Demasiado Caliente (translatable as way too hot) by vibraphonist Cal Tjader (1925–1982) remains curiously under the radar of Exotica fans despite its glaring red color on both the front artwork and the vinyl plus the beautiful, not-so-innocent lady. And indeed does this Mambo- and Tango-focused Latin record not specifically target the audience of Martin Denny or Arthur Lyman, but there is one unique driving force which elevates this LP into tribal spheres: the totally eclectic drum patterns and percussion instruments are among the best of the genre and on par with Pérez Prado's Exotic Suite Of The Americas of 1962, which itself is famous for its high amount of unleashed ritualistic drum patterns! Mark my words, Cal Tjader's vibraphone isn't a one-trick pony, but is incessantly outshone and even completely helpless and missing once his percussionists are on the go. This particular strength of the album is lessened by a decidedly alienating concept: Demasiado Caliente features two recording sessions, one of Tjader's septet in a studio in San Francisco, comprising of four compositions, and another one of a five track-vignette of his sextet's gig at The Blackhawk Jazz Club in the same city. Strangely enough, both the live gig and the recording session are chopped and mixed, creating a hodgepodge of studio tracks followed by live versions. Due to this reason, I am first reviewing the studio material (with the numbers in brackets right after each title), followed by the live gig, and a synopsis in the final paragraph. The septet includes Cal Tjader on the vibes, Eddie Cano on the piano, Al McKibbon on the bass, Tony Terran as a trumpeter, Modesto Briseno as the flutist and on the alto sax, Willie Bobo on the percussion instruments as well as Mongo Santamaria on the congas. The sextet incarnation exchanges pianist Eddie Cano with Lonnie Hewitt, bassist Al McKibbon with Victor Venegas and flutist Modesto Briseno with José Lozano.
The septet’s studio session launches with Key Largo (track 2), a wonderful blend of three different subgenres never envisioned in the first place by its original composers and writers Benny Carter, Karl Suessdorf and Leah Worth: Tony Terran’s piercing lamento of the saxophone evokes tropical nights of the Retro Latin style, Mongo Santamaria’s laid back conga aorta injects a bold dose of Jungle Exotica to the soundscape, and Cal Tjader’s luminescent vibraphone rounds the arrangement off with a well-embedded nocturnal glint of metropolitan Cool Jazz skylines. Eddie Cano’s piano chords are vestigial, but offer the mild counterpart to the lead melody. The whole band plays deliberately easygoing and way below their usual skill meter. Speaking of Cano: the following three tracks are all written by him and rev up the dynamic interplay in a decided style. The three minutes of Bludan (track 4) consist of a sped-up Tango rhythm fueled by a passionate red-tinted trumpet and alto sax staccato couple, Willie Bobo’s carefully clicking claves and Modesto Briseno’s play of both the sax and a wonderfully paradisiac alto flute melody. It is in the middle section when the eight-note brass stab theme becomes more energetic and typically Latin. The heated up piano spirals boost the ardency which is then lessened by Tjader’s crystalline vibe shards that shift into wondrously polyphonous realms at the end, becoming the center of attention and leaving the Tango behind. Cano’s second piece Chispita (track 5) provides an eminently carefree atmosphere, with many tones in major. Tjader’s lead on the vibe is harmoniously accentuated by the euphonious whirrs of the brass sections and a silky piano chord. The concoction is already exotic, but once the gleeful flute tones are unleashed in juxtaposition to the sun-dried interplay, a peaceful lightness in the veins of The New York Jazz Quartet’s Gone Native (1957) is perceptible. The final Cal’s Pals (track 7) finishes the studio session with the most melodious show tune, its bigger scope being undeniable and definitely enchanting: a tense but good-natured eight-note brass theme is underlined by iridescent vibes which then take over this piece of friendship. Their sustain conflates with the background which is further carved out by Bobo’s silky shakers. The second phase of this is arrangement is keener on the Latin style thanks to the brazen instruments literally gleaming before this ditty ends with a smashed cymbal.
The gig at The Blackhawk Jazz Club in San Francisco is probably more intriguing for Exotica fans, if only for its greater percussion-related focus and innovative bridges. The gig is opened with Manila, but it is not the expected version which was made famous by Martin Denny, but a unique Mambo of percussionist Mongo Santamaria and hence displays always perceptible bongos next to José Lozano’s effervescent flute tones in high regions, Lonnie Hewitt’s piano backings and Willie Bobo’s sudden cowbell bursts. Cal Tjader remains in the back, as Santamaria’s flute outshines every other instrument. A convivial Exotica piece! The seven-minute Jungle Jazzscape Tumbao is next, co-written by Cal Tjader and Rubén González. It relies heavily on aquatic vibraphone tones, some of them in Far Eastern regions, but the true stars are undeniably Bobo and Santamaria with an eclectic percussive pattern and various solo performances of several minutes! Only the birdcalls are missing, but everything else is on board to make this a tribal Exotica outing par excellence. The tempo is revved up, the rhythm changes often, the entanglement of the congas, bongos, cowbells and bamboo rods is breathtaking, and it is only in the final 45 seconds that Tjader and bandmates return to great applause with their respective instruments. Tumbao is the best track on the album, though the sextet’s take on Maxwell Anderson’s and Kurt Weill’s September Song is a considerably charming downbeat contender with schlepped piano notes and a less vivid but nonetheless tropical play on the percussive side. Hewitt’s performance on the piano is decidedly jazzy, but meshes well with the presence of the percussion instruments. After Cal Tjader offers utterly dreamy closing chords on the vibes, Mongo Santamaria’s Para Ti launches with Al McKibbon’s double bass backings and a vibe-piano couple accompaniment to Modesto Briseno’s mercurial flute melody that resurrects the spirit of Manila, making Para Ti a slowed down encore to it. The final Mamblues by Clark Terry and Cal Tjader is presented here with a boldly augmented percussion section that plays out well in adjacency to the jumpy vibraphone tones. The breeze of the cymbals and the frantic claves are allowed to shine once more. In a pattern similar to Tumbao, the final 45 seconds or so invite the remaining players of the sextet to join with their instruments for the humble but complex showdown.
Demasiado Caliente is a superb Exotica album whose grandeur is lessened by the dubiously deliberate mixup of the live gig with the studio session, but since it is available in a digital download version on many music stores, the listener can regroup the respective titles if he or she so desires. The focus on the percussion is utterly successful and highly refreshing, even in comparison to the majority of Tjader's complete works which became mellower and funkier as the 60's progressed, culminating in the placid phantasmagoria called Solar Heat. The roughness, dynamics and energy of Willie Bobo's and Mongo Santamaria's battles on the drums are altogether breathtaking, and the reaction of the crowd is well-deserved. If such a reaction is lacking, you are listening to a studio track, so that is one way of determining the origin of a respective take. Stellar highlights are Tumbao and Mamblues, both of which are played at the Blackhawk Jazz Club. Their convoluted eclecticism is much appreciated and puts them over the top of the otherwise equally successful, if definitely mellower and more convivial tracks. The paradisiac flutes implicate a care-free way of living, the brass instruments are shining, and it is Cal's Pals that uses the latter in a bold show tune style, although the song moves into jazzier territories after the introductory fanfare. This is a Latin album without one single doleful or lamenting tone sequence. Despite this observation, it isn't luckily all too saccharine either, for the cheerful darkness of the drums makes it slightly more serious, but this assertion is almost imperceptible. Demasiado Caliente is an effervescent Exotica album due to the constant omnipresence of the drums and Cal Tjader's luminous vibes. It is one of Exotica's lost albums – easily available, but deemed non-essential. I would beg to differ.
Exotica Review 137: Cal Tjader – Demasiado Caliente (1960). Originally published on Oct. 27, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.