Barney Kessel
Latin Rhythms





What better way to start this review than with the following sentence: Contemporary Latin Rhythms by guitarist Barney Kessel (1923–2004), released in 1963, is one of the best Latin albums ever created… because it is actually an Exotica release! I cannot stress this assertion enough, as it is not overly well-known in these circles. Twelve musicians deliver ten different, presumably Latin cuts, but again, the prospect evoked by this album is not necessarily fulfilled. One Latin fan's flaw is an Exotica lover's advantage. Or as Stanley Wilson of Pagan Love (1961) fame fittingly states in the liner notes: "Latin music has moved much closer to our own." Thus, the presented material is surprisingly exotic and less about Latin clichés than you might imagine. Even perfectly normal North American tunes are featured here, and they are admittedly Latinized quite a bit. Their real driving factor, though, is and remains Exotica, I kid you not.


Contemporary Latin Rhythms is roughly comparable to the already splendidly exotic and dreamy Gone Native (1957) by the New York Jazz Quartet, but even that album is more Latin than Kessel's artifact. Six renditions and four unique tracks by Barney Kessel made it to the green-tinged album. While Kessel is prominently featured with his guitar on all of the tracks, he lets each player shine nonetheless, holding back every so often in order to let the aqueous mallet instruments and silky brass sections unfold all the better. The album features drummer Stan Levey, bassist Keith Mitchell, guitarists Bill Pitman, Alton Hendrickson and Barney Kessel himself, a trio of percussionists comprising of Francisco Aguabelle, Edward Talamantes and Franck Capp, saxophonist and flutist Paul Horn, trumpeter Conte Candoli, the dedicated marimba player Emil Richards as well as vibraphonist Victor Feldman. The album is unexpectedly bright and coruscating, and only one out of ten tracks delivers a whimsical lamento that is so typical for Latin songs. Sambas are as present as delicately downbeat Exotica pieces. So without further ado, here is one of the lost Exotica classics which has much more in common with my favorite genre than with the usual Latin outings.


Harold Arlen's and Johnny Mercer's 1941 hit Blues In The Night opens the LP, and while it is not overly Latin itself, Barney Kessel and cohorts make sure that this becomes a gorgeously sun-laden tune that oscillates between paradisiac Exotica climes and Latinized Jazz realms: Kessel's lead guitar mediates between literally metropolitan kinds of guitar riffs and upwards spiraling chords of incredible snugness and warmth. Of particular success is Emil Richard's eight-note marimba backing that is delicately intertwined with the decidedly exotic percussion full of bongos and claves. The maracas and cymbals are dynamically plinking, but Conte Candoli's trumpet is quite silky. This uplifting piece does, in the end, fail to live up to its name, as the overexposed sunscape is bedazzling and bright. Anyway, Kessel delivers the very best version of Blues In The Night in terms of the truly exotic factor.


The next piece is another collaboration of writer Johnny Mercer who teams up with one Henry Mancini for Days Of Wine And Roses, the theme for the eponymous film of 1962, making it the latest and greatest novelty of Kessel's album. Paul Horn's gorgeous alto flute tones and Victor Feldman's vibraphone drops depict the first careful signs of pre-Funk in-between the frizzling thicket of maracas. The mood is laid-back, dreamy and luckily not overly romantic rather than wonderfully wondrous. The soothing effect of Kessel's guitar is accentuated and enlarged by Bill Pitman on the acoustic guitar. Again, the reciprocation just works, although this song is much more Polynesian than Latin. Good for Exotica fans, I say. Another stunning rendition!


The following Latin Dance N°1 proves to be the first unique cut of the LP. The jumpy lead melody already hints at a Samba. Cowbells, a mirage of maracas and a strong focus on polyphony make this a eupeptic song. Beyond its brass-heavy peel, however, lies an astonishing core: the many vibes and maracas are languorous counterparts to an otherwise pretty usual Samba. This additional layer of nocturnal mystique elevates this little ditty into higher spheres, I think. Fans of Pérez Prado's vivacious B-sides will rejoice. Up next is a take on Tadd Dameron's Lady Byrd, and sure enough is the strangely hypnotic six-note backing melody immediately unleashed, played polyphonously by Feldman on the vibes and answered by the guitar-driven and trumpet-traversed main melody. It is once again both the dense conglomeration of maracas and the underpinning aorta of marimbas that expand the scope of this track; the vibraphone solo in the middle also encapsulates the transfigured innocence of a jungle vista, while the muted trumpet injects a temporary moment of city life. It is again all about the mediation of this dichotomy.


Side A closes with Antonio Carlos Jobim's world-famous One Note Samba, the first truly Latin track in its original incarnation already. An upbeat tempo is the signature of this version. The titular monotony is depicted by warm guitars and backed by absolutely mellow vibraphone blebs. The guitars get jumpier later on, but remain in mellow realms, while both the carefree flute tones and the much more upfront marimbas are delicate devices of enchantment, even Keith Mitchell's double bass melodies are prominently wafting in the background during the lighter moments of this song.


Side B continues the path of Exotica and is equally successful in its realization, be it the take on Moisés Simons' Cuban anthem The Peanut Vendor with its focus on various mallet instruments in all their euphonious and woodpecking ways of interaction plus the downwards spiraling brass sections that only make room in the second half for Kessel's lead guitar, or Osvaldo Farrés melancholic-sleazy Quizas, Quizas, Quizas with its galloping rhythm together with the doleful verses which lead to the famous bright chorus. It is this song that widens the stylistic range of the album, as the band only ever interweaves sunbursts, but does not deliver the ebullient joy that is so intrinsic or outright endemic on Contemporary Latin Rhythms. I consider Quizas, Quizas, Quizas the small flaw of this album, but it is still a good tune overall! The last three tracks are all written by Barney Kessel himself, so all of them are real treats and were truly contemporary back then.


Everytime I Hear This Song succeeds with its easygoing rhythm, the highly accessible and less complex guitar chords and hazy vibes. It is as if a filter of thermal heat is applied to this utterly hammock-compatible aural reverie. Everything is decidedly blurry – but still curiously clear cut – and streamlined. The plasticity of the backing bongos rounds off this lazy afternoon offering. The following Love, on the other hand, provides the strongest stereotypes of Latinism that were heretofore unheard: hot-blooded guitars and trumpets clash with mellower segues. The complexity of the trumpet and guitar base frame is boosted by the eclectic percussion pattern, but then again lessened by the vivacious marimba sections. The attached scents of lamento are nonetheless clearly audible. The final Twilight In Acapulco haks back to the reveries of Everytime I Hear This Song and Days Of Wine And Roses by placing a nostalgic but stunningly peaceful guitar melody in close proximity to the mellifluous marimba vibrato, the cascading vibraphones and the tremendously paradisiac flute work. The final chords deliver a magnanimously positive apotheosis to a superb album.


Who can blame Exotica fans if they do not harbor this particular album in their collection? The title does only faintly link to their favorite genre. In retrospect though, Contemporary Latin Rhythms is an excitingly modern album with a bold overdose of exotic characteristics and hooks. Instead of a cavernous complexity or forcefully circumlocutory interludes, Barney Kessel and his bandmates turn everything they touch to gold, be it the liminal Latinization of North American classics, the exotification of truly Latin gems or the balmy innovation in the four unique songs Kessel comes up with. This is no Easy Listening album, there is not a dull moment in sight. Even the dreamy material sounds absolutely fresh and not the least bit cheesy or stale. It helps that Kessel is a dedicated Jazz musician, since he has a good ear for the side effects good surfaces and textures can provide in tandem.


Each of the ten tracks is unbelievably vivid and delicate, with The Peanut Vendor being the teensy black sheep of the album for different reasons than one might imagine: because it lives up to the promise of the title and is glaringly Latin and a tad too melancholic, it seems weirdly out of place. Yes, you read that right: the only Latin track of a Latin album is out of place! Only on Barney Kessel's Contemporary Latin Rhythms can one observe such an alienating quirkiness. Fans of the Ambient-resembling side of the Exotica genre will be lured by Kessel's two masterpieces Twilight In Acapulco and Everytime I Hear This Song, but even the Samba-infused rhythms of One Note Samba (duh!) and Latin Dance N°1 provide a maximum of sunshine in their given duration. Bongo grooves and maracas-heavy forests drive each and every tune. This deeply colored sapphire is tremendously recommended to Exotica fans who are craving for new material. While this album is released in 1963 already, it remains under the radar due to its title. Make no mistake and pre-listen to it via iTunes or at Amazon. It will be worth your while!


Exotica Review 182: Barney Kessel – Contemporary Latin Rhythms (1963). Originally published on Feb. 16, 2013 at