Stanley Black
Festival In Costa Rica






British pianist, conductor and arranger Stanley Black (1913–2002) is primarily known by Exotica fans for his green opus Exotic Percussion (1961) where he unleashes a wealth of the very instruments that are implied in the title and embeds them in sophisticated orchestra settings. It is one of those big budget releases that is in stark contrast to his jazzier LP's like the excellent Tropical Moonlight (1957) and the lackluster misstep Cuban Moonlight (1958). Black is a chameleon and was much deeper rooted in Exotica realms than many biographers or music historians seem to care about. Regardless of the albums one chooses, Black exotifies many of his works, even those of the 70's like Black Magic (1976) when Exotica was anything but a long-lost fad.


So how did Stanley Black approach a genre whose term was not yet coined, i.e. pre-1957? It turns out that he was already fond of marimbas, maracas, congas and other gemstones from the world of percussion when most other conductors used the common timpani and kettle drums in symphonic settings. Enter Festival In Costa Rica, released in 1955 on the Decca label and loaded with 12 interpretations of Latin classics, seven of them by renowned writer Ernesto Lecuona. We've had that before. And ever since. Many times. It is these reactions that belittle the true gimmick of this LP, for even if these Latin renditions are well-known and considered by many other conductors around that time, Stanley Black's arrangements try to merge the Latin folklore spirits with a large orchestra. Again, no big deal, but the exotic percussion that shimmers through the string washes, horn bursts and flute tones is notable. Curiously enough, Festival In Costa Rica may be so special because of its use of percussion instruments that have been used in a Latin context in the 30's and 40's already and are, at the end of the day, closely tied to the genre anyway, even having their origins in Mambo combos and Merengue groups. These instruments were neglected by a lot of Occidental producers, though. Let's see if this album is worth any Exotica listener's attention after all.


The prime example of all clichés opens Stanley Black's album, the infamous Mexican Hat Dance, a tradition that nears its complete extinction, but was thought to be commonplace and ubiquitous back in the late 50's. Regardless of its clichés, Stanley Black's orchestra delivers a nicely conga-fueled upbeat version with a dense percussion thicket, effervescently polyphonous flutes and the typical sun-coated Latin brass eruptions, presented here in a mild-mannered, less acidic form. Black himself joins on the piano at times, but remains under the radar otherwise. Ernesto Lecuona's Maria La O follows in the form of a surprisingly eclectic rendition devoid of most Easy Listening traps: aqueous pizzicato strings, dusky Flamenco guitars, droning trombones and pastel-colored flutes altogether create a strangely shady atmosphere… which, naturally, is countered by the cordial brass layers in the chorus. Everything is now streamlined except the warm piano chords, clicking claves and double bass slaps. Maria La O is one of my favorite compositions due to its duality which Black's orchestra carves out splendidly.


While the British arranger boosts the Latinisms in Pedro Elías Gutiérrez's 3/4 time-based Alma Llanera with sizzling-hot klaxon trumpets, lovelorn flute spirals and melodramatic string washes, the following Tango Condena proves to be the continuation of this theme of devotion and places a delicate accordion glissando in its center; it is the pizzicato strings and the ashen flutes that evoke a nocturnal feeling with flare-like orange tone sequences, illuminating the already dense atmosphere. In moments like this, it becomes clear that the orchestra is quite large.


Lecuona's Siboney is next and slowly works its way out of the heretofore thick aura with gorgeous bongo beats, coruscating claves and jungle marimba tones next to a shawm-like trumpet. Suddenly, all the right instruments are there to evoke a perceptible pre-Exotica feeling! The Latin horns remain in the distance and let the percussion river shine all the more. This liquid structure is only swallowed by the loud strings. In the second half, Siboney opens up and reveals its daylight euphony and benign tone sequences which are then only rarely permeated by a Latin timbre. Side A closes with Lecuona's Malagueña, one of the classic symphonic benchmarks that Exotica fans are perfectly aware of as well. It is a composition where pathos and heroics simply work. Stanley Black's take uses the known formulaic setting: the growing crescendo of the pizzicato strings floats into their legato brethren and is ennobled with gyrating flutes. The horns are sunset-tinged, the quiet interludes pompous yet reduced and the finale as grandiloquent as expected. I prefer Andre Kostelanetz' equally formulaic take which he delivered a few months prior to Stanley Black on Lure Of The Tropics (1954), but these comparisons aside, Malagueña shines here as well.


Andalucía kicks off side B, hailed as one of Ernesto Lecuona's most euphoric compositions whose strong melody will forever live on, and indeed does so in many genres and arranged forms. Stanley Black remains in tested waters instrument-wise, but embeds the world-famous melody in a 3/4 timed frame, creating a beachcombing Waltz that allows many solo intersections and shaker-accentuated segues to be also involved. I am not too fond of this particular rhythm, I have to admit, but both the sunshine and the blue ocean are flawlessly transcoded into music. Whereas the classic Linda Chilena opens with an enchanting alto flute solo and is only quietly underpinned by strings and uplifting bongos, it constantly oscillates between exotic jungle illusions and Latin infusions; the pizzicato strings and the tick-tocking claves make it a vivid piece and one of the best on the whole LP. The Lecuona Cuban Boys would have been proud.


Rafael Hernández' Rumba-Tambah is next and features another dose of delicate exotic percussion, but otherwise remains in those sugar-coated tonal ranges that remind of Xavier Cugat's Latin albums. The flutes whirl down in concentric figures, the piano interacts with the staccato strings, and the honey-sweet brass instruments do not cause any harm either. If it weren't for the percussion, this tune would be easily ignorable, as it is too saccharine even for my taste. Lecuona's La Comparsa improves things via its tempo alone: the prominent bongo pattern, the sizzling maracas thickets and the flowing piano lines are welcome ornaments in-between the glaring strings, but it is Lecuona's following Jungle Drums that outshines even this classic in the hands of Stanley Black. The main melody on the strings, horns and flutes sounds fresh to this day, and the percussion placenta lives up to the transfiguring title and indices a less savage, much more tame jungle atmosphere. The marimba droplets are a bonus. This is Exotica. In 1955!


The final tune is another hymn for eternity: Agustín Lara's Granada finishes the album in a tastefully melodramatic fashion with kettle drums, a maelstrom of strings and many seducing sections of languorous proportions with quieter undertones. The brass fanfares are gorgeous, the flute and trombone entanglement impressive. Yes, Granada sweats pathos off every pore, but the strength and catchiness of the short flourishes make it an intriguing finale.


Festival In Costa Rica could be (and probably is) simply another ripple in a continuous wave of symphonic Latin albums. There are countless interpretations of Andalucía, Granada and Malagueña out there, so the big deal has always been the comparison between them, the different nuances and arranger-caused twists in their spectrum. Stanley Black's LP fulfills the needs of these clientele with ease, simply because he considers standard material and either delivers truthful arrangements or adds one trick or two to particular songs that let them differ from the competition. However, there is of course a second meaning to the LP that was not apparent for contemporary listeners of the mid-50's, but is progressively uncovered by music fans from all over the world who do not simply listen to Exotica material – which is perfectly fine – but try to contrast it with later works.


Are there certain signs of the times in Festival In Costa Rica which make it worthwhile for genre fans? I have given the answer throughout the review, so of course, yes, Stanley Black's love for exotic percussion in orchestral settings cannot be deemed important enough. Other symphonic works of that pre-Exotica timeframe (which includes the first weeks of 1957) such as Andre Kostelanetz' aforementioned Lure Of The Tropics (1954) and the thematically fitting Lure Of Spain (1957) as well as Morton Gould's Jungle Drums (1957) rely on timpani and kettle drums, oftentimes in spite of their bold titles! Stanley Black, however, underpins his Latin concoctions more often than not with maracas, bongos, congas, bamboo rods and marimbas and thus elevates the state of his LP. If only for me. Festival In Costa Rica was often re-issued and is thus easily available in mono and stereo vinyl versions and also in digital music stores. The above artwork remains the same, though it is more colorful and framed in red. People who have playlists full of renditions by different orchestras and bands as well as adepts-to-be who are interested in the pre-Exotica melting pot should at least know about the existence of this work.


Exotica Review 210: Stanley Black – Festival In Costa Rica (1955). Originally published on May 4, 2013 at