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Arts Desk

These 10 Classical and Jazz tunes will get you into the Halloween spirit

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Unsplash/David Menidrey
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Best of Halloween playlists are ubiquitous this time of year—and, frankly, most of them consist of the obvious, low-hanging fruit. Of course, clichés are clichés for a reason: they have staying power. So, here we acknowledge the very best of the tried-and-true—here’s looking at you, Mussorgsky—and some surprises! From the absurd and campy to the spooky and truly frightful, you’re sure to find something in these 10 tunes that speak to what you love most about Halloween.

Check out our Halloween Party playlist on Spotify here!

1. Night on Bald Mountain— Modest Mussorgsky (Arr. Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, 1886)

Mussorgsky, part of the handful of 19th century composers who strove to make music distinctly evocative of Russian folk traditions, was never shy about expressing his mood through his music, and this one is no exception. The version we know best today is the 1886 arrangement by Mussorgsky’s “Russian Five” compatriot Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Raw, dark, and brooding, the music transports you to a rocky, snow-covered outcropping on Bald Mountain, where a Russian winter’s wind is whipping, and you’ve left the house without a parka. For as many times as you’ve heard it, it’s still bone-chilling, just as the composer intended. In an 1867 letter to Vladimir Nikolsky, a contemporary and professor of Russian history and language, Mussorgsky described the fabled mountain that inspired the music: “…witches used to gather on this mountain, talk scandal and wait for their chief—Satan.”

2. Ghostbusters— Original Motion Picture Score, music by Elmer Bernstein (1984)

If there’s something strange in this neighborhood, it’s probably this selection. But take a listen, and you’ll recognize quickly why Bernstein’s 70-minute score belongs. It’s a cauldron bubbling over with zany bounciness, delirium, and apocalyptic foreboding—the perfect musical vehicle for the atmosphere director Ivan Reitman was looking to cultivate. The first two cuts— “Ghostbusters Theme” and “Library”—epitomize how Bernstein crafted the music to compliment the action on screen which, by turns, mixes campy hijinks, brilliantly clever comedic exchanges, and gothic-tinged meditations on medieval spirit gods and the end of the world.

3. Carmina Burana—Carl Orff (1936)
You don’t need to understand a lick of Latin to get the impression that listening to “O Fortuna,” which opens and closes Orff’s cantata, can bring out the inner-megalomaniac in even the most even-keeled. If you’ve seen a movie where the villain is reveling in dismemberment or gleefully bathing in the blood of his slain enemies, chances are this music is playing.

4. Edward Scissorhands— Original Motion Picture Score, music by Danny Elfman (1990)

Conceived for a film most aptly characterized as touchingly freaky, this is probably the most beloved of the several collaborations between Elfman and director Tim Burton. The titular character is a man-made humanoid with the innocence of a child, the capacity to love, and a gift for landscape artistry and ice sculpting that makes the most of his bladed phalanges. To little children, it’s terrifying and transgressive in a way that kids get instinctively if not intellectually; to adults, it’s boundlessly eerie and beautifully heartbreaking. If you’ve ever felt like an outsider in any way, you’ll be surprised at how much this absurd story resonates. Elfman’s music is largely responsible for that. The quintessential musical manifestation of Burton’s cinematic aesthetic, it’s more than just the film’s emotional connective tissue—though it certainly is that— it’s what provides an ostensibly fantastical premise human grounding.

5. “D’un Soir Triste”— Lili Boulanger (1918)

This one’s not only dark, it has the combination of unsettling and fantastical that is the essence of Halloween. Plus, it was written by the composer shortly before her death at a young age (24). The last piece Boulanger was able to compose by hand, “D’un Soir Triste” (“Of a Sad Evening”) might be considered a very talented and chronically ill young woman’s goodbye to the world. It sat in a drawer for 60 years, until her sister—Nadia Boulanger, a composer herself in her younger years who’d become a renowned educator—exhumed it shortly before her own death in 1979. If there’s a piece of music haunted by the specter of its creator, this is it.

6. “I Put a Spell on You”— Nina Simone from I Put a Spell on You (1965)

One of the High Priestess of Soul’s broadest hits from her poppiest album, this one pretty aptly characterizes the experience of listening to Nina Simone. Few could manipulate the emotions of an audience quite like Nina. To listen to her is to be in thrall to her. The gravitas of the string orchestra backing levitates Simone’s vocals and the tenor sax interlude in this context plays like a sorcerer’s incantations.

7. “Friday the 13th”—Thelonius Monk and Sonny Rollins from Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins (1956)

Monk reveled in keeping listeners off balance, but this one has the added benefit of musically recreating the low-level unease that accompanies the only combination of day and date that can fill a Friday with foreboding. There’s a definite spellbinding quality to the circular repetition of Monk’s dissonant chord progressions. Combine that with his trademark tendency toward unorthodox intervals and heavy, percussive solos, and you’ve got the melodic makings of the consummate nursery rhyme for bionic children constructed in a mad scientist’s laboratory. Rollins, with bluesy lines and a warm, round tenor sound, is the perfect earth-bound spokesperson for Monk’s more alien ideas. And speaking of alien, it’s not often you get to hear Monk comping for a French horn (Julius Watkins) or, for that matter, that French horn trading measures with Sonny Rollins. Meanwhile, Percy Heath (bass) and Willie Jones (drums) are the dark matter keeping this potentially wayward vessel faithful to its elliptical orbit.

8. “Blues for Dracula”—Philly Joe Jones from Blues for Dracula (1958)

Campy? Check. Bizarre? Heck yes. I mean, just have a look at the cover art from this 1958 Riverside album, recorded shortly after Jones left the Miles Davis Quintet. And then, of course, there’s Philly Joe’s vocal preamble, a clearly practiced Bela Lugosi impression that devolves into a lengthy monologue about how the “Bebop Vampire” will suck your blood if you’re not careful. But the opener and title track from Jones’ debut as a leader is endearing and hilariously hokey in a manner that Gen-Z hipsters will go crazy for. The tune itself skulks in a bluesy manner, as though Johnny Griffin’s tenor sax is really just cover for a midnight grave robber. And Nat Adderley, playing cornet, raises his level to meet that of his esteemed company, lending credence to that which Philly Joe declares at his monologue’s close: “The children of the night make such beautiful music.”

9. “Witch Hunt”—Wayne Shorter from Speak No Evil (1966)

His third album in the calendar year 1964 for Blue Note, Speak No Evil forever put to bed the notion that Shorter was yet another tenor saxophonist in the mold of John Coltrane. Fans and critics alike began to recognize Shorter—who just about a year prior had replaced George Coleman in Miles Davis’ “Second Great Quintet”—as an innovative composer and a playful, idiomatically nimble instrumentalist bridging hard bop and jazz’s increasingly influential avant-garde strain. For many, “Witch Hunt” represents Speak No Evil’s high-water mark. The two-part horn prologue from Shorter and Freddie Hubbard presents as a salutation of the sort that would open a grand pagan festival like Halloween. And the intensity of Elvin Jones’ drum fills leading into Shorter’s first solo will delight those who find being startled by giant claps of thunder exhilarating.

10. “Ghosts: First Variation”—Albert Ayler from Spiritual Unity (1965)

Ayler was a pioneer of free jazz. And whether you love it or loathe it, free jazz is freaky, it’s esoteric, and, like a haunting spirit, it often sounds as though its practitioners have a chip on their shoulder, some unfinished business to set right, a compulsion to keep pushing beyond the agreed upon vanishing point. While the other selections here are emotionally evocative either rhythmically or melodically or both, this one evokes through its texture, through the plaintive honks and moans issued through his saxophone. The first 45 seconds or so sound a little like a calypso-styled theme played by a Sonny Rollins admirer after a couple tiki drinks, but things travel to a different spiritual plane—perhaps a different dimension entirely— from that point. Ever have a dream that you recognize after the fact as totally implausible, but while you’re in it it feels as real as any waking experience? That’s kind of what Ayler’s “Ghost” is like.

This week on WRTI, the fun continues, so tune in! On WRTI jazz you'll hear some spooky and seasonal tunes during each program. Along with some of the music from our fabulous playlist, expect to hear music from the Jazz Album of the Week - Wayne Alpern’s Frankenstein, and other creepy favorites like "Strange Brew," "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down," and "Witch Hunt."

Jukebox Jazz will be an extra fun one on Saturday night from 6 to 9 PM! Bobbi Booker will bring you jazz interpretations of popular Halloween favorites like "I’m Your Boogie Man," "Black Magic Woman," "Thriller," and many others.

On WRTI Classical, there's a horror-filled Flix@5 every weekday at 5 PM, and more!