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Billion-Dollar Composer Henry Jackman Is a Master of Versatility

The music for “The Birth of a Nation” incorporates African vocals and drumming, strings and brass, gospel choir and children’s voices. The music for “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is an ultra-contemporary mix of electronic elements with more traditional orchestra.

It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast in scoring styles for these two October releases. Yet both are by the same person: Englishman Henry Jackman, who in less than a decade has risen through the ranks to become a sought-after composer.

From animated Disney films “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Big Hero 6” to superhero films “Captain America: Civil War” and “X-Men: First Class,” including dramas “Captain Phillips,” and even Seth Rogen comedies such as “This Is the End,” Jackman has demonstrated an ability to tackle diverse subjects with fresh sounds and approaches.

“Henry is highly intelligent and understands storytelling on a very sophisticated level,” says Joe Russo, who with his brother, Anthony, directed Jackman’s two “Captain America” films. “He can go as cutting-edge or avant-garde as you need him to, but he also does traditional scoring as well as anybody. He’s extremely versatile.”

It was that versatility that attracted the directors of his two current films. “Henry hadn’t done a film like this before, but he is a genius,” says “Birth of a Nation” director Nate Parker. “Never have you heard Africanized sounds and orchestral music merged in this way. He honed every single cue to perfection and created something essential to the experience of the film.”

It started out a little more tentatively. When Parker asked Jackman about the Nat Turner slave-rebellion story, there was “a script but no deal and no budget,” the composer recalls. But he was excited to work with Parker, “who lives and breathes the issues of African-American injustice. Nate is essentially a political activist who happens to be making a film.”

Jackman worried about Parker’s ambitious musical ideas costing more money than they could afford. “We could do a very beautiful score for solo piano and cello,” the composer offered. “To his great credit, Nate said, ‘No, by the time you get to the third act, I’m thinking symphony orchestra and choir. Whatever needs to happen, I’ll make it happen.’” And, says Jackman, he did.

It took an international ensemble to make the music for this quintessentially American story. Jackman called on Alex Boye, whose parents were Nigerian, to supply some of the vocals, and Afro-Cuban specialist Alex Acuña  to play percussion. Jackman wanted a gospel choir, not for spirituals — which he saw as a cliche — “but the tradition of that style of singing, that culture, gives a sound and a feel that’s entirely different from a classically trained choir.” They recorded the A Cappella Choir of Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and the One Voice Children’s Choir in Salt Lake City, the latter singing a poem adapted from the Zulu language.

“It’s the only thing I’ve ever done that at no point felt like work,” Jackman says.

In the case of “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back,” director Ed Zwick liked Jackman’s sophisticated musical approach to both the Tom Hanks film “Captain Phillips” and Amazon’s recent “The Man in the High Castle.”

“Henry was the person who most captured my imagination, and he didn’t disappoint at all,” says Zwick. “He did what the best composers do: They make the good parts better and they can be problem solvers for those parts that are in need of help.”

This second “Reacher” film still has “music hovering around the genre of espionage and tension,” Jackman notes, but there was also “a genuine and committed emotional storyline” that required a delicate musical touch.

“We had great debates,” Jackman says of Zwick, who is an amateur guitarist. “We found this harmonic language, a preparatory musical idea, in these couplets. Never has there been so much debate about the internal voicing of couplets and their effect.”

Film scoring, Jackman points out, is no longer just about being able to competently write for the orchestra. “There is a whole lineage of music that has absolutely no connection with concert art music, and that is valid and very powerful in its emotional connection to millions of people. There are a helluva lot of things that guitars can do that an orchestra can’t.”

Jackman comes from a long line of musicians. His grandfather William Jackman played clarinet, flute, and saxophone with the big bands; his father, Andrew, was also a composer and arranged for rock groups including Yes and Rush.

As a boy, Henry sang in the choir of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. “From the age of 8, I was accustomed to being part of something that had the same demand of quality and professional excellence as the London Symphony Orchestra,” he says. “I just thought that was normal.”

After further studies at Eton, Framlingham, and Oxford, at 16 he said to himself, “Enough already with this monasterial, strict classical education.

“I went completely off the rails. The whole electronica, rave thing was kicking in, and it was an education all of itself. It was a different kind of thing, not motivated by compositional development but by groove and feeling.”

Before long he was working with producer Trevor Horn; writing and producing for Seal; programming for Mike Oldfield; and releasing his own albums. One of these, 2005’s classical-meets-pop “Transfiguration,” caught the ears of Hans Zimmer, who thought he had all the qualifications to be working in movies.

Jackman was skeptical at first. But he joined Zimmer’s team at Remote Control Productions and began programming and supplying additional music for such scores as “The Da Vinci Code,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “The Dark Knight.” Within three years he earned a solo assignment, the animated “Monsters vs. Aliens.”

“I got through that, and I didn’t disgrace myself,” Jackman says with a laugh. “It all took off from there.” Other animated films, including the charming music for “Winnie the Pooh” and the swashbuckling score for “Puss in Boots,” followed, as did the edgier “Kick-Ass” and “G.I. Joe: Retaliation.”

Disney called back for “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Big Hero 6.” But his biggest hits have been the two “Captain America” movies for Marvel. Says Anthony Russo: “What we loved about Henry was his ability to work in a classical language, while at the same time being very effective with electronica. It’s a very rare combination.”

Jackman, who is now at work on “Kong: Skull Island” and will follow it with “Wreck-It Ralph 2,” has at last found his place. “My blinkered attitude about film music was completely wrong,” he concedes. “When I was in the record industry I was constantly on the phone to my agent, moaning about the restrictions and the same four chords, and why can’t we do something more interesting?

“On the other hand, I didn’t want to be an organ scholar, and I love electronic music. The thing about film music is, it’s so eclectic. If you do know something about Palestrina or Austro-Germanic tradition, but you also know about serrated textures and time-stretching, suddenly none of this is a problem. All of this is welcome. You end up in areas you might never have otherwise.”

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