Near the beginning of The Wild One, biker gang leader Johnny Strabler (played by Marlon Brando) pays a visit to Wrightsville’s local diner, where Kathie (played by Mary Murphy) is working behind the counter. If you’ve ever wondered what the big deal about Brando was—if, for instance, you only know him from some of the more baroque extravagances of his late career—this little scene will get you up to speed. Brando lays down a rhythmic track of amazing fluidity: he swerves, he swaggers, he dances; his dialogue has laconic syncopation; he uses props—gloves, money—to provide his own punctuation, his own percussive fills. Everything he does—the way he swirls the chairs, the way he glides away from the bar, even the way he uncurls his fingers after digging in his pocket for jukebox change—is insistently musical. He’s a bit of jazz dressed in leather and moving through space.
I suppose that’s why “Brando Noir,” the concert mounted on January 29 by the New England Conservatory’s Contemporary Improvisation department, seemed so promising on paper. But that scene—one of the few from the concert’s anthology of Brando moments that was screened with its original soundtrack—had what about half the music on the program, as fine as much of it was, lacked: a sense of engaging with the music and cadence that’s already present in a film. The evening bounced in and out of sync with the cinematic dynamic.
The concert, produced by Boston jazz hero (and co-founder of the Contemporary Improvisation department) Ran Blake and Aaron Hartley, took the form of a four-act suite. After opening remarks by current department chair Hankus Netsky (which I missed—thanks, Boston parking) and NEC President Tony Woodcock, selected scenes from four Brando films—The Wild One, the World War II drama The Young Lions, the method Western The Appaloosa, and the kidnapping thriller The Night of the Following Day—were projected on a screen at the back of the Jordan Hall stage while various collections, large and small, of student musicians played live accompaniment.
The Wild One opened at the source: Leith Stevens’s original score, in a brawny arrangement by Ken Schaphorst, conducting a performance by the NEC Jazz Orchestra that hung just out of swinging focus. A later cue, Schaphorst again arranging Stevens’s music for a sequence where the gang ominously yet balletically circles Murphy’s character, was tighter. And—especially in that second scene—it scaffolded the mood and action better than the contributions of Full Tang, a student quartet (Eric Lane, Ryan Dugre, Adam Clark, and Danilo Henriquez) that provided blocks of genre: a jazz-funk ostinato and a stylized ’50s-rock beat that, while confidently done, mostly sat alongside the images for a while. But for the vigilante-mob action sequence that sends the film to its final denouement, violinist Yasmine Azaiez and accordionist Cory Pesaturo went to the opposite extreme: free improvisation, both instruments distorted and amplified, the music shadowing the action—sometimes a bit too closely, but fully engaged with the movie’s own rhythm, not trying to impose a rhythm from outside.
The sequence of scenes from The Young Lions, stylistically varied, was the most consistently solid. Survivors Breakfast, a 16-player improvisation loosely directed by Anthony Coleman, started out promising—an out-of-focus Biedermeier dance band—then turned to soft clouds of extended techniques that tracked dialogue between Barbara Rush’s American tourist and Brando’s German ski instructor (later to become an ambivalent Wehrmacht soldier). Tim Leinhard, conducting vocalist Sara Serpa and an 11-piece ensemble, scored a couple scenes with the most conventional film music of the night, but did it with skill: dark, romantic, vaguely jazzy, with a sweep calibrated to the movie’s shifting moods. Two other sequences, one with percussionist Jeremy Barnett, the other a duet between Jussi Reijonen (on bass) and Nima Jannmohammadi (on kamancheh), went back to avant-garde improvisation, layering austere unease over the film while following its contours.
The second half of the concert had moments like that, but also a number of incongruous set pieces. After an opening vocal solo by Serpa that set the mood but failed to shift into storytelling, Dylan McKinstry and Robin Lohrey offered a similarly moody mandolin-and-piano piece of songwriting that nevertheless ignored the slippery shifts of power and mood in their scene from The Appaloosa—a bit of witty, treacherous byplay between Brando’s wandering cowboy and John Saxon’s deliciously villainous pistolere chieftain. And while a bluesy cue from Ilya Portonov, Anna Patton, Daniel Pencer, and Andria Nicodemou pleasantly set up another confrontation between the two characters, the confrontation itself took place alongside a Spanish/English version of “What a Difference a Day Makes” that (however nicely sung by Natalie Cadet and Greta DiGiorgio) grew more ill-matched as it went. (It was partially redeemed by a showdown scored—by Nedelka Prescod, Amir Milstein, Brad Barrett, and Jerry Peake—with understatedly fractious ruminations, Leake clouding the scene with a haze of soft cymbals and bells.)
The Night of the Following Day had the full gamut of the concert’s ups and downs. It opened with a lovely, deft piece of pure illustration: Rachel Panitch, Abigale Reisman, Valerie Thompson, and Vessela Stoyanova followed a landing airliner with a baleful pizzicato-and-vibraphone aleatory, then shifted into a Parisian cafe waltz, foreshadowing the establishment shot of the Orly airport, and then—just when one was starting to wonder how earnest or satirical such a musical cliché was meant to be—swiftly, ruthlessly deconstructed it as the kidnapping plot kicked into gear. The movie’s other, most improvisatory accompaniments were similarly effective: Hui Weng, on guzheng, producing a host of strumming effects for varied punctuation; Tal Zilber with a lurking piano, overlaid with electronic processing that neatly traced the dramatic thread.
But those were interspersed with sequences that seemed more like blind dates. Deepti Navaratna and Sonny Lalchandani chaperoned a bad guy exposition scene with lovely voice-and-sitar ragas, but it felt like a disconnected notion. Eden MacAdam-Somer, on voice and violin, was accompanied by Netsky on piano in a charming, accomplished original cabaret tune, “Cocktails at 4,” but the ironic distance was simply too far from the violence of their scene to register even as commentary. In fact, it was a double distraction—the music pulling attention away from the film while the film pulled attention away from the music. That figured in the finale, too, the film’s beachfront standoff scored by the Sail Away Ladies (MacAdam-Somer, Mia Friedman, Sarah Jarosz, and Ari Friedman) with a bewitching cover of Joanna Newsom’s “The Book of Right-On” that nevertheless seemed to cancel out the on-screen suspense. (The ironic record-collection curation technique of a Kubrick or a Tarantino is harder than it looks—and requires a director willing to relinquish the cinematic rhythm to the music.)
Film music is weird and alchemical, no matter how it’s produced. The familiar tradition is through-composed, precise, timed, the vein that Leinhard effectively mined for The Young Lions. But otherwise, it was the groups that hewed to an older tradition, the silent-movie tradition of organists and pianists in every theatre—improvising—that best served the films, using the structure and flow of film to spark unexpected sounds that, in turn, sparked a different perception of the filmed image. That was Brando’s method, anyway, at his best: distilling the energy of a scene or a film and then amplifying it into something a little more outlandish, a little more subtle, a little more dangerous.