The Exotic Sounds
Of Jerry Sun
1962 / 2011
It happens all too often that works of art aren‘t recognized by the public until decades or even centuries later. This fate also applies to the recordings of Jerry Sun, but fear not, the story has a happy ending: Jerry Sun‘s quartet, consisting of him on the vibraphones, Don Byington on the piano, Dwayne Parks on the bass and Bob Elliot on the drums, was one of these typical restaurant and nightclub bands in the style of The Beachcomber Trio, but more similar to the sounds of Arthur Lyman. They were constantly touring the U.S. and offering their Exotica performances to the owners of the venues. While The Beachcomber Trio had a regular income for many years at the Kahiki Supper Club in Columbus, Ohio, Jerry Sun and his band were always on the move in West Coast regions.
Despite the talent of everyone involved, the band only released one LP called Personally Yours in 1962, one single and two EP‘s. It was during this time that the band recorded additional material at the Audio Recording Studio in Seattle which has never been released. The reels of this material somehow went aground in Tacoma where record store owner Jeff Miller sold them to music expert Bob Anderson who in turn handed one of the reels titled Practice Tape to Dionysus Records. This practice tape is released in 2011 by the Bacchus Archives, a sublabel of Dionysus, in a limited edition of 500 glaring red LP‘s together with a download code for an MP3 version and is called The Exotic Sounds Of Jerry Sun. As it is usual with their Exotica projects, music historian and Exotica expert Jeff Chenault is involved in the project, producing the album and providing the liner notes and additional information about Sun‘s band. Since the practice tape forms the basis for this record, it offers an invaluable insight about Sun‘s and his fellows‘ expertise and is probably a good indicator for their live performances. All 9 tracks of the practice tape have made it to the album, the other reels remain a mystery up to this day. Is it any good? Let‘s find out!
The album starts with a tropical version of the bossa nova classic Desafinado, originally written by Antonio Carlos Jobim. The song starts with shuffling percussion and deep bass notes while the piano accompanies the frisky vibraphone; the band‘s version is full of light-footed geniality and induces a care-free atmosphere. I am a huge admirer of this easy-going style, and the reverb of the vibes works great in unison with the harmonious piano chords. The reason why this song is included in the first place is probably its breakthrough version by Charlie Byrd and Stan Getz which was released in 1962, the same year when Sun recorded this take. This is surely no coincidence.
Following next is the Margarita Lecuona's Taboo, an essential tune for every exotic Jazz band at the time. Sun‘s version focuses on the clear audibility of the percussion, cascading piano notes and an improvised interplay between the piano and the vibraphone. I still like Les Baxter‘s string-laden version best, but since I am a huge fan of mallet instruments, Sun‘s version is quite sweet and offers an interesting shift in tone pitch and a short percussion-only interlude. Speaking of Les Baxter: the next two songs, Tiki and Quiet Village are Baxter originals. While the devious Tiki starts with the usual gentle interplay between a polyphonous piano and vibes, the song slowly rises in tension, first percussion-wise, then in a crescendo of all involved instruments. It is taken off Martin Denny's and Si Zentner's album Exotica Suite (1962) whose track list exclusively comprises of compositions written by Baxter. Quiet Village is the more successful rendition, I believe. Dwayne Parks‘ bird calls are especially noteworthy due to their vividness and realism, and the mixture of lively and soothing passages is very attractive; the vibes are only introduced in these quiet passages where Byington‘s piano tones down.
Side two of the album departs thematically from the exotic sounds that were featured before, but still induces an exotic feeling in a broader sense. It starts with Sun‘s take on Steve Allen‘s This Could Be The Start Of Something Big, written in 1954 for The Bachelor TV production. This isn‘t so much an Exotica song as it is a jazzy number with quick percussion, hectic bass notes and a prominent shift in rhythm. The vibes are lively as ever, but it is Bob Elliot on the drums who really shines on this piece and takes things up a notch by pushing the drums harder than before.
Coming up next is On Green Dolphin Street, the 1947 Jazz classic composed by Bronislau Kaper. Although strikingly similar in style to the band‘s take on Allen, I very much prefer this version due to the freely flowing form of ideas and improvisations. The piano is played exhilarantly, and Elliot is allowed another short section of drum bursts. Bart Howard‘s Fly Me To The Moon, first known as In Other Words is also taken into account by Sun‘s band. The main melody is played on vibes and is backed by piano notes and tercets. The tempo is also increased compared to the original. Speaking of tempo, Soulsville is the quickest and shortest song of the record with catchy piano chords and impeccably fresh vibes.
The final Love For Sale offers more of the same free-form Jazz but is a downer to me as the band‘s style is too well-behaved for this particular song. They choose a gentle, playful approach, but I would have wished for a more energetic, sparkling rendition – the band already proved in the former songs of side two that they are capable of playing it dynamically. The vibraphone is too lush in my opinion and the main melody is not distinct enough but somehow washed-out and fuzzy. It is, however, flawlessly presented, it‘s just that I know many Love For Sale versions that are better than this one, including the ones by the Kokee Band and James Last. It‘s a personal preference that doesn‘t degrade the presentation by Jerry Sun in the slightest. Plus, it‘s a practice tape, so I‘m sure they improved on the weaker spots in time.
The Exotic Sounds Of Jerry Sun is a late triumph both for Sun as he sees another album released after almost 50 years, and for Exotica lovers who are always begging for re-releases of vintage records. In Sun‘s case, virtually anyone knew about the survival of the reels, let alone the reels themselves. I‘m sure that it‘s not just my eyes that sparkle due to this LP – unexpected news are usually bad news, but not here. The music sounds delightfully fresh and the renditions cover a nice variety of several styles and classics, ranging from Exotica tunes (the Baxter songs) over brand new trends (Desafinado) to quickly paced Jazz numbers (On Green Dolphin Street, for instance). This is hence an album for Jazz fans, and the exotic sounds added to non-exotic tunes are largely realized with Sun‘s vibes and the occasional maracas.
I‘ll conclude my review with a few personal words: when I write in my review of Exotica 1970 by the Kokee Band that I usually don‘t like albums that consist solely of renditions and adaptations of already established material, why do I unsuspectedly make a sudden U-turn and praise the hell out of Jerry Sun‘s record? Because of three reasons. Firstly, the background information is very fascinating. Secondly, the aesthetic value has grown tremendously in modern times because this is a record that was almost lost to the world, and it must be quite pleasant for Mr. Sun to see one of his private recordings being released just a few decades later. And lastly, the renditions are taken off the band‘s practice tape and were never created to cash in. So all in all, there is no bitter aftertaste, I think, and this increases the value of innocence and freshness, both being music-unrelated values that are made up by society, naturally. However, another value-related aspect is once again the limitation of 500 copies of The Exotic Sounds Of Jerry Sun. I can imagine that this record doesn‘t sell as good or fast as modern Jazz CD‘s, but I would still like to see a larger edition of this record. Or am I too philanthropic?
Exotica Review 025: Jerry Sun – The Exotic Sounds Of Jerry Sun. Originally published on Jan. 21, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.