Needing to choose a book to read and reflect upon for a literature project in his Grade 5 class, I was surprised and delighted when the boy asked to borrow The Hobbit. Other than some pathetic attempts to conquer Lego: Lord of the Rings on the Play Station, we haven’t really done much Tolkien in the family home. Ms Connection is no fan of the fantasy genre and the boy has been obsessed with Star Wars for over a year. There is doubtless some kind of cosmic balance to all this, as I did serious time in Middle Earth back in the seventies, a story scheduled to wander into blog Mirkwood very soon.
That the young scion enjoyed the book tickled me no end, and had me rushing for musical references that I could inflict on the household. Proceeding chronologically (literature-wise), this begins with Bilbo’s first adventure and a Melbourne born, Sydney-based musician, composer, soundtrack creator and band leader named John Sangster.
By the time trad-jazzer Sangster released his first album under his own name in 1967, he had been a respected figure in the Australian jazz community for more than fifteen years. Starting out on trombone with Graeme Bell and his Australian Jazz Band, Sangster moved to cornet then, perhaps less obviously, drums. Towards the end of the fifties he took up the vibraphone, an instrument combining percussive attack with melodic capabilities, and explored this instrument throughout the rest of his career.
Sangster was a prolific composer and arranger as well as performer, releasing sixteen albums between 1967 and 1980. The most significant single chunk of work within this catalogue are the Tolkien-Inspired albums, beginning with The Hobbit Suite, released on Swaggie in early 1974.
Swaggie was an Australian label specialising in jazz with strong ‘traditional’ roots. I remember the LPs well from my early years at Max Rose Electronics, mainly because the music seemed like old fogey’s jazz and the covers were production-line naff. But in 1974 I would have bought a record of yodeling if it had Lord of the Rings connections, so I placed a copy of John Sangster’s album on lay-by and, after shaving a couple of dollars from my Friday night / Saturday morning pay for a few weeks, took it home, determined to like it.
Opening track ‘Stomping under the hill’ has a bright melody and trad roots revealed in the brass/woodwind parts and the interplay between musicians (including a washboard player). ‘Belladonna Took’ provides a perky follow-up, also demonstrating the tenuous relationship between album and book. I mean, Belladonna Took? Scarcely a key figure in the stories. Sangster’s cover notes, however, make it abundantly clear this is no literal interpretation of the book nor attempt at story-telling. He calls the music ‘simply an expression of my reactions and feelings regarding some of the places and characters in The Hobbit… some sound pictures; a suite of music very subliminally to do with the (book)’.
There are mysterious percussive sounds and a watery feel to parts of ‘Gollum’ that I like. As with ‘Spiders and flies’ (a slow-swinging blues), the tinkling chinking ‘Smaug’s lair’ and the bluesy ‘A lament for Thorin’, these more reflective pieces evoke scenes more in keeping with my ideas of Middle Earth. Elsewhere it is often just too trad-jazz based for deep enjoyment, at least to my young ears. That’s what I found back then and as I listened this week; not much has changed except the age of my organs of hearing.
The playing is excellent, mind you. And the pieces are neatly constructed and arranged, sometimes with pleasant little surprises built in. Late in ‘Gandalf the Whiz’, for example, there is a terrific ascending brass/clarinet section over the top of tinkling vibes and percussion —a spell is being cast! It sounds great. The waistcoat-and-straw-boater feel returns for the finale, of course.
The composer’s melodic sense shines through every piece. Mellifluous closer ‘Rivendell’ is exactly what you would want the combo at Elrond’s Bar and Grill to sound like as the setting sun casts yellow-orange jewels across the River Bruinen and you kick back with an Elvish mint julep.
In 1977 Sangster visited the hobbits again, this time in the company of fellow-vibraphone player Alan Lee who liked the original pieces so much he transcribed them for concert performances in Melbourne. The two mallet-wielders convened in Sydney in April ‘77 to record Double Vibes: Hobbit (which for two decades I thought of as Double Hobbit Vibes, possibly because Lee looks rather hobbit-like and John Sangster has a fantastical beard). This smaller group —no clarinet or trumpet; just piano, bass drums— has a looser, more ‘modern’ feel. The pieces are still paintings rather than storyboards, and often just an excuse for a blow, as revealed in titles like ‘Bilbo nods off’ or ‘Hobbits’ happy holiday habits’, but if you enjoy mallet instruments (and I do), this second Hobbit record is a bit easier to access.
You might think that two LPs of hobbit-inspired jazz was enough, but you could not be more wrong. Mr Sangster was not done with Professor Tolkien, not by a long shot*.
Nor are we.
John Sangster – The Hobbit Suite [Swaggie Records, 1974]
John Sangster & Alan Lee – Double Vibes: Hobbit [Swaggie Records, 1977]
John Sangster – The Hobbit Suite and Selections from Double Hobbit Vibes [Swaggie CD, 2002]
* John Sangster’s music will make a return visit in a few weeks. In the meantime, the next post isn’t really about music at all.