The concept for most jazz albums usually occurs more conventionally, and as the result of solitary imaginative considerations, than those for Underdog, and Other Stories…. Ted Kooshian’s new album, though, did stem from a convention—specifically, the annual Superheroes and TV Icons Social Conference, attended fortunately by Kooshian’s friend, Tom Goldstein.
Goldstein let the cat out of the bag, so to speak, at the convention of broadcasting celebrities that he knew Kooshian, a producer already of an album of television and movie themes. So, imagine this situation, amazing but true. All of a sudden Goldstein was the center of attention, and the characters, so to speak, sitting at the bar lobbied him to have their theme songs included on Kooshian’s next album. They started to sing. The cacophony was deafening as all of them belted out their theme songs at once: Woody Woodpecker, Felix Unger, Felix the Cat, Mary Richards, Popeye, James Rockford, Daffy Duck, Homer Simpson, Radar O’Reilly, Mr. Magoo, Baretta, King Julien XIII, Archie Bunker, Mighty Mouse, Mr. Sanford and his son, Jiminy Cricket, Toto, James Kirk, Oscar the Grouch, Fat Albert, Holly Golightly, Miss Piggy, the entire Addams family, Underdog, James West, George Jetson, Toody and Muldoon, Fred Flintsone, Barney Fife, Shrek, Ben Cartwright and Little Lulu. Such a commotion you never heard in your life. And you can imagine the pressure that Mr. T., Tony Soprano and Darth Vadar exerted on the bedraggled, importuned Goldstein. At least that’s what Goldstein said, and why should I doubt an associate professor?
The opportunities for selection were broad, but the time available on the CD was restricted. So, the theme songs that Kooshian selected, based on Goldstein’s recommendations, are shown in the track listing below.
Being a busy New York pianist for stage shows, Broadway productions and club engagements, Kooshian, naturally, is familiar with innumerable songs he learned for his work and to fulfill requests. No wonder that he is familiar with some of the often forgotten and forgettable themes like Little Lulu’s and the Wild Wild West’s. Nonetheless, Kooshian sense of fun and his open-mindedness finds value in them, making them not only accessible, but also memorable. With a jazz musician’s improvisational spirit, Kooshian and his Standard Orbit Quartet explore the often-unheard potential of these theme songs, like the possible bluesiness of the Wild Wild West’s theme or Little Lulu’s hand-clapping come-and-join-the-party swinging unpredictability, complete with a penultimate gospel reference, a melody-only simplified piano solo, and then drummer Warren Odze’s use of a bucket purchased from Home Depot just for the recording session.
Such witty effects continue, as would be expected, on “Popeye”—which contains, among other elements, a foghorn, bird sounds and a bit of “Sailor’s Hornpipe.” But something like transformation of rhythm occurs. And something like alteration of melody occurs, as if Sammy Lerner’s song were the starting point for winding soprano sax lines. And something like inhabation by the spirit of Popeye’s personality traits occurs. Something called “jazz” occurs. With a jazzman’s inventiveness, Kooshian internalizes the “Popeye” theme, reshaping it, breaking it into discreet sections of varying moods, and propelling it with a recurrent eighth-note vamp that allows saxophonist Jeff Lederer to veer between improvisation and melodic re-statement. Lederer’s soprano sax work works well too on Quincy Jones’ Sanford and Son theme, “The Streetbeater,” which Kooshian re-arranges with a prodding vamp and slight re-harmonization of the accompaniment.
Some of the surprises on Underdog, and Other Stories… occur in the least expected places. Like Dave Grusin’s Baretta theme. Who recalls how jazzy it was? Kooshian’s forceful broadly chorded introduction leads into Lederer’s swaying tour de force in six-eight, eventually leading into a four-against-three feel for unleashing the performance’s underlying tension. Just as one would expect Lederer to play soprano sax also on The Odd Couple theme, no, he chooses tenor sax, and with good reason: avoidance eventually of the lilting melody for a gradual detour into almost five minutes of jazz improvisation over the tune’s changes before Lederer restates it for the abrupt finish.
So what is Duke Ellington’s “Purple Gazelle” doing in the midst of these television and movie themes? Well, for intermission, of course!
Seriously, Kooshian continues, track by track, to change the perspective associated with often-heard theme songs, like Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse,” which he slows and trills and buzzes and swirls and elasticizes the tempo for his own wacky effect separate from those in Warner Brothers cartoons and from the Don Byron re-invention on Bug Music. And of course, there’s “Underdog,” a Thanksgiving-day parade favorite and assumed to be Kooshian’s favorite character due to the fact that he named the album after the hero who never fails. Kooshian and his Standard Orbit Quartet convert the Underdog theme into a stomping rumba-like basis for infectious improvisation.
Needless to say, Ted Kooshian’s musical tribute to his favorite movie and television icons brims with vitality and affection, bringing to mind listeners’ remembrances of shows past. Needless to say, much excellent material remains should Kooshian choose to continue his tributes to the filmed, drawn and videotaped heroes whose music remains a part of our culture.