Henry Mancini
Symphonic Soul






Symphonic Soul is a nine-track album by world-renowned composer, arranger and orchestra leader Henry Mancini (1924–1994), released in 1975 on RCA Victor during a time where the importance of orchestras and their luminaries slowly faded away due to the cool slickness of certain other genres. Who wants to listen to their parents’ preferred music anyway? However, Mancini handles these rougher times surprisingly well, and this LP proves it. Symphonic Soul is an astonishingly good and stringent album, that is when one analyzes the particularities of the arrangements by means of the historical timeframe.


Throughout the 70’s, Mancini obviously faces the same tidal change as his fellow visionaries and leaders of big bands such as Stanley Black, James Last, Lalo Schifrin or Bert Kaempfert. Strings are not necessarily the dominant force anymore, nor is the superiority of orchestral works a given. This is why Mancini gives in to the – back then – latest synergetic craze: Disco and Funk. Keyboards and synthesizers are on the rise, guitarists become more important than ever and the drums have a slightly harder edge, too; not coincidentally does Mancini’s orchestra feature the talents of guitarist Lee Ritenour and drummer Harvey Mason who made up 50% of the contemporary Jazz band Fourplay in the early 90’s. Symphonic Strings furthermore features two reworkings of famous Mancini material, and this is exactly where the aesthetic confusion usually arises: can the composer connect the dots, or does he spoil his classic material? Are there traces or whole billows of Space-Age to be found? And could the album be tied to the Exotica genre which is, after all, the original starting point of Mancini’s career?


Welcome to the fanfare, flourish, majesty of the eponymous title track, written by Henry Mancini himself, leaving behind his said original gateway and exotic debut Driftwood And Dreams (1957) for good in order to twirl into the Stygian ether of wraithlike string washes coupled with Disco splinters. Orchestra bells, wah-wah guitars, their electric bass brethren and march-like staccato brass blebs form the enchanting parallax backdrop for Bud Brisbois’ solo performance on the piccolo trumpet. But alas, what sounds good on the pixels of your display is unfortunately a mess. A very suave, streamlined mess, I might add, but nevertheless a convoluted letdown. Everything is too polished and over the top, the highly melodious theme shuttles between cowboy-interspersed prairies and neon-lit megacity nightclubs, chintzy syrup oozes out of the speakers – better not wear headphones! – and flashes of colors come across the retina. I embrace Disco in the post-Exotica or Space-Age context, but this amount of glee is too much even for me.


Luckily, the album improves from this point of origin onwards. If done tastefully, one can never go wrong with Herbie Hancock’s Butterfly, the next stop on Mancini’s string-soaked diorama. A downbeat beauty in its original form, the arranger remains faithfully close to the blue print, but exchanges many a synthetic part with real-world strings, a stupefying flute polyphony, laid-back electric piano-backed guitars and sharp brass attacks. The physiognomy of Butterfly features many an interstice whose blackness – i.e. silence – forms a great counterpart to the iridescent scenery. The textural variety is great, never feeling gaudy. The very best thing, however, are the fully fleshed out Space-Age strings. Their elation is mind-blowing, they tower above the mellowness and really capture the spirit of the good old days from the 50’s and 60’s. A corker!


While Barry White’s Satin Soul boosts the tempo and consists of shadier and more raucous brass movements complete with interwoven string formations that shuttle between a spy movie-evoking misanthropic frenzy on the one hand and an amicable city-strolling aura loaded with saltatory organ specks on the other, Mancini’s own Peter Gunn theme follows in a shiny new version, absorbing the main melody of the three-season television series from the late 50’s and pressing all the Funk in the world into its pores. The eight-note backing scheme is full of asbestus, a mélange most compatible with the acidic-monstrous horns and the adjacent bongo chapparal. Later on, the trumpets go wild and screech, cut and pierce through the mephitic but nonhazardous air. Side A is a done deal.


Side B opens with another new version of a maximally enthralling Mancini classic co-written with Norman Gimbel: the phantasmagoric mirage called Lujon, otherwise known as Slow Hot Wind, not only sports one of the dreamiest and most elasticized-drugged string cavalcades ever unleashed, it is also intermingled with a funky aorta of electric bass goodness, stereo-panned wind chimes and wah-wah slivers of aerose light. Even the claviochord keys cannot harm the majesty of this belter; they rather add to its magnitude. With James Hamish Stuart’s and Roger Ball’s Pick Up The Pieces, Mancini and his orchestra finally give in and venture into a calculated, distinctly designed Funkorama, spawning the famous 16 notes of the dirty-slippery main melody and ameliorate it with argentine wah-wah plinks, neo(n)-Gothic string complexions and the right dose of solo instruments with added sinews. Wait for the strings – instead of the horns – to play the chorus: Pick Up The Pieces has not been interpreted this way before!


Meanwhile, Jon Lind’s and Maurice White‘s exotic Sun Goddess merges a cinematic prelude of prolonged chimes and cymbals with aqueous faux-marimba synthesizers, megalomaniac organ spikes, vivacious string washes and a maraca-based underbrush. Trumpeting horns sound like elephants, adding Exotica to the omnipresent Funk. Dreamy and playful, Sun Goddess is gorgeous. Whereas Quincy Jones’ and Ray Brown’s Soul Saga (Song Of The Buffalo Soldier) features the talent of harmonica luminary Tommy Morgan (whom Exotica veterans know for 1959’s Tropicale) and moulds his aural steppe into sunset-colored showdown strings, it is the final tune, African Symphony by Van McCoy, that augments the percussion undercurrent with large-grained shakers, bongos as well as punchy drums and fathoms out the magic of the kalimba, followed by strings and horns aplenty. Majestic and multi-faceted, the wide panorama of African Symphony is a poignant – although not superb – outro of a feisty album.


Symphonic Soul is a victim of its own time and sake, an astutely tailored artifact that absolutely had to be arranged in this particular way in order to stand a chance against the competition. Like it or not, the Space-Age era is long gone in the 70’s, with Funk and Disco taking over and spoiling America’s already hedonistic youth, boo! The latter genre thankfully distills the strings and euphony of that era, and indeed, Henry Mancini’s orchestra delivers violins, violas and cellos that are so enormously magical and soothing that they do fall out of their time and are then safely caught by a fluffy cushion of cutting-edge Funk ingredients à la wah wah guitars and electric pianos. It is the strings and the title-related marker which make the album compatible with the needs of a vintage aficionado’s specific needs. In contrast to Lalo Schifrin’s aural Disco ball Black Widow or Stanley Black’s slick curse Black Magic (both 1976), Mancini’s Symphonic Soul interpolates the strings and integrates them harmoniously into the kaleidoscopic turmoil of attacking spy horns, concrete jungle-evoking claviochords and the multitudes of ebullient organ ups and downs.


The album is also one of the rare LP’s where an arranger’s reworks of his own tunes – Peter Gunn and Lujon – do not leave a bad aftertaste at all, as all qualitative aspects are safely carried into the new decade and cautiously spiced with frilly particles. Pick Up The Pieces is a prime example that transparently explicates the cohesive interplay of otherwise opposing forces: this big band anthem is played the way it should be, with a focus on the brass side of life, but once the horns are temporarily replaced with strings, impression ensues. The runner-up in this regard is the take on Herbie Hancock’s Butterfly, a glitzy downbeat gem, polyhedric and awash with neon lights. Traces of good old-fashioned Exotica are found in the enigmatic anacrusis of Sun Goddess and the closer African Symphony with its turquoise kalimba vesicles. The 70’s definitely ended the glorious times of swinging orchestras and Easy Listening maestros, but Henry Mancini kisses the more favorable decades goodbye and feels right at home in the 70’s as well. Most impressive! The album has been remastered in 2002 and is available on vinyl, CD and a download version.


Exotica Review 291: Henry Mancini – Symphonic Soul (1975). Originally published on Dec. 7, 2013 at AmbientExotica.com.