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 Pate, 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 Pate 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 Pate 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.)