John McFarland






The Afro-American pianist and composer John Leslie McFarland may have only one entry in his discography which is Exotica-related, but this particular album is so convincing and pleasing that it is an utter shame there is no successor. Provocatif is a kaleidoscope of nine tracks, recorded and released in 1959 on United Artists and re-issued in 2001 on the Swedish Subliminal label and home to Ìxtahuele, with download versions on iTunes and Amazon readily available. Over the years, Provocatif has garnered a cult following, and while it has not reached the luminescent state of a true classic yet, it is one of the clear cut Exotica albums of its time and one that will most likely cross the path of a devoted genre fan sooner or later.


McFarland is leading a sextet on this record, with Johnny Rae as the mallet instrumentalist, Stick Evans as the percussionist, Roland Alexander as the flutist, Sonny Kaapuwai as the birdcaller and sound effect specialist as well as Jack Six as the member with the number six and responsible for the double bass aortas. To just name a few percussion instruments which are freely mentioned in the liner notes: Turkish Finger cymbals, gourds, congas, bongos, Indian bells, snake rattlers, a vibra-harp and Chinese glass chimes. Four unique tracks are specifically envisioned by John McFarland for this album, with the remaining five comprising interpretations of material that is rarely heard in a pristine Exotica context. The realization of this material is what makes this album so valuable. While not a dedicated part of the Third Stream movement, John McFarland’s performance on the piano is somewhat special, if not always for the better: unlike pianist Martin Denny, the New Yorker confrère plays labyrinthine cacophonies in martelato style. The keys are oftentimes staggering and droning, the surrounding helixes of tropical birdcalls and mystical field recordings almost a contravention to this sanguine limelight. This happens when a musician learns his aesthetics in the street corners. And yet the composer of songs for the likes of Pat Boone outshines his own oeuvre with Provocatif, and strongly so. Here’s a closer look at its adventurous advantages.


Jungle Bells opens the album, originally concocted by a composer called Mr. Mapp. The jingle-jungle joke has been coined numerous times, it is an essential part of dozens of Saturday morning cartoons and regularly finds its way to the Exotica genre. Here, however, the arrangement is eminently luring: launching with spacey chimes and followed by Sticks Evans’ guiros and gourds, it continues with an enchanting interplay of Roland Alexander’s Pagan flute with Johnny Rae’s vibes. McFarland’s piano play is jumpy and comprises of short but very warm bursts. Even fleetingly pentatonic tones make it to the birdcall-accentuated tune. The mix of Afro-Cuban traits and exotic ingredients works fantastically well, making Jungle Bells one of McFarland’s few renditions that offer a textural diversity as well as melodious infusions. 


The following two tracks are specifically written by the bandleader for this very album: Summer Storm offers a wondrously laid-back mélange of superbly aquatic field recordings, distant birds of paradise and one of the greatest spheroidal vibraphone cascades in Exotica history as delivered by Johnny Rae. Roland Alexander’s warbled flute coils, Jack Six’s careful bass accents and the fulminant thunderstorm work very well in tandem, the simultaneity of the elemental force and the strongly Ambient-based beatless phantasmagoria provide a poeticized outlook to a warm summer in the Serengeti. Watusi then ventures into Latin climes despite its name, focusing on John McFarland’s wonkily dissonant piano tones and Sticks Evans’ timpani-underlined bongo groove. This setting is probably the closest to a Paul Conrad arrangement, with a magnitude of humid piano tones and less textural gimmickry. The lacunar structure luckily allows Jack Six’s double bass twangs to shine. A designedly reduced and yet fully exotic vision.


While Johnny Mercer’s and Victor Schertzinger’s jazzy Tangerine is supercharged with insouciance and contentment in the shapes of glistening wind chimes, clicking rainsticks as well as an easygoing intertwinement of paradisiac piano tones and refreshing vibraphone tones which is rounded off by Alexander’s alto flute coils, McFarland’s own The Chimp And The Bumble Bee finishes side A with the expected comical effect akin to a Spencer & Hill flick; loaded with elasticized guitar strings, Sonny Kaapuwai’s monkey business, short Yankee Doodle Dandy allusions as well as a delightful epithelium marimba vesicles, this tune breaks the rose-tinted spell and focuses on the jocular side of Exotica akin to the quirky finales in Martin Denny’s or Arthur Lyman’s albums.


Side B launches with Where Or When, originally a string-heavy ballad by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, but mercilessly tropicalized here on Provocatif: chirping birds of all kinds, adjacent birdcalls, marimba driblets and pristine flute washes place this opus in African climes. The melody is still recognizable due to the piano being in the spotlight, but the percussion and the surrounding exotic embellishments take this composition to a level Rodgers and Hart never intended. A most insightful transmutation. The following Forbidden is not based on Margarita Lecuona's quintessential Taboo, but is the final original cut of the album, co-written by John McFarland and Sonny Kaapuwai. This upbeat ditty launches with an Indonesian gong and then resides somewhere in-between the stylistic range of Latin traditions via the duskily droning piano spirals and Yiddish tone sequences which are similarly crepuscular. The flute interlude as well as the wonderful bongo thicket are great ingredients, but the rising timbre and climactic billows are oftentimes very tense and contravening.


The final two offerings are of the more silkened kind, an important remark given the eclectic play on the piano: Joe Bailey’s Midnight By A Persian Waterfall is presented here with a glockenspiel galore, nocturnal vibraphone scintillae and ashen wind chimes which are altogether ameliorated by splendidly accessible piano chords and rounded off by Jack Six’s double bass protrusions, whereas Head Hunters by the – unknown to me – writing duo of Williams and Domela starts in a staggering, danger-evoking fashion with a five-tone darkness, snake rattlers and shaman-like mumblings. The echo of the percussion devices and the pitch-black nothingness surrounding their aura make this finale particularly jagged and bumpy, yet relaxing. This tune probably epitomizes John McFarland’s characteristic style best. Due to the omission of birdcalls, it remains a strangely brutish composition and a dissatisfying closer to an opus exoticum.


A plant on a stool doesn’t make a jungle. That’s what the back cover reminds me of. As with all eternal (rather than ephemeral) one-off Exotica classics such as Frank Hunter’s White Goddess (1959), Milt Raskin’s Kapu (1959), Stanley Wilson's Pagan Love (1961), Paul Conrad’s Exotic Paradise (1963) or, to a lesser degree, Ralph Font’s Tabu (1959), it is a great pity that the respective band or formation did not gather a second or third time in the studio in order to deliver more of the same. As stale the aftertaste of such a sentence may be, more of the same is not necessarily an equivalent to blandness or standstill. John McFarland’s Provocatif shows great talent, but even better than a selection of mere piano arrangements is the great interplay between the sextet.


Be it birdcalls, dense percussion underbrushes or a cavalcade of mallet instruments next to a vestibule of twirling flutes, Provocatif is created during the pinnacle of the Exotica craze and targets all the welcome clichés and obscure oddities the genre is known and adored for. That McFarland comes up with four unique songs is one cornerstone of the album’s success. That he interprets less considered cuts is another important one. Indeed, there are no traces of the usual classics on here, no Bali Ha’i, Caravan, Flamingo or Quiet Village. It makes Provocatif all the more valuable from an aesthetic viewpoint. The New York-based pianist’s peculiar performances on the piano may not be compatible with the tastes of Rene Paulo‘s, Irving Fields’, Dave Brubeck’s or Martin Denny’s fans, but the rough rusticity proves to be a fitting foil to the dreaminess that encapsulates them. Provocatif remains a purposely convoluted Exotica album for skilled listeners who have had hundreds of feasts in regard to the more accessible classics by the better known grand masters. This black, provocative sheep forms a nice contrast without neglecting the genre’s vivacious flamboyance. The liner notes really describe McFarland’s achievement best: “while his parents did not completely eschew the stuff that soothes the savage beast, there was never any danger of them coming on like the Trapp Familiy Singers.” A most fitting conclusion.


Exotica Review 249: John McFarland – Provocatif (1959). Originally published on Aug. 17, 2013 at