When film composer and 2015 Oscar recipient Ennio Morricone signed a new record deal with Decca Records this year, it was a sensation akin to a child prodigy finding favor with his first label. "I was thrilled," said the 88-year-old Italian gentleman known as "Il Maestro," speaking through an interpreter from his apartment in Rome, his longtime home.
It is happily surprising to find that a man who has penned 600 compositions in a professional career of 60 years - hence the Morricone 60 title for the album out Friday - can still take delight in rehearing or reconfiguring his classics.
Morricone 60 is an album of favorites that he says his new label chose and that he was pleased to boldly reimagine for the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, with whom he's collaborated on several international movie scores. Yes, there are the theatrical, even humorous themes from "spaghetti westerns" (a term he is said to hate), such as "The Man with the Harmonica" (from 1968's Once Upon a Time in the West), and the trembling theme from 1971's A Fistful of Dynamite.
There are great dollops of romanticism from more recent, lesser-known fare taken from Italian-language films, such as Metti una Sera a Cena and its "Croce d'Amore." "I welcomed the opportunity to record them again as I first heard them . . . with whatever changes I saw fit, of course," he says.
Morricone has penned epically sweeping, often discordant, naturalistic-sound-effect-laden scores for Italian directors, such as the Sergios (Leone, Corbucci, and Sollima), Giuseppe Tornatore and Bernardo Bertolucci; European directors, such as Lina Wertmüller and Georges Lautner; Spaniards, such as Pedro Almodóvar; and Americans, such as Brian De Palma, Barry Levinson, Warren Beatty, Oliver Stone, and Roland Joffé, for whom Morricone wrote the incendiary score for 1986's The Mission.
"You want the music, genre or not, to be open to interpretation," he says quietly.
Despite those A-list directors - and scores for films such as The Untouchables, Hamlet, Bugsy, In the Line of Fire, Wolf, Disclosure, and Bulworth - he had never won an Academy Award. It was only with 2015's The Hateful Eight from director Quentin Tarantino that the composer, orchestrator, and conductor (a screen credit he demands) won the cherished Hollywood totem. Funny enough, Il Maestro never considered moving to Tinsletown or bothering to learn a lick of English.
Morricone is not a man to rest upon on his laurels with successful mainstream sound tracks. "I like to experiment still," says the longtime member of Italian avant garde-ist Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza.
Nor is he a man to go backward, despite his newest album's old themes. When Tarantino asked him to create the mood music for Hateful Eight - another horse opera and Il Maestro's first western in 34 years - he didn't mine those familiar, twangy spaghetti western sounds. "These were moods nothing like the past, but rather a nontraditional symphonic work," he said.
Morricone, ever the gentleman, does not diss past collaborators. Then again, he does not overly praise, either.
"I don't think it is fair to name any of my collaborators," he says. "The more you work with somebody, the more you get to know them, their eccentricities, their ways with ideas. You learn the difficulties regarding how they operate and the best ways to solve them."
The strategy seems to be successful: He's composed scores for two finished films (A Rose in Winter, La corrispondenza) and is in preproduction for another (Aline & Wolfe). Along with making music for films, Morricone loves to tour and conduct, and though a 2015 gig at Brooklyn's Barclays Center was canceled due to illness, Il Maestro continues to work steadily with groups such as the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, and choral singers, and is at work on a large-scale tour, though details are still to come.