANTHOLOGY reveals the “real” score, most of which plays as self-contained, wordless songs in the key of mellow. Yet Hayes certainly wasn’t lacking when it came to scoring gunplay. Shaft was as clever as a fox, and had a sense of fun in how he took The Man, The Mafia or some bad brothers down. And Hayes knew how to pour it on just as long, with a highlight of his score being “Rescue / Roll Up.” It’s a ten-minute cue that sees percussion, flute and fuzz guitar relentlessly build into an orchestral explosion of the Shaft theme as Richard Roundtree does his famous, gun-blazing swing through an apartment window. It’s an amazing suspense cue which is right up there with the best of Lalo Schifrin’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE work, and perhaps the biggest revelation of this CD package.

While SHAFT director Gordon Parks gained his biggest fame as a Life Magazine photographer and director of THE LEARNING TREE, he could also be one mean motha of a composer. And when he made SHAFT’S BIG SCORE! Parks did his darndest to do the impossible of following Isaac Hayes when studio politics prevented his return. The fact that Parks wouldn’t have been booed off the stage at The Apollo says a lot about the terrific groove of his only major film score. Sure the theme song “Blowin’ Your Mind” might not have the oomph of the first flick’s, but it sounds close enough as its brass plays even hotter and faster. And where SHAFT had Hayes’ sexually raw rhythms, Parks goes for smooth jazz eroticism here, with some music as happy-go-lucky as a carefree Sinatra tune. And like Hayes’ work, each SCORE cue works well on its own, with the “crime” highlight being “Symphony for Shafted Souls.” As he goes for an even more lethal, and creepy vibe, Parks’ fourteen-minute piece comes across like a Miles Davis improv as jazz danger speeds cunningly about with strings, brass and fuzz guitar. In the end, Parks’ work is almost as much of a revelation as Hayes,’ a SCORE that shows this director was as gifted behind a keyboard as he was a camera. The blaxploitation world is poorer that he didn’t continue scoring in it like Hayes did for TRUCK TURNER and THREE TOUGH GUYS.

The remainder of the SHAFT ANTHOLOGY is devoted to four TV scores by Johnny Pate, whose previous fame was working with Curtis Mayfield (whom he’d arrange SUPERFLY for) and The Impressions. Pate certainly had the funk credentials to take on John Shaft, having teamed with The Four Tops for SHAFT IN AFRICA (whose soundtrack can be heard on Hip-O’s BEST OF SHAFT CD), and then playing for the private dick for The Man at CBS. Pate delivered the kind of TV crime sound that was prevalent during the swinging 70’s, low chord danger and lite urban jazz that was topped with ceaseless variations of Hayes’ SHAFT theme. Even if this was a groove that could be called “SHAFT-lite,” Pate’s music had soul and groove, especially in his aggressive scores for “Hit-Run” and “The Cop Killers.”

At over three hours, the SHAFT ANTHOLOGY has a continuous, almost hypnotic groove that plays like one the cool, unending funk sessions that Hayes loved so much. These are scores that walk on down the avenue of the collective urban musical experience, with a consummate sex appeal and crafty danger that are as much a part of Isaac Hayes as they are of John Shaft. Both unleashed the raw, tuneful soul of r & b on Hollywood, a vibe finally heard here in its complete, original form. That SHAFT’s musical prophet changed the face of his people’s music for film, and pop culture the world over, says much about the sexy firepower of SHAFT. Now with this ANTHOLOGY, Isaac Hayes and his disciples Gordon Parks and Johnny Pate show why they remain the cinema’s soul patrol.


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