Henry Mancini
The Latin Sound






There's a flood of Latin albums on the market. Exotica came and went, then came back for good. Latin never went away. Even today it's worth for the glitziest Pop artist to consider Latin-themed songs. Back in the 60's, this rule of thumb was applicable as well, and so it came to pass in 1965 that one Henry Mancini (1924–1994) came up with a Latin album of twelve tracks called The Latin Sound Of Henry Mancini. The term Latin comprises of dozens of styles and subgenres, as does the term Exotica. Mancini resides on the Easy Listening side of the Latin spectrum, merging Samba rhythms with iridescent Hollywood strings, hence creating a faux-Latin album if you will. There are neither particularly hot-blooded compositions nor mood-crushing lamentos to be found on this album.


Although eleven of the twelve tracks consist of traditional material and modern classics by Latin composers, Mancini is keen on displaying the vivacious power of his orchestra's strings whenever he can. He then adds exotic percussion, horn sections, piano notes and alto flutes to the arrangements and creates an appealing cocktail that oscillates in equipollent parts between Latin, Exotica and Easy Listening. The last of these listed genres is usually problematic and leaves a stale aftertaste, but Mancini accomplishes to come up with certain moments and intersections in most of the tracks that are utterly melodious or captivating in all kinds of ways. It is refreshing to hear well-known Latin classics like The Breeze And I, for instance, which were usually composed with an orchestra in mind, but then presented by trios and quartets from the 50's onwards. Mancini, as many composers like Nelson Riddle, Norrie Paramor or naturally Les Baxter did before him, offers a third option where the intimacy of Exotica is merged with a sumptuous, string-heavy orchestra. Read on if you want to know whether Mancini's operation is successful and the eleven Latin tracks plus a surprise are worth it. And it is that special composition out of twelve which is not of Latin origin, but adds a sympathetic touch to the album…

… and this very composition is placed at the opening spot. 
The Latin Sound of Henry Mancini launches in a magnificent way, putting a bold emphasis on the meaning of the album title, for in the first track, Mancini rearranges one of his own world-famous tracks. "Señor" Peter Gunn is presented in 6/8 time and starts with Hammond organ whooshes, sneaky Rock guitar backings and a glorious trumpet solo. The tension soon rises due to the slow fade-in of the well-known, danger-evoking brass sections and Hollywood string accompaniments. It is a great reinterpretation of the Peter Gunn spy theme, but in the end, it's not Latin at all, but remains a splendid crime chase that happens to be played in 6/8 time. This, to my mind, is the actual significant change.


Up next is a take on Ary Baroso's Baía, and it is lush and laid-back due to its creeking guiro shakers that accompany the four-note motif played on silky alto flutes. A smooth trumpet is added, the whole setup is very intimate and quiet, but before the first minute is over, glaring-red sunset strings float in and are answered by tremendously euphonious brethren, making this a majestic string-heavy offering that even swallows the embedded acoustic guitar frame. It's a terrific version, quite exotic due to its shakers, but not overly Latin in style as it favors a mellifluously dusky approach of the scenery over a hot-blooded energetic concoction.


Edmundo Zaldívar's joyful Carnavalito is the song where Mancini turns things up a notch without going overly crazy. Starting with an intimidating three-note motif on the baneful trumpet and a luxuriously auroral answer by quavering violin washes, the song moves into a proper Samba piece from there on with cacophonous piano spirals, bass guitar twangs, sky-high flutes and blissful strings. Proper focus is also set on the percussion with its eclectic maracas and marimba droplets. The freely flowing trumpet solo meshes well with the opulent strings, making this rendition a success despite its strong quirkiness of the flutes and piano layers.


While Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars (Corcovado) by Antonio Carlos Jobim offers a James Last-like uplifting mellowness with melting organs, gentle horns and gorgeously warped backing strings – reminding of Mancini's Lujon – which altogether create an absolutely delicious dreaminess, Gonzalo Curiel's Vereda Tropical is an underwhelming track with overly sweet alto flutes, syrupy horns, saccharine harpsichords and schmaltzy strings. Only the last 25 seconds turn out to be great due to the inclusion of underlining piano sprinkles, but all in all, this is prototypical Easy Listening by the numbers without any surprise. The final song of side A is a killer track, though, especially due to its dripping percussion: Guararé by Ricardo Fabregas paints a tropical jungle landscape with a long exotic percussion intro, a warmly glowing staccato nine-note string and trumpet motif and an alternative version of that motif on a car horn-like electric piano preset. Whatever happens in that track, whether a paradisiac flute is wafting or an improvised piano is playing jumpy Latin tone sequences, the exhilarative percussion is always present. A super-strong rendition!

Side B launches with the traditional
La Raspa known by virtually every listener on the planet. This cheeky piece isn't particularly intriguing, it is too quirky to take it seriously even by Easy Listening standards, but Mancini makes the best of the situation, coming up with the famous theme on the xylophone that is answered by brass eruptions. The rhythm is shifting, which is actually a bummer, for the accordion backings and the vivacious marimba tones give this tune an unexpected twist. Mancini's version is best when it leaves the famous melody and moves to improvised bridges that tie the chorus together. No matter how hard I try to mock it… this version is very good!


The same can be said about Ernesto Lecuona's famous The Breeze And I. Yet again are the percussion instruments in the spotlight, as bongos and castanets meet and merge from the start. The solemnity is augmented by a deep horn in the background, but it is the phantasmagoric washes of the orchestra strings that take the listener to seraphic realms. Alas, two counteracting devices are implemented, namely a harpsichord that seems out of place plus a warbled electric piano that is played in high regions, thereby dampening the celestial breeze which is maintained by the strings. However, I like the version all in all.


While Preciosa written by Rafael Hernández is chock-full of punchy acoustic guitar licks and dreamily oscillating backing strings and their melodramatic "sisters", Come To The Mardi Gras is too kitschy for my likings. Shuffling between a carnivalesque mood and rose-tinted romance, Mancini doesn't seem to know where to take this song. A dull Easy Listening ditty that ought to be skipped. Osvaldo Farrés Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps (Quizas, Quizas, Quizas) is next, and yet again, two distinctive moods clash, for one the playful glockenspiel-flute parades with welcome bursts of Hammond organs, followed by a melancholia that is nurtured by lamento strings and an intermixed trumpet. I prefer Michel Magne's utterly crazy and over-the-top interpretation anytime. Still, Mancini ends this album with the rapid-firing Tico-Tico, another world-famous Latin theme that launches with the chirping of a cuckoo and goes nuts from there. It's a rather complex setup, as lots of instruments float in and out within seconds. It's the most joyful song of the album that reunites organs, strings, horns, percussion and mallet instruments for a final quick take that ends with cuckoo chants.

The Latin Sound Of Henry Mancini is a superb album that stands in sharp contrast to his harpsichord misstep Music Of Hawaii of 1966. There are only slight glints of a lamenting melancholia scattered in some of the interpretations, while the majority consists of lavish string sections and silky horn parts. The percussion is usually in the background, but is sometimes put to the forefront and shines all the more, for instance on Guararé. Due to the focus on the strings, there is no rough Latin feeling perceptible. Instead, a streamlined version is presented. Only the last three tracks are a bit nerve-racking, but I can cope with that.


There is one opportunity that Mancini half-missed: why did he only reinterpret one single composition of his own? "Señor" Peter Gunn is a nice opener, even its auspicious name is downright funny and closely related to the album title, but in-between the various classics, there would have been room for another retake or two, maybe even unique compositions. But these are only minor quibbles, and I for one am glad that Mancini resisted to jump on the harpsichord-heavy Funk bandwagon with this release, as he unfortunately did in the later years when his truly exotic offerings became less important to him; the signs of the times, I suppose. Particularly successful compositions include BaíaQuiet Nights Of Quiet Stars (Corcovado) andCarnavalito, while the traditional La Raspa is my personal reminder about keeping an open mind and staying true to my 5 Golden Rules: what seems to be an unnerving rendition of a jocular ditty that contains even less soul than other Easy Listening pieces at first, is turned around by Mancini who comes up with interesting bridges whose curlicues and euphonious eruptions make up for the dull moments and expected schemes.


Mancini delivers a vivid Easy Listening album that is closely tied to both the Latin and Exotica genre. And even though it's Easy Listening, there are lots of superb chords, twangs and bursts on this release that break the spell and outshine the streamlined approach. Recommended even for those listeners who don't like Latin music in general. The Latin Sound Of Henry Mancini is easily available in various formats, as its state as a classic release is thankfully recognized by marketing people and sales managers, thank you very much.


Exotica Review 115: Henry Mancini – The Latin Sound (1965). Originally published on Sep. 1, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.