"...He clutches the piano ouija-board style until he finds a musical figure that 'feels good' and proceeds to play it 'til it turns into a song, grabbing a little of 'this' with his left hand and a little of 'that' with his right."
The main thing, I think, that I was attracted to during my early exploration of Martin Denny's 'exotic' period records was the 'otherness' of certain pieces, the almost total divide between the 'real' world of the late 1950's and the interior headspace of an Easter Island-like 'lost world', pregnant with mysterious pauses and sounds hard to identify. When it worked I was briefly transported, and even now, many years later, and with a much better grasp of arranging and recording they still have grains of that magic in the grooves. As much as I enjoy Les Baxter, and some of the other better-quality purveyors (not to fault, however, the occasional rock-bottom rip-off exotica lp that actually delivers some action), I've found precious few moments on wax that can get near to that strange little meta-world of Denny's. The album under discussion today is one of the big exceptions.
Here's a taste of "Provacatif / Nine Exotic Motifs" by Mr. John McFarland to whet your appetite for more after the jump - Head Hunters
A few years ago while out of state visiting a record-collector obsessive such as meself, he made the suggestion that I should pull this John McFarland lp from the stacks, as he knew I liked 'good' exotica material and this particular record was quite rare. I did indeed enjoy it, but was too busy on that trip and after to really study it further, I merely recorded it to the laptop along with piles of other stuff and then sorted out all of the data later.
Sadly I didn't have a good camera or scanner around their place, because I was really excited that the composer/arranger seen on the back cover was a super-handsome and dapper black gentleman in a suit, sporting a very different look than the usual Hawaiian shirt-clad groups of 'Islanders' gracing most exotic lps. I wish I could've tracked down the image online to show you, but the album is so cussed rare that I can't find a picture of McFarland.
The lineup: Sonny Kaapuwai / birdcalls and FX, Johnny Rae (who worked with George Shearing) / vibes/marimba/xylophone, Sticks Evans / drums and percussion, Roland Alexander / flute, Jack Six / bass, and John McFarland / piano.
There are five tracks on side one and four on side two, released in 1959 on United Artists Records in mono, and later in an even-more-rare no doubt stereo version. What we will hear is the original mono pressing.
1 Jungle Bells ........Right off we hear the jazzy and experimental side of McFarland, as he employs several times on the record the tactic of opening and closing with a scored riff sequence, and then fills the center with piano explorations. It's rather wild, really, for this type of record, at times reminding me strongly of Sun Ra records from his period of transition from a 'swinging' band to a more open-ended model. McFarland's piano work is quite interesting and has some unusual colorations, with a tendency to push just so far out as he can within the piece without breaking up the structure altogether, which Sun Ra does so well on records like "Super-Sonic Jazz".
2 Summer Storm ....Pretty dramatic ! It's interesting to hear actual sound effects employed rather than simulating the mood of storm and surf with wind chimes, which I find the more creative route, really, but McFarland pulls off a nice trick here just the same, and the mix is pretty crazy!
3 Watusi ........."More odd piano" my notes say, and "nice piece".
4 Tangerine ......a clever version of this chestnut.
5 The Chimp and the Bumble Bee .....A good example of an exotica 'story song', and a very catchy piece. Extremely Martin Denny like, not to slight McFarland at all - this is a very cute number, and a good windup to the first side.
6 Where or When ....I had first assumed from the title that this was a cover of the song of the same name, but I'm still not sure (he laughs), as the arrangement is so darned odd! I love the bass figure, which almost seems to throw off the whole pice, in fact this one reminded me of Captain Beefheart, of all things, in the way that the parts the band are doing seem to barely hold together in a 'normal' way.
7 Forbidden .... A cliche title, but a terrific riff. A catchy yet elaborate arrangement.
8 Midnight by a Persian Waterfall ...Is just what it sounds like from the title - soft and lyrical, basically the most dreamy piece on the record. And here come the wind chimes - you sort of expected them to turn up somewhere on the album...
9 Head Hunters ... Nice outro piece, and more of a stripped-down arrangement than many of the others. Another 'story song' as well with charming sound FX.
.................All in all, for me it blows Arthur Lyman right out of the waters of this crowded lagoon. Now that I've listened to it once very carefully, I'm actually looking forward to giving it more detailed spins in the near future. I hope some of it 'sends you' as it occasionally does me.