Arthur Lyman
Percussion Spectacular!
Yellow Bird 





Percussion Spectacular! aka Yellow Bird by Arthur Lyman (1932–2002) turns out to be a threefold milestone for the talented vibraphonist and birdcaller and is considered the last of his truly creative Exotica concoctions, with the latter releases still being top-notch in their faux-Polynesian presentation and sound quality, but drawing from a formula that wore, unfortunately, all too thin in the Rock-heavy 60's. I am going to carve out the many reasons for the album's special status in greater detail below, for it turns out to be on the cusp of many counteropposite movements and decisions which are altogether glaringly neglected due to the impression that Percussion Spectacular! is simply another Easy Listening album. This is not the case. Many decisions were made that had an impact on the course of the vibraphonist's career, although things seem to be business as usual, and rightfully so if you consider the band setup: Alan Soares is still the pianist, second mallet instrument player and percussionist, John Kramer is the bassist and flutist, with Harold Chang backing the team with additional percussive devices and further marimbas.


Of course, today's Exotica fans should not necessarily care about Lyman's contemporary listeners who started to turn their backs in larger numbers when the exotic shtick slowly dec(r)eased, but the marketing- and music-related aspects of this particular LP are among the most fascinating of any work of this genre for three reasons: Arthur Lyman's album is firstly a prime example of hectically shifting changes and short-lived windows of opportunities. Released in 1960 as Percussion Spectacular! in order to face the ever-growing flood of vivid releases with the term Percussion – and exclamation marks – in their titles, the good people at Lyman's house label Hi-Fi Records thought to take a stand with this title. "Look here, the one and only Arthur Lyman can indeed present a percussive album that outshines the competition!" However, it then turned out that the public did not care so much for the prospect of great percussion, but the single Yellow Bird off that album. It catapulted Arthur Lyman to real stardom and was played on all popular radio stations across the United States. Hi-Fi Records reacted quickly and renamed the album to Yellow Bird in 1961, leaving the cool volcano-depicting artwork and stylish title font intact. Thus Percussion Spectacular! became better known as Yellow Bird. It is re-issued with that title to this day, and it was the task of the 1962 album The Colorful Percussions Of Arthur Lyman to reintroduce the particular idea of the percussion term.


The second reason for the times that were achangin' is rooted in the song material: for the first time, Lyman chose decidedly international compositions that were not exclusively based on Hawaiian, Japanese or Latin climes. These were then exotified with – you've guessed it – percussion prowess and very sparse birdcalls (namely on one song only). This LP is the reason why I am confirmed in my habit to place so many artifacts of the Space-Age, Easy Listening or eminent travelog subgenres in my Exotica Review Archive. Even vintage albums from – or about – Old Europe are at times exotic enough to feature them on this website, although they are no genuine examples of Exotica. The final reason for the importance of Percussion Spectacular! / Yellow Bird is the tendency to see it as the beginning of the end of Arthur Lyman's importance. He has achieved the greatest success with this album which he could never repeat again. He furthermore opened the roster to include compositions from various, wildly inconsistent sources. Whether this is a lackluster decision is up for debate. But first and finally, enter Percussion Spectacular! and its 12 tracks.


The traditional superhit Hava Nagila opens the LP, and right from the beginning, Lyman and his band fathom out the various interpretatory possibilities; sun-soaked marimbas evoke paradisiac islands, John Kramer's alto flute and the pristinely plinking percussion boost the Oriental aura, with the dusky impetus of the piano chords embedding the tune into its original Yiddish context. Once the main melody is played on the marimba and the vibraphone, the dichotomy between Occident and Polynesia grows even larger… way too large, unfortunately, to let the contradictory elements conflate into a cohesive piece. The following Yellow Bird by Alan Bergman, Michael Keith and Norman Luboff, however, is utterly dreamy and harks back to the mellow formula of Lyman's Hawaiian Sunset (1959). A mirage of acoustic guitar aortas, enchantingly reverberated vibraphone textures in tandem with accentuating marimbas and rhythmic double bass backings make this a purposefully humble and hammock-friendly tune that does not have any eminently eclectic percussive traces, leading to the question why this album was originally called Percussion Spectacular! in the first place, but that is nit-picking.


Heck, even Maurice Ravel made it onto the album with his eternal masterpiece Bolero. Lyman cuts and shortens the prelude of the original and changes it into a fairy tale with glistening glockenspiels, snake-like shakers and mellifluous flutes. Of particular success is the incessant infinitesimally rumbling bass backdrop caused by Harold Chang's gentle drums. Even though the song grows in crescendo, a true majesty cannot unfold without warped violins, and so the band increases the vigor of the drums and cymbals as well as the polyphony of the piano, vibraphone and marimba, all three of which are coupled together. This experiment fails, to be honest. Ravel's Bolero is badly transferred into exotic realms, the strings are sorely missing. Johnny Mercer's Autumn Leaves offers more value in comparison and is a surprisingly progressive track, launching with a doleful dialog between aqueous pianos and beautifully sustained vibraphone driblets. This solemnity is maintained for over two minutes before the percussion is revved up with bongos, maracas and congas as the song visits into Latin territories which are further expanded with short chants and the typical piano-related jumpiness. A pure delight and a great arrangement! 


Arrive Derce Roma by the songwriting trio Pietro Garinei, Sandro Giovannini and Carl Sigman is another superb – if largely unexpected – performance. It is again Alan Soares' performance on the piano which elevates the marimba-infused staccato panorama. Shuttling between warmhearted backings and vivacious attacks complete with the Latin (!) calls of the band, this tune lives and breathes due to the great interplay and the catchy melody. Closing side A is a rendition of Gus Arnheim's Sweet And Lovely that could have been taken straight off Lyman's Bahia (1959). The vibes glow flamboyantly, the spiraling piano notes are delicate and the bongo accompaniment in the middle is truly exotic.


Side B then returns to form(ula), as Arthur Lyman and his men unleash a string of four strictly exotic pieces, starting with the second song from Alan Bergman and Michael Keith: Bamboo-Tamboo finally features the first – and sadly last – inclusion of vivid birdcalls and croaking guiros as well as sleazy double bass melodies, congas and laid-back vibraphones. The band then continues with Ernesto Lecuona's Andalusia, otherwise known as Andalucía or The Breeze And I, which lives up to the album's original title since the bongos, boobams, guiros and goblet drums are upfront in the spotlight. This is otherwise a clear cut piano arrangement, no mallet instrument is used throughout the track, a strange omission for an arrangement à la Lyman. While the take on Lionel Newman's Adventures In Paradise focuses on the mallet instruments again and puts the percussive devices into the back in favor of a vibraphone-fueled dreaminess with sunset-colored piano chords, the arrangement of Agustín Lara's Granada reminds strongly of Vera Cruz off Lyman's 1958 album Bwana Ā both in terms of the timbre and the focus on the marimba, but stands on its own feet otherwise thanks to rhyhmic shifts, Balearic guitars and a pompous-jocular aura that does the original justice.


Maxwell Anderson's and Kurt Weill's September Song breaks the Exotica spell, but only due to its title alone, for the actual downtempo arrangement is indeed soothing: sizzling maracas accompany iridescent mallet tones and icy hi-hats. A languorous intertwining of cozy vibes, warm piano chords – which are later coupled with hammering snare drums – and double bass blebs make this contemplative centerpiece of five minutes a successful inclusion that showcases the skills of all musicians in presenting serious material if necessary. The final track, however, is one of those feared comical tracks which Arthur Lyman is also infamously known for. The traditional John Henry ends the album in a Honky Tonk way with effervescent marimba sprinkles, jumpy rhythm pianos, sizzling maracas and energetic drums. This tune simply does not fit the mood of the previous selections, and there is definitely a reason why it is placed at the end of the record like so many lackluster cartoonish tunes before it.


One thing is for sure, even though this sounds overly critical: neither Percussion Spectacular! nor Yellow Bird are appropriate titles for this album since the percussion side is glaringly whimsical in comparison to Tito Puente's Top Percussion (1957) or Terry Snyder's four volumes of Persuasive Percussion. Likewise, there is only one instance of birdcalls on this album; it is surprisingly missing on the title track and featured on Bamboo-Tamboo instead. But even if you throw the concepts of titles and aesthetics over board, there is still the roster of 12 tracks meeting the ears, and both the selection as well as the exotic arrangements are mostly great, but eminently dividing as well. Once Arthur Lyman succumbed to songs which poeticize Europe and boost the yearning for its enchanting destinations like Paris and Rome, the Polynesian mystery was strongly degraded, despite the same band setup as usual. No more Akaka Falls or enigmatic jungles, only four out of 12 tunes are truly exotic on their own, with the remaining material comprising of Jazz standards that are few and far between. Yellow Bird (the song), Arrive Derce Roma and Autumn Leaves are nonetheless delightful and match the best of Lyman's renditions. I for one find the historic dimensions and the marketing hubbub of this album much more fascinating, even though I continually state the importance of the music itself, not its surrounding factors or beautiful cover artworks.


Percussion Spectacular! / Yellow Bird proves to be the apex and one of the hallmarks of Lyman's career. It is his final truly successful multi-seller, sets the theme of variety for all of his consecutive works, shows the tendency of including instrumentations of everything non-exotic (read: US-Jazz standards) and the power found in the uppermost floors of the record industry to poignantly control trends and take course corrections whenever posible in order to fetch more dollars. No other Exotica album shows this more plainly than this work by Arthur Lyman. This story is hardly ever mentioned. Sometimes, reality cuts harshly through the plastic jungles of Exotica. Oh dear.


Exotica Review 185: Arthur Lyman – Percussion Spectacular! (1960). Originally published on Feb. 23, 2012 at