Enoch Light
Big Band Bossa Nova






It remains curious to me why Latin music gained and maintained a cult following for several decades, starting as early as the 1930's, while the Exotica genre – whose artists borrowed many a Latin classic anyway – left the public sphere of attention shortly before the middle of the 60's. The reasons are easily at hand, for Latin music can be considered the predecessor and successor of Exotica with its gleaming sunset brass ensembles, lush beach themes and the clichéd retrospective of Mexican and Brazilian traditions, all of them pleasing not only the yearning of a North American audience, but reached as far as to Europe.


In 1962, the well-known conductor and audiophile avantgardist Enoch Light (1905–1978) gathered a big band around him in order to present 12 Latin songs, some of them classics, others brand new, with two of them productions by Light and the album's arranger Lew Davies. And the band really is big, as 22 musicians play vivid, upbeat interpretations whose plasticity and glaring eruptions have only very recently been beaten by the big band incarnation of Mr. Ho's Orchestrotica. Many tunes found on Big Band Bossa Nova were reinterpreted years later by Light, then in more intimate settings, making this album not only an essential entry for the collector, but also a nice addition for fans who crave for different interpretations of the tunes.


Desafinado by Antonio Carlos Jobim launches the hot-blooded album and is itself a relatively new song, released in 1958 at the launch of the Exotica trend. Light's instrumental version cleverly introduces all the various instruments like woodwinds, trombones and the bass of Bob Haggart with short performances either by each instrument group or by a solo section. The punchy bursts of the brass ensemble are the first thing the listener hears, and soon enough, tropical percussion underlines the interplay between calmer intersections and complemental but louder replies. It is surprising how mellow some parts are, allowing the various shakers and maracas to shine which is not a given in a big band context.


Up next is another Jobim song, the iconic One Note Samba that has been performed by Enoch Light time and again during the years, for instance on his later album Future Sound Shock; in comparison to that version, the big band interpretation is a fitting counterpart with dark spy theme-evoking trombones, liquid guitar backings by Tony Mottola and a polyphonous presentation of the monotonous main melody. The bridges between the various parts are filled with effervescent flutes that carry a glimpse of welcome Exotica.


Perdido, a 1941 composition by Juan Tizol is a terrific piece with golden shimmering, quavering horn splutters, darker but gentler variations, bold percussion and a laid back acoustic guitar section near the end by Mottola, while the shortest and most ephemeral piece of the album, Galanura, a collaboration of Light and Davies, is in its first phase a crime theme with trampling, trembling, tremoling brass, while the second phase is gentler, more fanfare-like and focuses on polyphony rather than harshness. An eclectic interpretation of George Shearing's Lullaby Of Birdland closes side A with only short glimpses of a paradisiac melody played on the guitar, while various brass blasts and percussive clangs round off the hard to grasp song whose melodies fly by without leaving a big impression, I'm afraid.


Rio Junction, the second of two songs by Davies and Light, strongly improves things with tick-tock percussion, a mixture of silky, nostalgic and jumpy brass performances and the interesting addition of a backing melody on a xylophone that is further enhanced by mellifluous flutes, while Francis Hime's Sem Saudades De Voce receives a Light treatment that again puts a funny xylophone-flute coupling to the forefront which is in a constant dialog with warm exhilarative horn bits, making this another great song that is quite rare in the realms of Exotica. La Puerta Del Sol is another tune provided by Lew Davies alone. It is based on a clichéd and overly melodramatic and mercurial trumpet melody which doesn't perfectly capture the feeling of a bridge bathed in sunlight. It is more akin to a lamento. However, the Latin feeling is especially bold on this song, so this might be the most efficient song in this regard.


The iconic Brazil appears relatively late on the album and is a tremendously swinging version with much appreciated acoustic guitars and exotic flutes, making it a consideration by me for various playlists. Sunny Skylar's Besame Mucho is presented in an easy-going fashion with a bold focus on percussion and drums, various whisper quiet bridges and the most majestic brass blasts at its beginning. The final Take The “A” Train is built upon a curiously hollow bass drum which can be considered the signature instrument of this track of opulently clattering trumpets and trombones.


As it is common with big band albums, you either like the jumpy performance and incessant shifts between gentle breezes and rumbling eruptions or feel soon tired of them. In the right doses, every big band album works, I believe. Enoch Light's Big Band Bossa Nova is no exception of this rudimentary rule of thumb. The songs are presented in pitch-perfect sound quality, and the insistence on Latin mannerisms and particular keys is surprisingly low, putting this album nearer to the tradition of Tak Shindo's Brass And Bamboo or Accent On Bamboo rather than depicting a particularly bold Latin flavor, despite the many tunes of Brazilian composers.


If you know the majority of Enoch Light's complete works, this album is already in your possession anyway, but everyone else who loves a good presentation by a big band will be pleased with the result, especially while comparing the listed material with versions and renditions by other artists. The short sections of flutes, xylophones and, last but not least, the phantasmagoric strings of Tony Mottola should wake the interest of Exotica fans as well. Those who cannot stand the overly clichéd and stereotypical presentation of Latin material should give Big Band Bossa Nova a spin, as the vast majority is free of any old-fashioned garbage. 


Exotica Review 073: Enoch Light – Big Band Bossa Nova (1962). Originally published on May 26, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.