Look! Up on the bandstand! It’s a piano! It’s a saxophone! It’s a trumpet! It’s Superheroes, a bold and daring, wall-scaling, day saving, faster than George Benson’s blazing guitar, a Chick Corea synth run or Vinnie Colauita drum solo all-star jam session celebrating humanity’s global obsession with these godlike beings who have become multi-billion dollar comic book, film and TV icons.
Capturing our jazz-clectic fantasies in the sweet spot between the 80th Anniversary of Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1 and Batman’s debut in Detective Comics #27, this imaginatively arranged, freewheeling 11 track set is the brainchild of Grammy winning pianist/arranger Randy Waldman, who creates a Quincy Jones’ size session to execute his vision. In addition to producing and re-arranging some of our favorite TV and film themes (“Batman” and “Superman” get both!), he tackles piano, trumpet and even backing vocals when he’s not overseeing the genius of a powerhouse guest list that includes - in addition to Benson, Corea and Colaiuta - trumpet greats Arturo Sandoval, Wayne Bergeron, Wynton Marsalis, Till Bronner and Randy Brecker; legendary clarinetist Eddie Daniels; drummer Steve Gadd; longtime Benson guitarist Michael O’Neill; saxophonists Brandon Fields, Joe Lovano and Chris Potter; and trombonist Steven Szabadi.
And just for Krypton exploding kicks, he includes the voices of other entertainment icons to introduce the opening track, a rambunctious, funk-filled piano, sax and trumpet driven romp through the classic TV theme to “The Amazing Adventures of Superman”: James Brolin, Michael Buble, Jeff Goldblum, Josh Groban, Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta. If Waldman wins a Grammy for this extraordinarily ambitious, five years in the making work– and he should! – his thank you speech may go on long enough to raise Andy Kaufman from the grave to extend his “Here I Come To Save the Day” shtick to include swinging along to Waldman’s piano frenetic piano solo and the sizzling brass of “The Mighty Mouse Theme.”
One of the film, TV and music industry’s most prolific behind the scenes forces, Waldman already has a Grammy for no less than co-arranging “Somewhere” for Barbra Streisand, for whom he’s been pianist and conductor of over 30 years. His hundreds of credits include seven years touring with Benson and date with a bunch of late greats (Frank, MJ, Whitney, Ray Charles) and living legends Beyonce, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Mathis Celine Dion and Madonna. Yet listening to every darting note, fiery solo and percussive twist and turn on Superheroes, you may get the idea that Waldman accomplished all this just so he could amass the professional wherewithal and proverbial “Rolodex” that he could draw from to create this labor of love.
Following the TV “Superman” and “Mighty Mouse,” our next superhero gone jazz is “Spiderman,” with the familiar theme sung like never before, in gorgeous harmony before by the legendary gospel/jazz group Take 6. Their wordless vocals appear throughout as Waldman’s piano spins a musical web any size and scales walls with over dense percussion and one of Field’s trademark burning sax solos. Next, Waldman flies (and swings) high on the “Superman” film theme, creating a jazz masterpiece from John Williams’ majestic theme and allowing space for Benson to jump into and out of a phone booth and do his superhuman electric guitar solo thing.
Waldman pays homage to “Batman” twice, first via the punch and pow piano-brass swing and Wynton Marsalis’ brash trumpet solo of the familiar TV Theme and later through a slightly moodier arrangement (highlighted by vibrant piano and guitar solos) of Danny Elfman’s theme to the 1989 Tim Burton Film. “Batman” is, in essence, the inspiration for the entire project. Waldman got the idea when he had the good fortune to meet Adam West from the campy 60’s TV series. Turns out, West loved jazz and their conversation about it stayed in Waldman’s mind. West passed away in the meantime, and it’s nice to imagine the whole project being dedicated to him, “the” classic “Batman” for several generations.
True to the off the beaten path aesthetic of the project, Waldman includes some nifty surprises along the way, including a soulful, reflective take on “The Incredible Hulk” TV Theme (more mild mannered Bill Bixby/David Banner than angry Lou Ferrigno) that includes a trippy synth solo by Corea; a feisty and whimsical Latin spin through “The Six Million Dollar Man,” with the dual drum energy of Gadd and Colauita and a Steve Austin 60 mph trumpet solo by Sandoval; and the inclusion of “Underdog” (not in the Marvel or DC universe but supercool nonetheless) as a playful showcase for Szabadi’s trombone. Other highlights are the piano intensive, densely percussive “X-Men TV Theme” and a quirky roll through the much more obscure “Super Chicken” featuring Daniels’ clarinet whimsy in full tilt.
Here’s hoping the superb “Superheroes” is only the first of many all-star jazz superhero projects to come. Kudos to Waldman and his immense, talented crew for bringing our pop culture musical memories to life in a way that transcends generations, books, films, television and hits our nostalgic minds faster than a speeding bullet!