Stanley Black
Exotic Percussion






British film composer, skilled arranger and prolific pianist Stanley Black (1913–2002) was one of the greatest personae of the United Kingdom who has covered virtually every style one can link to orchestral setups, and like his British fellows Ron Goodwin and Norrie Paramor, many of Black's works can be rightfully counted to the Exotica genre, among them the classic Moonlight Cocktail of 1957 or the particularly colorful Exotic Percussion, released at the end of 1961 on Decca Records, that picks up the threads of the North American Exotica craze that reached England during a time when its novelty factor wore already thin in the U.S., but still drew huge numbers of visitors into the tiki temples and lounges. It remains one of Black's best-known genre-related works thanks to its focus on the titular percussive instruments.


Sadly, this release isn't all about the music. If you take a look at the cover, you immediately get the sense that there's something wrong. Sure, the mandatory beautiful woman is depicted on the front cover, but it's so small compared to the ginormous green 4. And sure enough is this release targeted at audiophiles. Released on the Phase Four series, the recording equipment of the same name that is also depicted on the back cover ensures the highest quality in the whole universe and beyond, a selling point that lies usually in the domain of Enoch Light who all too often succumbed to the sound quality instead of providing interesting or – gasp! – unique compositions. But enough of my bile, for Exotic Percussion stands the test of time and remains to this day an awe-inspiring work thanks to the large amount of wood sticks, congas, timpani and the prominent feature of the choir who performs the lyrics in a positively melodramatic fashion in the vein of Alfred Newman's and Ken Darby's Ports Of Paradise.


Luckily, the 12 renditions of Exotic Percussion aren't that pompous and over the top, but inherit the spirit and intimacy of the original pieces most of the time. And now to the spoiler: this is one of my Top 10 vintage Exotica releases of all times, vivacious to the max and a jolly ride through tropical jungles and eye-wetting beaches. Even though it is an orchestral release, the notable omission of violin strings make this release more intimate and true to the genre's origins than one might expect by the first look of things. This LP is very close to my heart, and thus my review might be overly glowing. In this case, turn down the brightness of your display (enter rimshot here) if you want to read on.

Black launches the LP with
Nacio Herb Brown's and Arthur Freed's classic Temptation, and it is a good choice, for it is generally well-received among the Exotica fanbase, but not overly often interpreted. Starting with thin trombones, staccato bongos and a polyphonous all-female choir singing Teeemp-taaaa-tiooon, the song breaks loose with droning timpani drums, xylophone-glockenspiel couplets, paradisiac flutes and the choir delivering spectral ooh-ooh and aah-aah accentuations. Even though the drums are threatening, the lead trumpet piercing and the military march intermission kind of cryptic, this is, all things considered, a successful opener that paints a resplendent panorama with manifold instruments. The cascading harp sweeps boost the quality even further. Bravo!


Keeping the impressive scale intact, Thurlow Lieurance's rare By The Waters Of Minnetonka lifts off with dreamy harp washes of the Asian kind, clinging cymbals and spiraling alto flutes while the choir is ooh-oohing along the way. The laid-back bongo groove and the two-note Far Eastern flute accompaniment work really well in tandem. The second phase relies even more on the harps and vibraphones, nurturing the phantasmagoria further. The melody is negligible, it's all about the textures and interplay of the instruments, and such being the case, Black succeeds big time. The choir is perfectly embedded in the mix, neither too loud and over the top, nor too whimsical. 

By The Waters Of Minnetonka is therefore a terrific piece, and it won't be the last, for Adieu Tristesse by Antonio Carlos Jobim lives up to the hype of the album title and fires off with convoluted, high-plasticity percussion layers and orchestra bells. The rhythm changes soon afterwards, and now the song becomes utterly sunny and care-free: the lead melody is played on the accordion and accompanied by polyphonous flute bursts, various mallet instrument droplets and a sun-soaked guitar. The song ends as it began, with a further rhythm shift into tribal realms.


While Jungle Drums by Ernesto Lecuona, Charles O'Flynn and Carmen Lombardo starts with blurry timpani drums and moves over to gorgeously vivacious flute patterns, saccharine harp strings, soothing choir passages (with whispers!), and an eclectic drum frame that leads to a technicolored fanfare-like climax, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's four minutes long Hymn To The Sea changes the pace once again as it remains in Ambient waters with gently droning orchestra drums, Middle Eastern shawm-like performances on the flute and spiraling vibraphone patterns that lead to Far Eastern tone sequences. The glaring-red horns blast more gently than incisively, and the mystic chants of the choir add to the hazy atmosphere. Finishing side A off is Ernesto Lecuona's woodstick- and xylophone-accompanied bongo groove of Babalu, also sung by the choir in different tonalities. The warbled jungle flute is a superb addition, as are the glinting harp sprinkles and the thankfully reduced brass instruments that are used carefully. The rhythmic shift in the second phase of the composition is way more upbeat and jocular. Side A has not one single dud, each and every composition caters to my needs, is vivid and blithesome. 

Side B has all the Exotica classics on it, that's the short description. But first does the pale luminescence of
Burton Lane's Old Devil Moon greet the listener with a thicket of percussive devices and drums before a catchy, choir-underlined eight-note brass fanfare is fired off that glows in all colors of the rainbow. Frantic bongos rev up the tempo while iridescently glistening vibraphones play a superb version of the brass melody. On this composition, the melodies are as important as the ever-changing stock of used instruments. A frantic but überstrong track, sizzling-hot and crazily catchy.


It's Ary Barroso's Baía that can be counted as the first Exotica piece by the numbers, well-known to any listener who is distantly interested in the genre. The bass flute is playing the main melody, the female choir goes wild, and the glockenspiel-vibraphone couplings add glitz to the maracas groove. Silky brass accompaniments round this rendition off. It's time for another nocturnal skit. The famous Moon Of Manakoora is traversed by temple gongs, harp strings, bass flutes and downspiraling vibraphones. The best part, however, is the sped-up tempo in the middle section that curiously enough doesn't destroy the dreaminess, but remains stuck in the head thanks to the easygoing shakers which make up a great counterpart to the droning timpani. Sure enough, Misirlou is added as well in a mallet instrument-fueled version, complete with towering brass sections and a bongo craze that's positively wonky and utterly savage. Every instrument is played in staccato style, degrading the potential majesty of this classic in favor of a ritual-evoking depiction. Very grand and a nice change in comparison to the Hollywood string versions out there.


While Ted Grouya's and Edmund Anderson's Flamingo is a fan-tas-tic take that wafts like a golden mirage through the air due to the dooh-doohing choir, the consistent downtempo and the harmonious blend of harp strings with alto flutes and galloping bongos, the final piece, Duke Ellington's Caravan is based on euphonious xylophone drops, smashing cymbals, shawm-like alto and bass flutes as well as sunset horns, muffled harp gleams. Unexpectedly enough and despite the rhythmic shifts that are allotted throughout the LP, Stanley Black keeps the rhythm intact in this version as well, quite a surprise given the many versions out there with changing tempos. Anyway, side B is ever so slightly weaker as side A, but not by much. 

Exotic Percussion by Stanley Black outshines countless of Exotica releases. I don't care about the Phase Four recording skit, it's all about the compositions here. Hence I'm applauding Mr. Black for two particular reasons: firstly for the omnipresence of the all-female choir which is always adding to the quality of each and every song. Never are the ladies out of place or overly melodramatic. Their voices always fit, provide dreaminess where it is needed or colorful glitz when appropriate. Secondly, Exotic Percussion proudly presents the very rare case of an orchestral album without any pianos or violin strings! It would have been so tempting to add these instruments on the Latin pieces or moon-lit ballads, but even by the end of 1961, it has been done by so many people that Black chose their omission wisely.


Since the only string instruments comprise of guitars and harps and as the use of the brass ensemble is much reduced, this LP stands firmly in the tradition of Exotica quartet releases, although the scope is definitely larger. This is, as I've stated in the opening paragraph, one of my Top 10 vintage Exotica pieces with not a single flaw, at least not to my perception. It's very easy to grasp and enjoy, even Exotica novices, orchestra haters and those who fear jazzy interpretations or complex third-stream experiments will be happy with this easily available – and that'll be the last word of my review – masterpiece!


Exotica Review 109: Stanley Black – Exotic Percussion (1961). Originally published on Aug. 18, 2012 at