When Ian Fleming sat down to write his first James Bond book in early 1952 he had just left Naval Intelligence and was about to get married. He could not have foreseen the effect his newly-created spy would have on the cultural landscape of the late 20th and early 21st Century, when the unveiling of a new actor in the role of Bond can hog the attention of the world’s media for days on end. That first novel – Casino Royale – introduced a new type of hero to the world: cool and calculating with a moral ambiguity that chimed perfectly with the post-war era.
The Bond books became increasingly successful over the next ten years – initially in the UK and then in the United States, so that by the time of the fifth novel, From Russia With Love, was published Fleming was receiving both critical and commercial acclaim. In 1961 President Kennedy included From Russia With Love in a top ten list of favourite books which he compiled for Life Magazine, and the following year agent 007 made his big screen debut, with Sean Connery, an ex-milkman from Edinburgh, in the title role. That film, Dr No, changed the game. It was a huge international hit and made Connery (as Bond), one of the most instantly recognisable figure of the 60s.
The first four film versions of the books were: Dr No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and Thunderball and in their wake came Michael Caine as Harry Palmer in the classy films of Len Deighton’s mid-60s thrillers, and at the other end of the entertainment scale Dean Martin as Matt Helm in a series of spoof spy flicks such as The Liquidator. The spy theme continued on the small screen with heroes such as John Steed in the Avengers. Perhaps the best way to judge Bond’s level of success is to consider that he is one of the very few pop cultural figures to come to prominence in the 60s who is still relevant today.
An important element of the Bond films was the music. Monty Norman scored the first film, with John Barry thereafter. Barry’s rearrangement of Norman’s James Bond Theme has become one of the most recognisable film themes of all time. Each film From Russia With Love onwards had a memorable song written especially, sung by some of the biggest voices of the day. Matt Monroe for From Russia With Love, Tom Jones for Thunderball. Shirley Bassey has sung three of the films’ themes, beginning with Goldfinger.
By the time that Thunderball appeared in 1965, Bond-mania was in full flight. With a sufficient back log of music it was only a matter of time before the cash-in albums appeared. Mirwood Records in Los Angeles recorded one of these, and against all expectations it was a pretty fine effort. The Mirwood team had seen the angle in employing jazz bass player Jimmy Bond, and for this occasion calling him James, allowing for the entirely legitimate release of the James Bond Songbook by the James Bond Sextet. Jimmy Bond wrote much of the music here too, with Warren Baker, as many of the films had not been made at this point. So only five of the twelve tracks are cover versions (Thunderball, From Russia With Love, 007 Theme From Dr No, and Goldfinger), the rest are genuine James (Jimmy) Bond originals.
A jazz veteran who had been playing on the LA scene since the early 50s, Jimmy Bond had been a fixture in Chet Baker’s mid-50s band, and frequently played on live dates with artists such as Gene Ammons and Charlie Parker. He became a fixture in the band of Ella Fitzgerald. In the 60s he concentrated on studio work, appearing on sessions for Phil Spector, Frank Zappa, Fred Neil and Tim Buckley as well as covering the notoriously difficult to fill bass chair for the Jazz Crusaders on occasion. This level of serious musicianship meant that any album that he made would not lack weight, and for the James Bond songbook he surrounded himself with some of LA’s highest quality session players.
Drummer John Guarin was a fixture in the area’s studios and Joe Parnello was an accomplished pianist / arranger whose career would see him as Musical Director for Tom Jones and Frank Sinatra among many. The three-pronged horn line up was as good as you could hope to make up from the area. Buddy Collette was one of the earliest pioneers of playing jazz on the flute, though he was equally accomplished on the tenor sax. He had made a series of albums on the West Coast and had been an early teacher of Charles Mingus. Harold Land was another native Californian and after working with the legendary Max Roach – Clifford Brown band of the mid-50s, he had recorded one of the definitive West Coast hard bop records “The Fox” for the Hi-Fi jazz label, produced by David Axelrod. In the late 60s he led an incredible group with Bobby Hutcherson, all the time making great music, with his wonderful tone on the tenor sax. Final group member Bobby Bryant was the trumpeter of choice on West Coast sessions in the late 60s, and went on to make some fine albums for Cadet and Pacific Jazz towards the end of the decade.
With this line-up, even a simple run through of the tunes was likely to cook, and sure enough the band takes on all the Bond music with aplomb. Thunderball is a tour-de-force for the interaction between Bond’s bass and Land’s tenor, From Russia With Love becomes an intricate bossa nova and 007 Theme From Dr No showcases exactly why Bryant was so in demand amongst the session elite of LA. The bonus of this album are the extra tracks that Bond wrote for this project. They are a fine example of 60s small group jazz with fine players working through some great changes. It’s a shame that work such as this is virtually ignored because of the context in which it was originally presented. The James Bond Songbook is, if not a jazz masterpiece, a hidden gem worthy of your attention.