Irving Fields Trio
Bikinis And Bongos






The vivacious – and potentially lewd – Bikinis And Bongos marks the final installment of pianist Irving Fields' (born 1914) bongo-related shtick. He recorded several albums in the late 50's and early 60's that contain the term Bongos in their titles, each of them proudly merging either Yiddish, Italian or French tunes with these exciting percussion instruments. On Bikinis And Bongos, released in 1962 on Decca Records, Irving Fields ventures to the Hawaiian islands and presents the expected amount of 12 tracks. Hapa Haole material, classical piano arrangements of the Golden Age and Exotica classics are happily reunited here.


On this album, Fields is not only joined by bassist Henry Senick and drummer Michael Bruno who form the Irving Fields Trio, but gathers two additional musicians who leave a much bigger impact and, despite the naming convention, make a proper quintet out of the trio: George Tapia plays the bongos while Tommy Lucas elevates the compositions with his guitar licks, bringing in a bit of a Jazz cellar vibe into the album. Due to the overarching topic and the constant interaction, Bikinis And Bongos is on the one hand much brighter and less dreamy than Stanley Black's piano-fueled classic Tropical Moonlight (1957), and on the other hand less sophisticated or serious than the Rene Paulo Trio's debut Black Coral of 1960. These observations are easily detectable, for both Black's and Paulo's albums are dedicatedly nocturnal. Bikinis And Bongos has, in direct comparison, one interesting feature and one enormous flaw: on the plus side, there is the freely flowing shape-shifting form of the melodies, even though this tendency is not noticeable on all tunes. Fields and his men somehow manage to weirdly twist the melodies on some of the presented classics. They are still recognizable, but are ennobled (or degraded?) by different half-tones and carefully intertwined sub-themes.


While I applaud these changes, the percussive aspects are awkwardly fossilized. The same bongo beat appears on the vast majority of the album, only two out of the 12 songs present a stridently differing percussion layer, it is an ominously prophetic foresight into the array of drum computers and synthetic beat structures that launched in the late 70's. For such a jazzy album of skillful arrangements, the blandness of the percussion is all the more bewildering and could be spotted in the Irving Fields Trio's previous albums as well. Consider the album name, and bewilderment grows into anger. But again, not everything is a misstep on this album, but more about this below.


What better way for Irving Fields to start his decidedly Hawaii-focused album than with Blue Hawaii, written by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger? This classic usually works in every incarnation, be it in the shape of big band settings, birdcall-laden Exotica versions or symphonic grandeur. Fields opens the song with a surprisingly liquid glissando before the tone sequences get more jumpy, but retain their sunlit coziness most of the time. The percussive accompaniment underwhelms big time, though. George Tapia’s bongos are audible throughout the songs, and Tommy Lucas is even allowed to unleash the actual melody of Blue Hawaii on his gleaming guitar, a melody that was almost unrecognizable during Fields’ improvised segues and intersections, but these inclusions do not help the formulaic and streamlined percussion scheme. It does not only lack any trace of energy, it is also too banal, in no way comparable with Rene Paulo’s 60’s material where he is glaringly in the spotlight as well.


However, My Little Grass Shack In Kealakekua, Hawaii by Bill Cogswell, Johnny Noble and Tommy Harrison improves the lackluster start with uplifting dialogs between the guitar and the piano, a Latinized maracas-infused bongo beat and glitzy chords in the second half. That both lead instruments have equal rights does this joyful ditty good.


Likewise, Alfred Newman’s and Frank Loesser’s The Moon Of Manakoora profits from the traces of sun as delivered by over-the-top guitar spirals, the mid-tempo and the steady bongo beat which, in tandem with Henry Senick’s double bass, is much more upfront this time, probably due to the moments of fissured silence in which their decay works great. The melody is also maintained and easily recognizable. While Flamingo Fantasy is actually a wondrously warped, downright camouflaged take on Ted Grouya’s Flamingo and traversed by piano cascades, Space-Age riffs and delicately hollow bongos which altogether twist the well-known melody in really unique ways that have to be heard to be believed, Johnny Noble returns with a second song he co-wrote with Don McDiarmid and Lee Wood, the guitar-focused Little Brown Gal which – blimey! – finally revs up the percussive prowess with short syncopated bongo eruptions, plinking tambourins and frizzling shakers. These instruments are again played in a strict paint-by-number way, but their density makes all the difference.


The ultimate Hawaiiana infusion follows next and surprisingly enough closes side A, not side B as it is common practice on gazillions of Hapa Haole or Exotica records: Aloha Oe would be an uninspired take in the hands of Irving Fields, were it not for the virtually galactic guitar licks whose spacey flavor conflates – or rather clashes – with the beach scenery. After hundreds over hundreds of versions, I am not too fond of Aloha Oe anymore, it has been played to death. The version of the Irving Fields Trio (or quintet really) is harmless enough to not annoy, and that is, in the end, worthwhile to me.


Side B launches with a take on Jack Pitman’s soothing Beyond The Reef. Nothing beats Arthur Lyman’s version on his electrifying LP Bahia (1959), and Fields’ men do not even come close. The same old petrified percussion layer underpins the admittedly snugly piano chords and the strumming of the guitar, an observation that can be applied to the following rendition of Harry OwensSweet Leilani, but here the steady rhythm is better texturized, the bongos more audible, and due to the duration of more than three minutes, there is enough room for jazzy, sun-dried and even dreamy segues and entanglements. The shape-shifting guitar often destroys the solemnity, but remains true to the overarching theme and style of play of Bikinis And Bongos.


Then the surprise hits in the form of an interpretation I keep coming back to time and again: Charles Tobias’ and Cliff Friend’s Trade Winds cracks the adamant formula of the soundscape with the help of astonishingly beautiful and majestic piano droplets akin to Gene Rains’ triptych of exotic LP’s, with brazen breezes of cymbals and an almost Rimini-esque, sepia-toned mild-mannered staccato on the piano ameliorating the soil further. It is the short prelude to this song that ennobles it, and while the percussion is expectedly straightforward, Fields’ superbly fizzy work on the piano makes this one my personal hit. Whereas Song Of The Islands (Na Lei O Hawaii) by Charles E. King proves to be another formula-crusher thanks to its jocularly jazzy embodiment, the icy pianos and a completely renovated percussion placenta with a sizzling tap dance rhythm, Ken Darby’s Love Song Of Kalua launches with a Latin sequence on the piano that would have sounded acidic and grandiloquent on brass instruments, but provides a genteel start to a completely piano-focused version sans guitar, with the same old bongo groove in tow.


The finale comprises of Jack Owens’s Hukilau Song with its melody carved out greatly, and here I can relate to the overly comical setting and mellifluousness. Tommy Lucas’ guitar provides the jazzy counterpart to Irving Fields’ bubbly staccato tones in higher regions. An outro that finalizes the impression of this album: having fun in the sun… with Bikinis And Bongos.


Bikinis And Bongos is torn between the various schools of thoughts in regard to Jazz. Without explicating them in greater detail, Irving Fields tries to mediate between some convoluted piano sections and gentler, more easygoing tone sequences. In cooperation with guitarist Tommy Lucas, the eclecticism grows without a respective song ever losing its loftiness or friendliness. Songs like Blue Hawaii and Flamingo Fantasy show the adaptive skills of both musicians. I do not know how much the players have practiced for this album and if the scintillating alterations of the well-known melodies are caused by slight improvisations or not, but these two tunes give you an example of the surprises that suddenly occur. Arrangement-wise, Trade Winds succeeds as well, offering instruments and interactions that are endemic to this specific song.


Alas, the percussion side is a real downer, the bongos themselves sound perfectly fine, but the surroundings in which they are used as well as the steady streams of monotonous, same-shaped rhythms and beats are tiresome and do not live up to the melodies. Where is bassist Henry Senick? Why are there no double bass waves meandering through the panoramas? Couldn't drummer Michael Bruno come up with a more electrifying performance? Sure, I ask these questions decades too late, a state of affairs I am used to, but these question stress the discrepancy of the different strata. Should an Exotica fan investigate? I'm not sure about that either. The album is currently only available on vinyl and has, to my knowledge, never been repressed, let alone re-issued on CD. There are the aforementioned moments of genius, but the constant mediocrity of the percussion destroys almost all the fun. Fans of piano arrangements and those who favor a great interplay between a skilled guitarist and great legend on the piano should investigate, and luckily enough, the album is not that hard to find anyway. Bikinis And Bongos puts a sad end to an otherwise cheeky and dynamic quadriga of Fields' original Bongos releases. 


Ambient Review 203: Irving Fields Trio – Bikinis & Bongos (1962). Originally published on Apr. 13, 2013 at