Stanley Black
Black Magic






If I did not already know Black Magic to be associated with British pianist, arranger, writer and conductor Stanley Black (1913–2002), chances are that I would have never even guessed his involvement. Black Magic is a ten-track LP recorded in London and released in 1976 on Decca Records at a time when even the Afro-Bop Funk Exotica craze of British fellow Geoff Love's Mandingo project slowly phased into obscurity. Be that as it may, Black Magic is such an iridescent album due to its genre diversity. It contains traces of Exotica, Caribbean traditions, Disco, Pop, Reggae and, of course, Funk, though it is, I believe, first and foremost a belated Space-Age album. A female choir is on board, humming to five out of the ten songs in a loungey kind of way, bongos, congas and cowbells are interwoven as well, electric and classic pianos, synthesizers, real orchestra strings, flutes and the occasional mallet instrument altogether point at a large pool of devices.


In this regard, Black Magic is strikingly similar to Enoch Light's Space-Age album Spaced Out (1969). The production technique is definitely British, and it turns out that this is no coincidence: there was that timespan in the 70's where these synergetic or hybrid sound works were created time and again, initially fueled by the rise of African music and Roger Moore's first Bond movie, then later kindled by the Disco craze. The front artwork is thus a bit too enigmatic and grim, as it does not match the colorful harmonies and catchy hooks that are bubbling on, in and around this work. Black Magic is highly accessible and flamboyant. Due to its stylistic range, it cannot possibly please everyone with every song, but Stanley Black and his orchestra try their best (who would've thought!). Here's a closer look at its shimmering ten tracks.


Isaac Hayes' Theme From "Shaft" opens the album, and what shall I say, you either dig the funky concoction of the original or not. Incidentally though, Stanley Black's interpretation is not that far away from exotic realms, that is if you allow sleazy Funk additions and Afro-Bop schemes to gently perturb the soundscape. Similar to Geoff Love's and Norman Newell's Mandingo project, Theme From "Shaft" is loaded with hi-hats, wah wah guitars, darkly droning piano chords and a rather disappointing and ashen realization of the four-note backing melody. The guitar is way too thin, but all is not lost, for the warbled alto flute improves the arrangement with its pagan traits. Bongos, vibraphones, warmer piano chords as well as two violins round off an interpretation which gets that certain kick later on and succeeds with a less funky and more amicable interplay of the piano with the "Shaft"-shouting choir. Black's version may start slowly, but its instrumental base soon grows, and best of all, so does its euphony. A great and strikingly exotic start!


Morris Albert's Feelings is next and oscillates incessantly between threnodic nostalgia washes in the form of limewashed guitars in tandem with Blues pianos and symphonic strings, nocturnal bongo droplets and electric piano dots. The bland flute pointilization and the yearning female choir make this a post-Space-Age artifact that only lets its hidden coolness shimmer through in small doses. A disappointment.


Bob Hilliard's and Mort Garson's Our Day Will Come is much cooler and more euphoric, with clanging cowbells, bongo thickets and electric guitars altogether forming the base frame for sun-lit piano melodies. The tempo is upbeat, the flute sprinkles add plasticity, the crunchy maracas are shaken on the right speaker only and the orchestra strings remind of Stanley Black's symphonic works. This is a spacey, completely enthralling take and tailored to those people who want orchestral Funk but not in the form of the opener, i.e. an overly famous song. Our Day will Come delivers. Antonio Carlos Jobim's Wave is next, a swinging Latin Exotica piece. There is nothing wrong with it: the laid-back percussion and the dreamy Italo piano conflate with the wafting strings and create a South Sea Tropicana that is enormously fake and plastic, but genuinely pleasing, for Jobim's well-known melody is greatly carved out.


There is, after all, a problem, and that is Bert Kamepfert's take of Wave which he concocted and conducted a few months later on his post-Exotica opus Tropical Sunrise (1977). There, the strings are anything but auroral and creamy, the atmosphere is denser. Side A of Black Magic closes with All It Takes Is Two (Like Me And You) by Buddy Kaye, Heinz Gietz and Kurt Hertha, a gorgeously camouflaged Reggae brew with scintillating sun-dried wah wah guitars, deep bass guitar blebs, flute accompaniments and a doo-dooing female choir whose vocal range becomes one with the flutes. Add melting strings and golden piano drops to the setting, and you get yourself a terrific example of a catchy tune. Almost saccharine, but never overly kitschy, Stanley Black balances things out and enchants.


Side B kicks off with Van McCoy's The Hustle, and it's magic! Stanley Black transforms it into a Calypso Disco version, with Latin piano injections, galactic guitar screeches, green-lit xylophone vesicles, the choir's "Do The Hustle" chants as well as the ladies' hymnic susurrations next to the uplifting mood. It is luring. The maracas frizzle and sizzle constantly, glee and exuberance are everywhere. This could be the nightmare of many a listener, and I can relate to these fears, but this arrangement is nicely embedded between the cusps of many retro genres and can hence be considered successful… I hope. While Black's take on Joaquín Rodrigo's Aranjuez, Mon Amour is a lackluster and far too prolonged melancholic power ballad with pastel-colored strings, melodramatic piano spirals and mellow bass flutes, Baden Powell's and Vinicius De Moraes' Berimbau paints a superb agent thriller setting with pumping timpani, wonky synthesizer pads and Italo pianos in adjacency to Funk guitars and doo-whop shouts. Shuttling between duskiness and lofty technicolor fields, Berimbau is a slick ride. And that electric guitar solo in the middle is exquisitely ridiculous.


Neilson Taylor's Love In The Rain follows and is stylistically much closer to the early 60's than anything else on this album. The phantasmagoric flute, the bewitching prologue of distantly whirling strings, glinting keyboard chimes and the humming female choir boost the enchantment. Still, the magic does not completely overwhelm me, and so it happens that I am hit by a curious perception: Love In The Rain sounds awfully dated due to its synth-heaviness. No bongos or guitars mask this impression, the fissured structure expands the quiescence and coziness, but also interpolates the reduced instrumental pool. I am quite a bit torn to this day. The final tune is a horrific classic, hated and slated by many, greeted and needed by others; I am talking about Volare.


Domenico Modugno's, Franco Migliacci's and Mitchell Parish's masterpiece has been interpreted so many times that it has become unbearable for many listeners. Stanley Black, however, improves things, letting the song sweep and glimmer without an incessant repetition of the chorus. Instead, the downbeat structure turns out to be the real boon, with the coruscating Funk guitars, ethereal strings and cascading piano shards creating a dreamscape that is devoid of kitsch, even the choir only delivers certain portions of the lyrics. Soft bongo aortas round the composition off, Black sails around the dangerous cliché cliffs. That's black magic alright!


Black Magic is a glaring British example of that 70's sound. It is almost unbelievable how far away its stylistic presentation is from Stanley Black's 50's works, be it the Latin percussion prowess in Festival In Costa Rica (1955) or the piano-focused works with a trio such as Tropical Moonlight (1957) and Cuban Moonlight (1958). This is a Funk Exotica album with a stronger focus on the former genre, akin to Geoff Love's 70's albums. It turns out that the Brits really knew how to create that certain sound where contradictory elements suddenly fit together with ease. Wah-wah guitars, flute infusions, cowbells, bongos and synthetic specks make this more of a late entry into the Space-Age genre than a dedicated Exotica release, but that is entirely fine. One thing that is always audible throughout each arrangement is the strong melodies. While Black plays it cool in order to smarm a younger audience, one can still feel the waves of heartfelt warmth and catchiness which float around the aura.


Black Magic has no real dud on it, only a few less optimized tunes whose dated sound structure could not be covered by a magic spell. The good tunes and interpretations outweigh these more whimsical ones by far. Our Day Will Come, The Hustle and Berimbau unite Funk, Exotica, Space-Age and Latinisms with ease, but no other tune shows this better than Volare. It may not be an enormously great showstopper per se, but the downtempo transfiguration works well. Volare is not exclusively about a fast-paced rhythm, I know that, but Black's version goes beyond this assertion and resides much more in the sub locations next to that demonic chorus everyone knows. If you are a fan of Mandingo and want a similarly funky album, Black Magic could be it, depending on whether an album full of interpretations is a no-go or not. The choir turns out to be a big plus, so if you like Enoch Light's aforementioned Spaced Out, chances are you like Black Magic as well. Since neither the record company nor the pianist and conductor attempt to give a genre-related categorization, Black Magic is literally what you want it to be, for its ingredients and instruments are found in several genres. It is available on LP, CD and as a download.


Exotica Review 236: Stanley Black – Black Magic (1976). Originally published on Jul. 6, 2013 at