Preston Epps
Bongo Bongo Bongo






Preston Epp's Bongo Bongo Bongo is the greatest non-gimmicky bongo album since Don Ralke's The Savage And The Sensuous Bongos (1960). It has the greatest melodies, it is literally prophetic when it comes to genres that have not even been fully developed yet, it is strongly Exotica-focused – i.e. not adamantly Latin-based – and presents six unique tracks out of seven in total that were specifically written for this album only. Preston Epps (born in 1931) is a skillful bongo player whose debut is recorded in 1960 at the height of the bongo craze and released in the same year on disc jockey Art Leboe aka Arthur Egnoian's Original Sound label in Hollywood. Considering the fact that Bongo Bongo Bongo is Epps' first album, it is an enormously versatile and chequered work. The people involved in the recording session are no unknown session musicians either.


Famous guitarist Barney Kessel and pianist Jack Nitzsche are but two of the talented people involved. In general, albums with the term Percussion in their titles and bongo albums in particular always face the danger of focusing either too much on the life-like recording techniques while neglecting the soul of the music or on a shtick that becomes a fad after a few minutes already. Preston Epps' album sails around these dangerous waters. It features bongos aplenty, no surprise there, but Epps and fellows manage to put them into a genre-blasting concoction of pre-Surf and, I kid you not, even Disco.


Warm guitar chords, gorgeous flute tones, iridescent horns, whirling strings, piano layers… Bongo Bongo Bongo is keen on the melodious side. It is a hybrid of a quartet-resembling release with unexpected bursts of string washes of the symphonic kind. It mirrors the concept of Pérez Prado's LP's like Voodoo Suite (1955), Exotic Suite Of The Americas (1962) or Concierto Para Bongó (1975) where either side A or side B are exclusively reserved for a long suite. In Epps' case, it is the mamba-green Call Of The Jungle, an awe-inspiring shifting piece of 12+ minutes with an omnipresent faux-field recording of a whole jungle in place. It cannot get more exotic than this. And yet, side A is equally fantastic, partially frantic, at times dreamy, always melodious. The album title is completely astute, and then in a way it is not, for it does not tell the whole truth. I will try my best to do just that in the following paragraphs. Rest assured all the time that you are reading a review about a real gem.


Rhymes and prosodies are important ingredients within the boundaries of music, but since Exotica is mostly based on instrumentals or lyricless chants, a catchy, energetic or dreamy title is everything that counts when it comes to words. Preston Epps launches his LP with the cheekily titled Bongo In The Congo, written by guitarist Barney Kessel exclusively for this album. Clocking in at exactly two minutes, it is a rapid-firing, splendidly colorful critter that sets the tone for the things to come. Epps himself kicks the tune off with a bongo aorta which is then ennobled by the wondrous – and at the time rather mind-blowing – synergy of Kessel’s acidic guitar and whirling violins. The guitar riff has to be heard to be believed, for it is a pre-Surf Rock artifact that would have made both Randy Starr of the first ever Surf group The Islanders as well as Geoff Love and his Mandingo group of the 70’s quite proud. The dusky coolness of the guitar in tandem with the string-fueled flamboyance, the hi-hats of a classic drum kit, the hand claps as well as the bongos evoke the feeling of being in a technicolor jungle. The short six-note brass fanfare at its end is just the icing on the cake.


Bongo In The Congo offers the common fusion of several genres. Its unique sales angle: most of these genres are not invented yet. The strings remind of Disco and the guitars encapsulate traces of Surf and Funk. It is simply a great tune which is followed by an even greater one: Bongo Rock is co-written by Arthur Egnoian and Preston Epps and peaked at #14 in the Billboard Charts, Epps’ only title to reach such a high position. Here, Barney Kessel injects a clear cut and undeniably sun-dried Surf motif into the shrapnel of the bongos. This tune is absolutely great and works because of the superb interplay between Kessel and Epps. The guitar chords are allowed to shine and shimmer in yellow-blue colors. At the same time, the bongos are the true stars on this tune, with many solos and segues showing the full force of these fiery percussion instruments. This is the Surf Rock tune of an Exotica fan’s dreams, loaded with coastal sunbursts and warm melodies yet keen on the tropical inland side of things.


After two fulminant stompers, things slow down decidedly, the color range is permeated by a greener hue, for a rendition of Ernesto Lecuona’s Jungle Drums is next, incidentally a tune that works well in all imaginable arrangements, whether it is played by quartets or huge orchestras. Epps decides to present an enormously mellow take which underwhelms at first due to the missing tempo and lack of an energetic vibe, but don’t be fooled, this one is a magnificent hallmark for those who prefer the dreamier side of the genre. Muffled ritualistic drums meander slowly but somewhat dubiously next to a languorous alto flute which happens to play the main melody that is further accompanied by Barney Kessel’s oozing sunbaked guitar droplets. The orchestra strings are resurrected for short moments, allowing this interpretation of Jungle Drums to sit in-between the aforementioned ends of the arrangement-related spectrum. The second phase then sees the tempo increase, with the bongos curiously losing their threatening shadiness despite the quick succession of staccato beats. The melodies of the flute and strings may be accelerated, but they still inherit the warmhearted majesty of the slower part, making Jungle Drums a transfiguring vignette of life in the jungle.


And heck, Epps maintains and nurtures the surprise level even further with Doin’ The Cha Cha Cha, written by Arthur Egnoian for this album. Its title might be lackluster, the soundscape is anything but. Right from the get-go, Latin cha cha chants are in place, the flute is more paradisiac than ever, positively warbled and lofty, with polyphonous horn accents underlining the bongolicious scenery. Akin to Pérez Prado’s B-side material of the 50’s and 60’s, the mood is entirely carefree and jovial, no traces of madness are found, nor is there a creative intersection in the form of a rhythm shift or similar stylistic particularities, Doin’ The Cha Cha Cha is a simple – but not simplistic – feelgood ditty.


The eponymous Bongo Bongo Bongo is the fifth offering, once again a unique and radically different take co-written by Arthur Egnoian with pianist Jack Nitzsche, the latter of which plays an important role on this one. A slickly spiraling concrete jungle piano motif moves up and down on the deeper tone ladder all the while Epps’ bongos are better integrated into the soundscape than before, neither towering above the dark piano nor drowning in the background. Since there is one solo section where the bongos can gleam and glow, their purposefully diffuse physiognomy is not much of a downer anyway. Barney Kessel returns with golden guitar chords that are placed next to unexpectedly aqueous piano driblets in higher regions. However, the guitar work is all too easy, especially so if one takes Kessel’s virtuosity on this instrument into account. In the end, the title track is the least enthralling of the LP, its Rock-oriented city-strolling Manhattan flavor is decidedly less exotic, a situation that is rectified by the auspicious Bongos In Pastel which turns out to be a Kessel-centric piece.


The last composition of the album to be submitted by Arthur Egnoian, Bongos In Pastel opens with Blues-oriented guitar riffs, a luring mixed choir mellowly chanting which interestingly enough provides the actual melody in the first half while then doo-dooing alongside the arpeggiated guitarscape. This song is reminiscent of Barney Kessel’s own Twilight In Acapulco off his 1963 album Contemporary Latin Rhythms, he plays the guitar in the same moony way. This time, Preston Epps’ bongos are constantly outshone by the plinking and crunchy appearance of the guitar notes and the susurrant enchantment of the choir. This one is another feast for followers of dreamy Exotica and ends side A in a great way.


Side B is solely reserved for the almost 13 minutes long suite known as Call Of The Jungle, written by Preston Epps and Jack Nitzsche. While it is easy to denote this aurora as the real deal due to its sensational length and polylayered shapeshifting formations, phases and sections, let me tell you in advance that it does not surpass side A, although its exciting metamorphosis remains an ear-catcher, so to speak, and is the boldest, most faithful nod to the Exotica genre. The very first seconds are already a wonder to behold, for there is a sound library-based faux-field recording embedded. It is supercharged with birds of paradise, apes, jaguars and insects and resides in-between the savage chants of Preston Epps and a feedback-giving male choir. The bongos are figuratively warped and provide a dense, accelerating thicket through which a pristine Pagan flute melody oozes. New Age has not been invented yet in 1960, but I would not be surprised if this was yet another genre to be prophetically interwoven into the album.


The whole atmosphere is coated in bloom, the savage chants are never brutish, they much more resemble the Latin mystique of Tito Puente’s Top Percussion (1957) rather than a pernicious ritual full of bile. After more than four minutes full of animals, bongos and shouts, the suite enters a particularly seducing phase with soothing female choir chants followed by a native monotony of male dum dum dum mumblings. Apes are screaming, the bongos float along in a rotor-esque way. The tempo is increased after more than nine minutes, but never to a point where it becomes gimmicky. Whenever there is the danger of prowess, Preston Epps either mutes the bongos for a few seconds or starts anew with another groove or rhythm; and so the finale resembles the vocal range of Dominic Frontiere’s Pagan Festival (1959) with the choir singing pompously but nonetheless solemnly in close proximity to trumpeting elephants and the final windup of the bongos which morph into a heart-imperiling tempo before everything suddenly stops. There is not a shadow of a doubt: this one is a masterpiece.


Surfing in the jungle? Yep, Preston Epps makes it possible. This is Exotica! This is no Space-Age percussion album à la Terry Snyder's Persuasive Percussion (1959) or Dick Schory's Supercussion (1963) but rhizomatically all below the Tropics. The album title Bongo Bongo Bongo unfortunately displays a wrong state of affairs, even though the album clearly came to be due to the bongo craze alone. The result, however, is eclectic, cozy, dreamy, paradisiac, infinitesimally danger-evoking, in short: an adventure. It is hard to assess the greatest feature of the album. Is it the fact that Barney Kessel and Jack Nitzsche are involved? Is it the six unique tracks, among them the Billboard smash hit Bongo Rock, that are solely written with this album in mind? Is it the successful entanglement of delicately hollow bongos and lots of instruments? Please allow me two additional questions to explicate the scope: is it the album's oxymoronic state of a symphonic quartet artifact? Or, finally, the fact that so many genres and styles are baked into the vinyl which either just slowly emerged during the 60's (Surf Rock!) or were anticipated by a whopping decade or so (Disco!)? I let you be the judge on the balancing.


Bongo Bongo Bongo is undoubtedly a gem, a hidden jewel even, for Preston Epps is a name that is not often mentioned in Exotica circles, and the reasons are beyond me, especially so when one sums up all of its characteristics and signature elements. From the gyrating hooks of coolness in Bongo In The Congo and Bongo Rock over the soporific moods of quiescence in Jungle Drums (the only rendition) and Bongos In Pastel to the snake-charming tiger-taming bird-feeding opus of 12+ minutes that is Call Of The Jungle, Bongos Bongos Bongos is frivolously colorful, meshes Jungle Jazz with Surf Rock, Disco with Frisco, Ambient with Exotica (oooh!), field recordings with sound libraries. It is a superb debut whose quality and imaginative settings have never been achieved by Preston Epps again. He did deliver great tunes afterwards, no doubt about that, but the consistency, the aura and overarching topos as well as the look to the future have waned a tad with each preceding release. Bongo Bongo Bongo degrades everything but Don Ralke's first bongo-related outing and Tito Puente's aforementioned Top Percussion. Preston Epps' sapphire is easily available on vinyl and has recently been reissued in a digital edition. Make your choice, but do listen to it if you do not know it yet. It is an essential Exotica piece!


Exotica Review 202: Preston Epps – Bongo Bongo Bongo (1960). Originally published on Apr. 13, 2013 at