In the world of schlock sound­tracks, there’s noth­ing bet­ter than a good blax­ploita­tion film sound­track.  The unique, highly spe­cial­ized blend of gritty funk ele­ments (espe­cially wah-wah gui­tar) and orches­tra­tion cre­ate a uniquely evoca­tive 1970’s vibe that take the lis­tener back to the glory days of cine-schlock.  There have been sev­eral good CD releases of blax­ploita­tion score mate­r­ial over the years — the orig­i­nal Shaft sound­track album, that great double-CD spe­cial edi­tion of Superfly, The Mack — but there’s plenty more that has gone unrep­re­sented in dig­i­tal formats.

Thankfully, sound­track spe­cialty labels have begun to pur­sue 1970’s-era scores more aggres­sively over the last decade and there have been some fine reis­sues in the blax­ploita­tion vein.  One of the best is Film Score Monthly’s The Shaft Anthology: His Big Score & More, a triple-disc trea­sure trove of mate­r­ial from the Shaft movies and the short-lived t.v. film series.  What’s on these discs isn’t as instantly acces­si­ble as some of the pop­u­lar reis­sues but that’s okay because this is truly a set designed for the hard­core fan.

The first disc presents the first-ever issu­ing of the actual film score from Shaft (the pop­u­lar sound­track album was actu­ally a re-recording done after the fact by com­poser Isaac Hayes).  It’s nei­ther as slick or listener-friendly as the better-known re-recording but it’s very inter­est­ing lis­ten­ing for fans in the same way as hear­ing the demo ver­sion of a famous song.

The cues are gen­er­ally short, rang­ing from two to four min­utes, and divide their time between stripped-down, jazzy sus­pense cues and a lot of funky source-music cues.  Of par­tic­u­lar inter­est is “Rescue/Roll Up,” a lengthy multi-part cue used for the film’s finale that slowly builds from stripped-down bass and per­cus­sion into a force­ful restat­ing of the film’s famous main theme.  This disc is also rounded out by a pair of bonus tracks: an orchestral-funk t.v. theme called “The Men” and “Type Thang,” a hard-grooving dance track used in the film’s sequel.

Most of the sec­ond disc is devoted to the sound­track for Shaft’s Big Score, a strong effort com­posed by the direc­tor of the first two films, Gordon Parks.  Surprisingly it doesn’t use the famous “Theme From Shaft,” instead opt­ing for a jazz­ier style with lots of big-band-inspired horn work: cues like “Smart Money” and “Asby-Kelly Man” have a play­ful, swing­ing qual­ity that lends ele­gance to the proceedings.

The songs are also pretty strong: “Blowin’ Your Mind” is a jagged main theme full of twists and turns that is anchored by a slick O.C. Smith vocal, “Move On In” is a punchy funk tune dri­ven by stac­cato horns and “Don’t Misunderstand Me” is a classy mood piece whose style is a throw­back to pre-rock jazz bal­ladry.  However, Parks also excels at writ­ing  action music in this score and the soundtrack’s high­light is “Symphony For Shafted Souls,” an epic 14-minute mon­tage of action cues used for the film’s multi-part chase finale.  It’s wild, jazzy stuff that rivals any sim­i­lar cue writ­ten by Lalo Schifrin (note: this track was actu­ally length­ened to include mate­r­ial edited out on the orig­i­nal sound­track album version).

Rights issues pre­cluded the sound­track from Shaft In Africa from being included on this set: that’s a shame but said mate­r­ial is avail­able via a limited-edition disc from Hip-O Select.  However, what’s in its place is pretty damn cool: it’s a col­lec­tion of sound­track cues writ­ten for a short-lived string of Shaft t.v. movies that was writ­ten and arranged by Johnny Pâté, a vet­eran arranger who worked exten­sively with Curtis Mayfield (and who also wrote the Shaft In Africa score).

The Shaft t.v. score mate­r­ial include here takes up the last third of the sec­ond disc and all of disc three, offer­ing an embar­rass­ment of riches for blax­ploita­tion score col­lec­tors.  This time, “Theme From Shaft” is used as the melodic anchor for the scores and you’ll be amazed at the mileage that Pâté gets out of it: he applies a vari­ety of tem­pos to it and focuses on dif­fer­ent hooks in the arrange­ment for dif­fer­ent cues to bring out fresh angles of the orig­i­nal com­po­si­tion.  Due to t.v. bud­get restric­tions, he was lim­ited to using a small combo with­out any orches­tral embell­ish­ments but he clev­erly rearranges the theme for horns and wind instru­ments.  The results add a vari­ety of tex­tures that give the record­ing a decep­tively lush sound.

When Pâté gets to write orig­i­nal cues, the result is often jazzy: horns carry most of these cues, with an under­tow of elec­tric piano and midtempo but insis­tent drum­work.  He’s also capa­ble of the occa­sional barn­storm­ing action cue like “Chasin’ Shaft,” a double-time piece of fast jazz scor­ing that twists the famil­iar main theme into knots.  Given its reliance on “Theme From Shaft,” the lis­tener might want to stag­ger out how much of the t.v. mate­r­ial they lis­ten to at a given time but it is all inven­tively arranged and con­sis­tently funky.

Finally, the value of this mini-box set is sealed by top-notch liner notes by Lukas Kendall that tell the story behind each score and inter­view the peo­ple involved wher­ever pos­si­ble.  These notes also include nice track-by-track descrip­tions for the two film scores it includes.

To sum up, the com­bi­na­tion of great, mostly rare music and skill­ful anno­ta­tion make The Shaft Anthology: His Big Score & More a must for blax­ploita­tion sound­track collectors.

(Collector’s note: this is a lim­ited edi­tion set (only 3000 copies were pressed) and is a few years old as of this writ­ing so if you want to get it with­out pay­ing extortion-level prices, it’s advis­able to grab it sooner than later.)