Nelson Riddle






I've got hold of Nelson Riddle's (1921–1985) Witchcraft! LP in July 2012 only, but since then, I barely stopped spinning it, even though I transcoded it immediately in order to listen to it on the go. Which should tell you something, for even though I consider myself a huge – if by no means perfectly knowledgeable – fan of Riddle's music, the surprise level of his 50's works wears usually thin after listening to side A of his releases. This is somewhat the case on this LP as well, but this time, Riddle shifts the focus away to jazzier big band renditions, making things interesting again all of a sudden.


Ten tracks are gathered on Witchcraft!, and the production quality is top-notch. The pool of instruments is surprisingly large, and Riddle uses many an instrument that didn't make it on the majority of his other LP's of 1958. I only mention one particular instrument for now that captures my heart time and again: the vibraphone. Though it is no integral part of the featured compositions, all of which are renditions of well-known material and up and coming classics, its inclusion harks back to the album title and adds variety to the arrangements which are otherwise ruled by horn instruments of different styles and Hollywood strings in all colors of the rainbow. While the liner notes link this album to romantic nights with your better half, it can also be enjoyed on totally different occasions, for there are many uplifting and even frantic rhythms that potentially destroy the kitschy romantic mood – excellent! Without further ado, read more about the various strengths and scattered flaws of Witchcraft! below.

Unsurprisingly, the titular Witchcraft is the point of departure of Riddle's bewitchment ritual. It is also the latest and greatest hit of the presented tracklist, as it was written by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh just about a year before Riddle's release. Frank Sinatra made this song famous shortly thereafter, and sure enough does Riddle's orchestra enchant the listener with one of the most gorgeous opening string sections ever created. The multicolored swirling string spirals wash over the listener, and their powerful characteristic traits encapsulate both pleasant anticipation and an auroral dreaminess. Although this state is maintained for only about nine seconds, it is nonetheless an utterly gorgeous Easy Listening intro section. Riddle's arrangement keeps up both the spirit and pace, but presents the main melody with the help of a more commonplace horn ensemble. It is the reaction of the string players, though, that contain the enthralling coziness of the opening section by unleashing them in sudden crystalline bursts – most magnificent! The chorus melody is even more string-heavy and outshines the omnipresent brass structures. A phantasmagoric vibraphone intersection followed by gleaming trumpets rounds off the good mood of this splendid take. Witchcraft could have been your ordinary big band song, but once it flows through the hands of Nelson Riddle, it is married with vivacious, iridescently shimmering strings that elevate this to the status as one of Riddle's very best takes. So great!


The following Alone Too Long, originally written by Arthur Schwartz in 1954, is expectedly pale in comparison, but still able to shine on its own. It's an upbeat, violin- and harp-infused rhythm with additional piano sprinkles and paradisiac flutes which altogether provide a luxurious panorama for the smooth brass sections to shine. Finally, triangles accentuate the plasticity of this arrangement. The Exotica factor is big enough to distantly link Riddle's take to that genre as well. 

One of the missteps is up next: Bob Hilliard's Red Silk Stockings is comprised of the same wonderful interplay between brass and string instruments, but the jazzy big band nature of Riddle's interpretation isn't too enchanting, though the sum of its parts make this an admittedly great song. It just doesn't click with me. On the positive side are glistening piano droplets and opulently smashing brass fanfares in the second half. All is forgiven and forgotten thanks to, ahem, It's So Nice To Have A Man Around The House, one of Harold Spina's most famous compositions. The lounge mood is boosted thanks to the entrancing setup full of lavish strings that whirr gently around the slow beat, providing both shelter and warmth in juxtaposition to the cheeky trombone melodies and the bass tuba curlicues. Occasionally the strings are played in pizzicato style, and their attack rate is punchy and cozy at the same time, resembling the welcome effects of the titular Witchcraft.


The following You Fascinate Me So is another collaboration by Coleman and Leigh and is placed in the exact right spot, for it remains in slow beat territories. Riddle puts the piano accompaniment into the limelight at the beginning, but it is the slightly Eastern tone sequences of the strings, their neon colors and the delicious reaction of the silky alto flute that make this a fantastic song. Kitschy it is, yes, but the tonality is so great, and the reduction of the brass-related punchiness is welcome. Nitpickers would call this a streamlined song, but I beg to differ, for the last quarter of the song sees a proper showtune-esque return of the horn ensemble. It's the second of Riddle's essential tunes. Side A is done.

Side B presents a much more jazzy focus and launches with the sneaky, cymbal-laden and double bass-backed Playboy's Theme, yet another Coleman song. The dark bass tuba shards and piano droplets hark back to the track title, but cannot impress overall; it is in the middle section of the song that the piano melody is getting better, more vivid and catchy, and once the vibraphone is embedded into the mix, I'm suddenly rooting for this song. The string side is unexpectedly reduced, but this is actually done to the song's benefit. It oscillates masterfully between a Jazz quartet setup and a Hollywood string ensemble, and since this is the only one of Riddle's renditions to do this, its unique flavor works greatly. Another top pick in my book!


While Indiscreet by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn boosts the hectic and presents an almost frantic rhythm – considering the Easy Listening formula – full of staccato brass boulders, clinging triangle sparkles and superb horn eruptions, Riddle's take on Hoagy Carmichael's I Get Along Without You Fairly Well is another swinging tune of the jazzy kind but with a more fragile setting and quieter passages in which the respective instruments can truly shine: liquid piano drops, the golden thread of double bass backings as well as magnanimously allotted brass sections are set against a warm wall of luxurious strings that are nonetheless reduced once more to provide the proper background. Riddle's getting a bit foul-mouthed, as the next song is called Darn That Dream. Mothers, cover the eyes of your children. Luckily, the ears can relax more than a bit, as Riddle's take on Van Heusen's song begins with coruscating vibraphone scintillae, a literally syrupy brass base frame and careful percussion. It would have been a perfectly dreamy song thanks to the focus on the vibraphone, but unfortunately, the whitewashed horns are all too kitschy to my ears. It's the second misstep of the LP.


The final Blue Safari by Lou Stein puts the focus on the clarinet and gorgeously polyphonous flute melodies; even an acid guitar can be found in the setting. The seven-note melody on the strings is psychedelically warped and positively wonky, and due to the unusual instrumental setup that breaks the established formula of this LP, Nelson Riddle's Witchcraft! ends on a creative note in the given context of the Easy Listening genre.

Witchcraft! is a surprisingly varied LP despite its expectedly narrow scope. You can only add so many instruments to a big band and string orchestra, but Riddle succeeds in offering a few welcome ornaments like triangles, vibraphones, clarinets and double bass accentuations next to the obvious Hollywood strings and gleaming horns. The existence of this LP is worth it alone for the titular Witchcraft as well as the rapturous You Fascinate Me So. The punchiness of the strings is great, their multiple colors glint and glisten on every track, and it is both the piercing disturbance of many a trumpet or trombone and the overly saccharine horn sections that kill the bewitching nature of a few tunes, for example in Darn That Dream. My opinion, as usual, isn't set in stone. If you prefer big band elements in Easy Listening and Exotica records, you'll receive this record with totally different ears and from a different viewpoint.


I for one am a sucker for these technicolored strings, and in direct comparison to one of Nelson Riddle's other 1958 albums, Sea Of Dreams, it has a greater pool of instruments and more memorable melodies. Is Witchcraft! an Exotica LP? Not in the narrow sense, but if you're willed to count resplendent strings to the genre and are able to accept the complete omission of exotic percussion, you'll be satisfied with this release. Unfortunately, it isn't available in digital form at time of writing, but since so many of Riddle's LP's resurface, it's probably a matter of time until Witchcraft! appears in digital music stores – some of its compositions are scattered on various Best Of Nelson Riddle compilatons anyway. A proper release of Witchcraft!, however, would be worth it. I'm closing this review with an auspicious romance-related quote from the liner notes: "So if you can line up the lights, the breezes, the champagne, the supper and the enchantment, we supply Nelson Riddle and you have it made." 


Exotica Review 108: Nelson Riddle – Witchcraft! (1958). Originally published on Aug. 18, 2012 at