Les Baxter
African Jazz






African Jazz by the symphonic conductor and multi talent Les Baxter (1922–1996) is traversed by minimalism and sound-related sacrifices. It is recorded in two sessions that take place in May and August 1958 respectively, released in 1959 on Capitol Records and immediately followed by its emerald-green foil Jungle Jazz a few weeks later, a record which focuses on the same deliberate shortcomings, but is, at least to my ears, the less desirable album of the couple. African Jazz shows the first two surprises in its title already: it is – well, you've guessed it – a Jazz album. With African allusions rather than Polynesian ones.


Baxter's archetypical symphonic pompousness and rose-tinted Hollywood strings are exchanged with a more rustic, down-to-earth scheme. This tendency materializes itself in the form of some less than successful arrangements and melodies that simply sound too mundane and curiously city-like, with only slight glimpses of Exotica. But luckily, the majority of the material is absolutely gorgeous, and whenever the Jazz setup becomes too bland, a wide array of percussion instruments is usually close at hand in order to camouflage this fact and to improve the sun-dried scope of the release, thus making African Jazz a proper Exotica album at the end of the day. A second occurrence of luck comprises of the compositions themselves. Not one of them is a rendition, all twelve cuts are unique takes, incredibly vivid and always melodious. The more intimate settings are further envisioned by three particularly skillful musicians: Plas Johnson plays the tenor saxophone, Milt Bernhart is the trombonist, and Larry Bunker revs up the mystique and playfulness with the help of various mallet instruments. I am not sure how many players ended up in the studio, but somehow Baxter manages to place this record in limbo: neither is it a fully blown out orchestral release, nor does it encapsulate the typical Exotica quartet sound. Even a septet could not deliver a fleshed out soundscape like this. This works to the album's advantage. These and its minor flaws will be pinpointed in greater detail below.


And off we go with Congo Train, a vividly jazzy piece with a pumping Honky Tonk piano aorta, mellifluous alto flute injections and a mimicking train whistle effect on shrieking woodwinds, a gimmick that is used here one too many times, at least to my ears. The whole skeleton of this piece is figuratively boned, as the main melody consists of repeated downwards spiraling flute tones and not too many accentuations. It is only when Plas Johnson’s tenor saxophone and Larry Bunker’s vibraphone are added that the soundscape widens, evoking a joyful ride through jungle-like panoramas. Particularly noteworthy are the Brazilian drums and African djembes that boost the dynamic further. All in all, Congo Train is a tune with a lackluster beginning that grows with every drum beat.


Up next is Elephant Trail, and its opening phase is much more cinematic and intimidating: tambourin-infused, darkly droning drums resemble the stomps of these majestic animals, and the cozy alto flute melody works fantastically well in juxtaposition to the dreamy piano chords, the clicking claves, double bass backings and harp twangs. The dulcet, sunset-colored aura is boosted by a fantastic rhythm-maintaining drum segue that leads to the most effervescent path full of silky maracas and euphonious brass melodies. And as expected does Milt Bernhart unleash onomatopoetic elephant trumpeting via his trombone. Stereotyped yet grandiloquent.


While the particularly tropical glitz of Banana Boy succeeds with high-plasticity percussion sections, a delicately carefree flute polyphony, rattling snake-like shakers and the at times purposefully tipsy inclusion of wonky xylophone droplets, the technicolor spectrum is replaced by a sepia-toned, earthen approach, as Tunisian Interlude-like Oriental horn hooks remind of John Scott Trotter’s this very take on Escape To The Magic Mediterranean of 1956. However, the tenor saxophone is much more upfront, the reverb of the bongos and congas delicate, and the two smashes of the Chinese temple gongs unsuspected, but by no means de trop. Side A continues with a cheesy downbeat Jazz number called Mombasa After Midnight, a decidedly non-exotic piece that rather pays homage to the Manhattan skyline than African climes. Mellow piano flutes mesh with schmaltzy trombones, trumpets and saxophones, and only the well-groomed bongo base frame and the refreshingly nocturnal vibraphone stabs add that certain something. In all other regards, this tune is one of Baxter’s very rare missteps.


The embracing Rain is much better due to its granular structure of xylophone blebs, vibraphone vesicles, rolling thunder-timpani and the mild-mannered acidity of the brass instruments. While Les Baxter usually poeticizes the sound-based locations and natural phenomena he created, this take is pretty close to true-spirited African Jazz and lives up to the title; especially the xylophone soundscape reminds of Tony Scott’s 1984 tribute to the legendary Charlie Parker called African Bird: Come Back! Mother Africa.


Side B launches with one of my favorite takes, Lost City, where the track title is as vivid and exciting as the skillfully crafted aural diorama. Soothing woodwind-brass couples encapsulate liminal fractions of excitement and lurking danger. The relatively quiet opening phase allows a better look onto the more conventional drum pattern. Rising five-note vibraphone spirals expand the mystery, and it is after about 70 seconds that the take meshes a freely flowing trumpet main melody with plinking shakers, hollow bongos and emery coconut shells. The second section gets rid of the mystery, but fits nonetheless with the overall scheme and fulfills the album title-related expectations much better than the first section of this tune. The following Walkin’ Watusi unfortunately harks back to the concrete jungle atmosphere as already depicted in Mombasa After Midnight on side A, but Baxter makes a sudden U-turn and unleashes the most splendid bongo and conga intermission that makes the brass-heavy, spy theme-resembling and rhythm-shifting Jazzscape much more bearable. And indeed are the exhilarative flutes a prolific counterpart to the ebbing and flowing double bass underpinning and the more conventional piano notes.


A fast-paced Bossa Nova is on board as well, the tremendously catchy and gleeful Ostrich Hunt which nonetheless preserves a certain degree of solemnity and grace. Bass flute and alto flute melodies are in a constant interplay with Johnson’s jazzy improvisation on the sax, and it is here that Bunker’s vibraphone and xylophone are finally placed in the spotlight when he plays a wonderfully jarring and humpy side motif. Cairo Bazaar builds on that mood with its hyperventilating drums, epicurean Middle Eastern alto flute infusions and a magnificent surprise in the shape of Space-Age Acid Jazz guitar licks that cut through the charming soundscape like scissors and make an important stand. A deliberately languid male choir hums along to the melody, causing a fitting comic relief. There are even Far Eastern tone sequences in this gem. The polyphonous staccato of the xylophones then reminds of the African theme of this LP. Cairo Bazaar is an enlightening, joyful conglomeration that shows Baxter’s skills of wide, convoluted arrangements.


It cannot beat the upcoming Jungalero, though. This penultimate composition very successfully entangles an almost oxymoronic sun-lit mystique: jungle flutes, luminescent piano and xylophone creeks, hazy cymbals and awesome vibraphone chords altogether create a merry ride that make it the pinnacle of side B and probably the whole album. A classic Jungle Exotica cut by Les Baxter with the tendency of denying the Steppe-oriented African theme for a little while. I won’t complain! The final Balinese Bongos does the same trick, at least in regard to its title: Bali and Africa do not have too much in common, regardless of one's applied criterion, but it is a great finale, one of Les Baxter’s best-known: conventional staccato piano notes and brass eruptions are placed in-between exotic bongos, congas and shakers, but it is the ensuing enchanting (!) intersection full of chimes, vibraphones and other mallet instruments that cause a moment of tranquility and pure bliss before Baxter finishes the album with hectic percussion and whirring trombones.


African Jazz offers the better soundscape in comparison to Jungle Jazz. Not only are the melodies more vivid and catchy, the brass instruments are furthermore less piercing and saturated, but mellow enough to not destroy the respective mood. And moods there are aplenty: dreaminess, excitement and beauty are not just the ingredients of the album, but can also occur altogether in one single composition. Utterly strong favorites include the enigmatic joy of Jungalero and the similarly arranged Lost City. Both show the metamorphosis and conceptual range of Les Baxter; what starts as a brass-laden eupeptic ditty becomes a lush aurora of vibraphone-fueled mystery – or vice versa. The short intersection of the male choir in Cairo Bazaar plus the cool texture of the one-time lead guitar are eminently noteworthy as well.


There are bold missteps, though: Mombasa After Midnight should have been titled Manhattan After Midnight, as its urban scheme does not fit with the wide Steppes and jungle huts this record so ably evokes. Even though I see this tune as a bold flaw, I should better be not too harsh about it, for the album title focuses on the concept of Jazz. Besides, once Baxter unleashes the various percussion instruments, the common Jazz structure gets exceptional anyway. The silkier instruments, the smaller scope and the better carved out melodies let me rate African Jazz quite a bit higher than the convoluted klaxon karma of Jungle Jazz. However, this is really a matter of personal taste, and I would not be surprised if my perception might change over the years. If you do not know any of these works yet, why not fetch both of them at the same time? They are released on a two-CD version with bonus tracks off Baxter's symphonic opus from 1956, Caribbean Moonlight, which may be chock-full of renditions and interpretations of classics, but is otherwise my favorite of his 50's albums. Both albums are also available as digital downloads on iTunes and Amazon, and even the LP's are readily available on eBay, with Jungle Jazz being the slightly more valuable and rarer album.


Exotica Review 191: Les Baxter – African Jazz (1959). Originally published on Mar. 9, 2013 at AmbientExotica.com.