Music From a Distant Galaxy

Creativity’s weird, man. Things happen. Once you start mixing stuff in the test tube, you never know what you’re gonna get.

Don Sebesky played trombone in the big bands of Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson in the 1950s, arranged music on some great jazz albums in the 60s, and has been around the music world ever since. In the late 60s, he released a couple of studio-group albums intended to merge jazz, rock, and classical, one billed to the Distant Galaxy and another to Don Sebesky and the Jazz-Rock Syndrome.

A Billboard magazine blurb from late 1968 describes the Distant Galaxy album thusly: “Combine some exotic instruments (electric sitar, clavinet, Moog synthesizer) with more conventional ones, add a sometime chorus of celestial voices and unusual arrangements by Don Sebesky and out come the way-out sounds of the Distant Galaxy. . . . Interesting are some electronic intros which reinforce the out-of-this-world mood.” Albums of synthesizer music were all the rage about this time, from famous ones like Switched-On Bach to the lesser-known Plastic Cow Goes Moooog and the albums  by Moog Machine.

Also all the rage about this time was a particular piece by Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 21. In 1967, it had been featured in the Swedish film Elvira Madigan. The film won a bunch of awards in Europe, although its music was more popular here, and to this day, the Mozart concerto is sometimes called the Elvira Madigan Concerto. So in 1968, when Don Sebesky and his musicians started working up the album that would become Distant Galaxy, it was natural that the haunting Elvira Madigan theme be included alongside other familiar tunes of the day, such as “Lady Madonna,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and “The Sound of Silence.”

We do not know the identity of the musicians Sebesky hired for his album, but we can guess that he had his pick of the top jazz cats in the record business thanks to his work for Verve and A&M Records. Sebesky’s arrangement of the Elvira Madigan theme is moving along nicely, and at midpoint, an anonymous saxophone player cuts loose on a solo. And in the middle of that solo, the sax quotes a few notes from another one of the familiar pop tunes of 1968—Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey.”

Creativity’s weird, man. Things happen. There are no more than a couple of lines from “Honey” in the solo, and when the theme first appears, it takes a second before you realize what it is. The orchestra backing the sax eventually picks up the “Honey” theme—and rather neatly blends it with “Elvira”—but I wonder if the whole thing had its origins in an improvised solo that all of a sudden went to an unexpected place.  Regardless of how it happened, precisely, the atmospheric theme from a foreign cult movie got mashed up with a sappy housewife-pop hit—an early example of sampling, maybe, and one of the stranger musical hybrids you’re gonna hear.

If you’re interested in the whole Distant Galaxy album, it’s here. Those short electronic intros Billboard praised don’t add much to the album—most of the time, they have little to do with the more traditional instrumental pop numbers that follow them, as if they were tacked on to retrofit the album for the synthesizer pop audience. That wouldn’t have been a bad bit of marketing in 1968, but without them, the album is not nearly so way-out as Billboard believed it to be. Distant Galaxy didn’t make the Billboard 200, but “Elvira Madigan Theme/Honey” was the obvious choice as a single, far and away the most commercial thing on it. It barely scratched the Billboard Easy Listening chart, appearing for two weeks in July 1968, peaking at #39.

Note to Patrons: This blog is going on hiatus for a while. There will be a robo-post here at some point next week, but that’ll be all until sometime early in June. Go play outside.

2 thoughts on “Music From a Distant Galaxy

  1. Here’s a little more insight into Mr. Sebesky’s fellow travelers. Indeed, a few heavies figure in the roster.

    TDG was placed on my radar maybe a week before this post, thanks to my recent acquisition of the Whitburn AC 61-01 tome. I gave the album a first listen this week, and while the synth interludes and sitars do little more than patronize, the Mozart/Bobby Russell mashup and a few of the lesser-known (possibly original?) tracks make it worth the hard drive space.

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