Les Baxter
Jungle Jazz






There's anything more resplendent than visiting a jungle within the save boundaries of your home, be it by watching Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in the 1951 blockbuster African Queen, by playing the resource-hungry but beautiful computer game Crysis of 2007… or, naturally, by placing a beautiful Exotica LP or the respective digital version of it on your player or in your playlist. Enter Les Baxter (1922–1996) with his brass-overfoaming and probably most glaringly jazzy opus of the 50's called Jungle Jazz, released on Capitol Records in 1959.


Recorded in January and February of the same year, Baxter visits the various Polynesian, Melanesian and South American jungles, all of them glowing in saturated green nuances, and takes the listener with him on a decidedly tropical – and unique – journey that is unfortunately filled with many concrete jungle landscapes as well. However, none of the twelve compositions is based on already-known material! After the success of the album's soul brother African Jazz (recorded in 1958, released in '59), Baxter comes up once again with entirely original material that has never been featured on any other LP before. There is one particular stylistic choice that is highly debatable; it causes the most energetic hooks of any Baxter album of that decade, but at the same time, it somewhat degrades the solemnity of the aural jungle more than just a little bit. I'm talking about the large brass ensemble with famous tenor saxophonist Plas Johnson reprising his role of African Jazz.


Even though there is a multitude of mallet instruments, flutes and percussive devices intertwined in each and every composition, the big band flavor is strongly perceptible during each passing minute, making this one of Baxter's few albums that rely less on the dreamy string side than on pompously brazen trumpets. Since these instruments are also used in a smooth, silky way, there's anything wrong with Baxter's shifted focus on Jungle Jazz, but be aware of a glaring spy theme flavor that grows larger as the album progresses. And here's the problem: you cannot have both a spy flavor and dreaminess featured in one single song. Since I'm usually favoring languorous settings, Jungle Jazz offers less of them than the usual Baxter record, but the dynamic range is a nice change indeed, so I have no real complaints to make. But enough of these quibbles, let's check out the twelve jungles – it's actually a smaller name-related number, but read more about this below.

Brazilia is the point of departure and lives up to the album title due to its strong focus on big band-fueled Jazz soundscapes. Starting in medias res with a fast-paced reverberated bongo and conga groove already intact, downwards spiraling horns and accentuating brass sections are rounded off by jumpy vibraphone glints… and that's the whole formula of the song already. What is so surprising and utterly welcome is the reduced approach which, in tandem with the eupeptic rhythm, creates a resplendent panorama nonetheless. With anything else but various horn sections, exotic percussion and vibes, Baxter creates a tribal maelstrom with multifaceted and tremendously catchy brass stabs. It's an exotically swinging big band tune par excellence.


Up next is Rain Forest where Baxter already introduces more instruments in the first ten seconds than on the whole two minutes of Brazilia. Wondrous harp spirals, vibraphone glitz, trembling violins and the smooth brass legato make up a nice introductory phase which is complemented by paradisiac flutes, shaken maracas and pumping jungle drums. Plas Johnson's tenor saxophone carries the whole track later on, with convivial brass echoes, orchestra bells and Baxter's – albeit thinned – signature Hollywood strings rounding off a good-natured, exciting movement through the jungle thickets. The conductor ventures forth with the spotting of a Papagayo, and it is here that the intrinsic style changes for the first time, as it is expanded by a cocktail-evoking vibraphone frame, the only appearance of a female chantress, a rather dirty saxophone and sun-lit counterparts in form of exhilarative flutes and violin strings. Yet again is the mood entirely embracing, there's even a pre-James Bond spy flavor attached. It's an eminently progressive arrangement with an ever-changing amount of different melodies and bridges.

What has been missing up to this point is the true enigma, a playful mystique that is featured on each and every Exotica-related Baxter album of the 50's. Now is the time to revisit this mood with the stunning
Amazon Falls. Starting with a flute-based ten-note motif, the skilled musicians immediately unleash the most lavish Space-Age strings, liquedous piano droplets and gentle maracas. The mood is upbeat and yet enchanting enough to consider this a dreamy masterpiece. Even the strong brass flavor in the middle section does not alter this perception, as the strings continue to waft audibly in the background. Finishing with the inclusion of clanging drums, the brazen Lounge lands of Coco are reached, with a maracas-focused percussion, a wonderful piano that almost sounds like an electric piano, and the most piercing brass eruptions on the whole album; they shimmer in the most vivid ways, evoke a show tune style and have their power further boosted by smashing cymbals and droning timpani.


The final piece of side A is called Carnival Merengue which is interestingly enough the only piece that takes the listener back to civilization, and then in a glaring way. The effervescent main melody is built with three instruments: horns, flutes and piano chords. The maracas, bongos, cowbells and triangles bring in plasticity to the mix, and the vibraphone interludes let the song twinkle all the more. In the end, this is still a proper big band take, even more so when the grandeur rises towards the final phase, where it is all about the trumpets, trombones and saxophones which altogether swallow the percussion with ease.

Side B continues in the same brass-laden way and takes the listener to the astonishingly catchy
Isle Of Cuba. Baxter delivers a true Mambo here, with festive horns, two-note vibe accents, gleeful flutes and deep piano notes. If there's one song off Jungle Jazz to sing along with easily, it's Isle Of Cuba, although there's a rhythmic shift in the second part that takes the percussion and the vibraphone melody to frantic dimensions. A show tune-like rising trumpet melody marks the end of this highly attractive tune. While the all too jazzy Blue Jungle presents a Blues-like setting with not much else other than Johnson's film noir-esque saxophone whose reverb resonates with the darkness, spy theme-evoking wave-like double bass backings, admixed piano tercets and a multitude of earth-shaking horns, the following Voodoo Dreams marks a fantastic course correction with a blue-tinted icy legato of the string orchestra, lavish flute tones and dark tuba rumblings. Once the marimba-laden percussion and the slightly Far Eastern horn eruptions are put in place, it is the reverb of the multilayered percussion that truly shines. The trumpets become even wilder, and the more soothing parts become quieter, resulting in a dynamic cat-and-mouse game. 

One Thousand Cockatoos is more vivid, with polyphonous marimbas and dreamy alto flutes interwoven into a Brazilian rhythm full of clinging and chinking instruments, with ebullient strings and thunderous horns, making this one of the most cinematic action pieces of the album. The penultimate Go Chango is a letdown to my ears in the given context, as it is a clear-cut spy theme with a danger-evoking pitch-black brass melody and a lackluster rhythm shift in the middle that may augment the bongo side of the percussion, but continues to depend on dozens of brass players. The intimacy or innocence of a forlorn jungle is nowhere to be found, and even though there's anything wrong with the brass sections per se, they are too intimidating, acidic and cool in regard to the overarching topos.


The final Jungle Brava presents a similar mood with dark and brighter lit horns as it depicts a chase scene through the jungle. It's a disappointing end to an otherwise great album. Again, Baxter delivers a pumping, energetic peace, but therein lies the problem, as it sounds too jazzy and common. It's definitely a less-exotic piece with only small traces of a jungle feeling, so the title is clearly promising more than Baxter delivers. And so does an otherwise great album end on a decisively metropolitan, urban note – maybe that's a wakeup call coming at the right time, as the listener cannot remain in these tropical vistas forever. 

Jungle Jazz remains one of Les Baxter's loudest, most vibrant albums. The brass sections are in the limelight all the time, varying from silky sections over melodious jumpiness to shattering stabs. In regard to his usual Exotica output and the LP's of other artists, Jungle Jazz feels saturated, overloaded but also more jazzy due to its large big band-aided scope. Since the percussion is exotic and there are flutes and mallet instruments aplenty, it is a successful release nonetheless. If you are looking for the dreamy strings that make Baxter's music so compelling, you will find them here as well – in contrast to African Jazz – but they are only of secondary importance. Especially side B swings like crazy and turns into a spy theme-laden critter that leaves the jungle far behind, despite its auspicious titles.


There are two specifically gorgeous compositions, each entirely different from each other: while Amazon Falls unites the Space-Age reverie with the endemic big band flavor, Isle Of Cuba provides the catchiest melodies and is a very bright and blithesome Mambo, although it cannot be linked to the overarching jungle theme. Only one single tune – Papagayo – provides female chants, and it remains curious to me why Baxter did not come up with more vocal-interspersed compositions, let alone a few birdcalls or field recordings, since the topic is perfectly suitable for such inclusions. All things considered, Jungle Jazz is a different, but worthwhile Les Baxter record. Exotica fans who aren not afraid of proper big band setups and spy theme atmospheres will find lots of gems in here. The percussion is top-notch, the melodies memorable and the brass sections humongous. Did I already mention that Baxter comes up with a whopping twelve original songs, which he hardly ever did on his exotic works, at least not in such a high amount? The LP is one of his rarer pieces, but there's a remastered digital download version available in all usual music stores. Enchantment, conviviality and intimidation – that's Jungle Jazz in a nutshell. 


Exotica Review 143: Les Baxter – Jungle Jazz (1959). Originally published on Nov. 10, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.