3 July 2002

Lord of the Rings - a review by Chris Seeman

Our first review at last! Comprehensive and well-worth the full read.

Since its publication in 1955, JRR Tolkien's literary masterpiece has served as muse to countless musicians and composers. (According to my most recent reckoning, there are nearly a thousand musical works out there which in some way pay tribute to The Lord of the Rings.) Overshadowing this cacophonous sea of contending minstrelsy tower a few giants, artists who have devoted more to Middle-earth than the odd song or one-shot concept album; who, like Tolkien's autobiographical painter Niggle, have set before themselves canvasses of truly epic proportions - artists like Paul Corfield Godfrey, Thomas Peterson, Alan Horvath, Howard Shore, Summoning, The Tolkien Ensemble. Yet even these titans must yield pride of place for the most recorded Tolkien-inspired music (10 LPs all told!) to one man: the late great Australian jazz master: John Sangster.

"Huh?" you ask, "Middle-earth jazz?!?" Yes, an unlikely marriage at first glance. How could Tolkien's archaic, anti-modern mythology find musical expression through a medium which is in many ways the very essence of modernity? But the simple fact of the matter is that The Lord of the Rings has fired the imagination of musicians from virtually every conceivable genre and tradition - from the lofty heights of Gregorian chant to the subterranean depths of black metal. Like it or not, Tolkien's appeal is universal. (Counting Sangster, there are at least 29 jazz artists who have dedicated works to The Lord of the Rings, some of them quite substantial.)

So who is this guy Sangster? One of the most important figures in Australian jazz. Born in 1928, Sangster grew up in a world of traditional jazz music, earning his spurs with the likes of Graeme Bell and Ray Price during the '50s, and later moving in more contemporary musical directions with the Don Burrows Group. His eclectic talents included scoring music for radio, film and television documentaries. (He even played drums for an Aussie rock band for a time.) But Sangster was also a reader, and no sooner had he got his hands on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings than he knew wherein his musical destiny lay: to compose a 'trilogy' of musical impressions of characters, scenes and events from Tolkien's tales: "I just couldn't stop until it was all out of me," Sangster once wrote.

The Lord of the Rings (Volume 1), the first of four projected CD re-releases by Move Records (originally recorded in 1975), comprises 18 such impressions, as varied in their subject matter as in their style. With a battalion of virtuosos at his disposal (including an auxiliary string quartet), Sangster was able to deploy a wide range of musical arrangements in order to imbue each piece with its own individuality, from an "elvish tea-party" to "blues for Boromir." The music, like the song titles, often contains a certain degree of tongue-and-cheek, and to many listeners most of it will probably come across as rather quirky, much like the mercurial Sangster himself.

Indeed, unless one happens to be John Sangster (or someone else as deeply saturated with jazz as he was), these melodies, by themselves, are unlikely to easily convey the Middle-earth experienced by most readers of Tolkien. This is simply one man's musical interpretation (or, perhaps better, 'response') to The Lord of the Rings, employing musical conventions which hold meaning for him. Yet even if your vision of what Middle-earth sounds like differs from that of Sangster, you can nonetheless appreciate - if not marvel - at the intricacy and care that has been lavished on this labor of love.

Taken individually, these vignettes are not always immediately evocative; but when listened to in tandem, they begin to take sharper definition and coherence. You can begin to see what the composer was trying to achieve for each piece. The result can be surprisingly pleasant.

But beyond its inherent merits, this CD (and its promised successors) is an essential item for any die-hard collector - Tolkienian and Sangsterite alike. These albums are legendary, and are almost impossible to obtain in their original LP format. EMI, the original label on which it was released, issued their own CD version at some point, but that too swiftly went out of circulation. Move Records is to be praised for its salutary efforts at making these important artifacts of musical history once again available to the public.

The newly released double CD set is a Cadillac with all the luxury features one expects from a special edition DVD: complete liner notes, enhanced cover art, PDF files of the original cover design, bonus video tracks of Sangster performing. And all for the price of a single CD!

I look forward to the release of Volumes 2 and 3, as well as the follow-up (Sangster's last Tolkien album) Landscapes of Middle Earth later this year. Good on ya!

Chris Seeman