Bob Florence
Bongos / Reeds / Brass






Bob Florence (1932–2008) was a talented pianist and arranger, preferably for big band setups. Having worked and collaborated with many artists and leaders such as Count Basie and Frank Capp, Florence’s work Bongos / Reeds / Brass, released in 1960 on Arthur Lyman’s house label Hi-Fi Records and re-issued and digitally remastered in both a CD and download edition in the summer of 2010 by the Essential Media Group, finds the versatile musician in solo waters, working with his own band – whose members remain unmentioned in the liner notes – instead of depending on session musicians. As Florence’s very detailed biography on SpaceAgePop discloses, Florence was a true prodigy, but the things he knew best, namely setting up and helping big bands, grew out of fashion in the Surf Rock-heavy 60’s. He is hence probably best known by Exotica fans for his attendance in the recording session of Si Zentner’s and Martin Denny’s mighty Exotica Suite (1962), one of the rare occasions where a dedicated Exotica bandleader goes big band.


Bongos / Reeds / Brass differs greatly, and to be honest, it does not unleash the full force of Bob Florence’s skills. The mention of bongos in the title naturally triggers the interest of the Exotica or Space-Age connoisseur, and bongos you shall get, if only in an intermixed, streamlined form without any crazy percussion solos or segues. The inclusion of bongos alone does not make an Exotica record, and the same can be applied to Bob Florence’s LP. This one does not feature any hyper-frantic convoluted structure, let alone birdcalls, but some of its tracks can boost the grandeur in less-crowded tiki temples and dinners for two. And yet, most of the time, the material is soothing and exudes that scent of a tropical night due in large parts to the inclusion of a vibraphone. Once this is the case, the album is surprisingly similar to Warren Barker’s gorgeous Hawaiian Eye soundtrack (1960), albeit less texturized. On a second note, the presented table of 12 songs may comprise classic and upcoming Jazz standards, but the Lounge-like way in which they are realized is very soothing. The album only features two distinct moods: a song is either enchantingly mellow or built on the titular reeds and various eupeptic polyphonous flutes in a staccato style of play. This is, in the end, entirely fine with me. 


Side A opens with a rendition of Adolfo Utera’s and Eddie Rivera’s Green Eyes, and maybe it is just me, but there is an exotic flavor all over this piece, even if it is not as blatantly obvious as on the many hailed quartet releases one comes across at the beginning of his or her journey through the genre. Be it as it may, Florence succeeds with a great balance between mellow vibes and marimbas, polyphonous energetic brass stabs, a golden-shimmering piano and a great coalescence of punchy bongos and stomping timpani. Oscillating between Lounge-fueled daydreams and lightning visits in metropolitan areas, Green Eyes is a wonderfully harmonious opener despite the varied sum of its parts. Johnny Mercer’s Dream follows, and fans of Jackie Gleason will rejoice, not just because of the inclusion of enchantingly scintillating vibraphone sparks, but also due to spiraling clarinets and bass flutes which swirl above a whimsical, non-disturbing double bass-backed Jazz downbeat. Partially Far Eastern in style, Dream entrances with its legato mélange. 100% schmaltz-free!


While Johnny Mercer’s second inclusion together with Harold Arlen, the languorous Blues In The Night, puts the brass sections, vibraphone driblets and a cool guitar to the foreground and allows the neon lucency of the bongos to provide a delicately flashing backdrop, Billy Rose’s and Mabel Wayne’s It Happened In Monterey leaves the exotic climes for Manhattan as it is a mellifluous and easygoing big band tune by the number which is luckily ennobled by the short comebacks of the bongos and wobbling timpani. It is no bad tune at all, but entirely rooted in a concrete jungle. The brassy take on Jack Sharpe’s and Jerry Herst’s So Rare remains in the same location, decelerating the tempo even more, but it surprises with echoey bongos in the spotlight and cascading vibraphone intersections.


It is Clair De Lune by Claude Debussy which is completely changed to a superbly uplifting version with cowbells, quickly-paced bongos, hammering timpani and a sunlight-capturing performance of Florence on the piano despite the track title. On Clair De Lune the bandleader harks back to the diversion of the opener Green Eyes and unites the deviating parts with the same ease.


Side B launches with Button Up Your Overcoat, a tune originally concocted by Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson which in its presented state reminds strongly of Nelson Riddle’s arrangements on Witchcraft! (1958), especially so its bewitching titular opener. Euphonious brass sections, blue-tinged vibraphone and marimba flecks as well as piercing flutes and omnipresent bongos make this a proper big band tune which features less exotic, but all the more Space-Age artifacts. Nino Rota’s Theme From Romeo & Juliet follows and is closely adapted by Bob Florence. The original is a piano arrangement, and this is also the nucleus here, only loosened with a silky lead trombone and deep tubas. Romance ensues, but that has to be expected.


Ferde Grofé’s On The Trail brings back the screeching flutes that were an already potent part on Button Up Your Overcoat, but here they are much more present in this comical lacunar structure with its galloping beat, and short solo injections of many instruments. It is a terribly weak song to my mind, drawing from the wealth of different textures, but taking the wrong conclusion, for the melodies are too sugar-sweet.


Marguerite Monnot’s Poor People Of Paris, however, remains a favorite of mine thanks to its upbeat physiognomy, the gorgeous Exotica intersections full of aqueous marimbas and the short bursts of percussion prowess in adjacency to the well-known brass-covered melody. It is no exotic tune. But it is after all exotified. Helen Deutsch’s Hi Lili Hi Lo starts in a fashion that lets one think it is one of those tunes: schmaltzy brass washes float over the listener in a beatless surrounding, but soon enough, a surprisingly frantic – for Easy Listening habits – bongo groove is dropped and accompanies the thermal heat-invoking piano tercets and glistening vibraphone sprinkles. The schmaltz factor is lessened due to the tempo, but rest assured that this rendition cannot overcome the love philter-supported view through rose-tinted glasses.


The outro, Chester Wallace’s and Sherman Myer’s humongous Moonlight On The Ganges, is a real treat in its presented form, for Bob Florence goes all-in and unchains all percussive devices he has in store and comes up with an electrifying Latin take full of convivial trumpets, clear-cut double bass aortas and harmonious brass-vibraphone couples, ending the album with a real bang and a danceable rhythm that was sorely missed most of the time heretofore.


Bongos / Reeds / Brass is a good artifact of the Space-Age era which will deliver much joy to the big band afficionado who favors lighter, less acidic arrangements over the spy theme-heavier concoctions which are so close at hand in this genre, for instance in Hugo Montenegro’s competitive entry of the same year, Bongos And Brass. With the exception of the mighty closer Moonlight On The Ganges and the catchy metamorphosis of Clair De Lune, Bob Florence’s album lacks a certain energy and inventiveness. Sure, we are talking about an Easy Listening album, so there must not occur overly eclectic rhythms or alienating fugues, or else the formerly intended audience will be scared away. But even in the Easy Listening melting pot that can – but does not necessarily need to – comprise of genres like Exotica, Space-Age and Lounge, there is a certain room for short, seconds-long surprises and cleverly thought out attacks. This room or niche does not remain unnoticed; Florence’s marimba section in Poor People Of Paris is a welcome place of tropical shelter that differs so entirely from the expected harmonica- or accordion-based Parisian clichés. The permanent consideration of mallet instruments is a big plus as well, as these devices are found in each of the 12 arrangements.


And yet do I miss the full force of the bongos or congas which can even be injected in this supposedly streamlined genre. Take the Kokee Band’s much better-balanced and more energetic Exotica 1970 (1966) into account: Arthur Baum’s band of roundabout 15 members shuttles between the soothing realms and bodacious adventures, as does Bob Florence, but focuses on the percussion side, resulting in a greater verve, drive and gripping segues. Bongos / Reeds / Brass is an honestly well-behaved album where the bongos are as important as – who would have thought? – the included reeds and brass instruments. Its moony bits such as Dreams and Blues In The Night are great on their own, as is the Riddle-esque Button Up Your Overcoat, but these are not overly exotic. Lounge fans and Jackie Gleason followers who do not know this album yet can faithfully risk a pre-listening session over at Amazon or iTunes. Diehard and specialized Exotica fans, in contrast, can dismiss everything but the last track.


Further reading:
The biographic and discography-related info on Bob Florence over at SpaceAgePop is very detailed. A great article!


Exotica Review 169: Bob Florence – Bongos / Reeds / Brass (1960). Originally published on Jan. 12, 2012 at