John Evans
Exotic Percussion
And Brilliant Brass 





Exotic Percussion And Brilliant Brass by arranger John Evans sports a self-explanatory title which still manages to not even reveal half of the album’s stupendous enchantment. Released in 1961 on the Directional Sound label, a direct competitor to Enoch Light‘s Command Records which specializes in breaking the boundaries of stereophonic and later quadrophonic sound worlds, this seems to be one of those albums for stereophiles where the sound quality is utterly essential and everything else, be it artistic vision or aesthetic viewpoints, only of secondary importance. However, there is so much more to know and love about the album which I hail as an Exotica masterpiece! There, I’ve said it, now I need to back my bold words and deliver a stringent argumentation, or else.


John Evans is actually the stage name of Belgian artist Francis Bay, born Frans Bayetz (1914–2005) and leader of many wild orchestras. The percussion side with its bongos, congas, djembes, claves and other devices is skillfully complemented by none other than Exotica’s prime savage Chaino aka Leon Johnson (1927–1999). In what is a common theme amid the often belittled Exotica genre, there are gems which sport the wrong album title and are trapped in surroundings that let music lovers roll their eyes, and John Evans’ Exotic Percussion And Brilliant Brass is one of those particular works. Look at the front artwork, and you might think you have one of Enoch Light’s Command label albums in front of you. And indeed, this is exactly what the erudite customer is led to think in the early 60’s. Unfortunately, the liner notes and information on the rear sleeve are almost exclusively dedicated to the high art of recording the album. That this artifact also sports utterly vivacious, warmhearted and colorful movements – as well as magnificently abysmal bass drums and chirping birds – is neither suggested by the front artwork, nor the album title. All pity aside, here is a closer look at a magnificent album. 


Clear the ring via an acidic Chinese gong for Bad And Beautiful, a gold standard originally envisioned by David Raksin and Dory Langdon. It makes for a superb start and lives up to the album title… and goes beyond. Instead of just delivering feisty brass sections and guiro-laden bongo accents as beaten by Chaino, the arrangement is the first of many to surprise with a mixture of field recordings and birdcalls. The piano spirals are soothing and wonderfully in the spotlight, Chaino meanwhile is rather tame and plays orderly next to the thicket of maracas. This is Tropical Jungle Jazz par excellence, not just a mere bone thrown at stereophiles. Very delightful! Nacio Herb Brown’s Temptation from 1933’s Going Hollywood flick follows next, probably best known by Exotica fans for Martin Denny’s choir-fueled rhythm-shifting interpretation on Afro-Desia (1959). Here, however, everything is positively streamlined and jungular, with bone-crushing kettle drums, marimba fireflies and golden-shimmering Denny-esque piano chords. The maracas are sizzling along to the birds; triangles and congas round off the percussion prowess. The melody is fully transparent and majestic yet ensconced behind the sizzling soundscape.


While Pablo IglesiasEso Es El Amor is a polyrhythmic ever-changing Latin critter that launches with a growling tiger (or snoring bullock), moves over to screaming apes and revs up its percussion aorta with djembes and distantly clanging kettle drums before presenting the quasi-lamenting lead melody on a flute, the sun-soaked Mambo Inn, co-written by Bobby Woodlen, Edgar Sampson and Mario Bauzá, presents a mildly bustling scenery before a hotel, complete with reverberated bongos, polyphonous marimbas and piano scents. The brass layers are genteel and silkened, never throning incisively above the location, thus making Mambo Inn an Exotica piece that is perceived through a translucent veil, with all spikier parts carefully smoothened.


One thing is for sure: the following An Occasional Man by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane is all about the exotification of a Jazz standard that has next to nothing to do with this beloved genre, but is transformed in such a skillful way as if the writers had the very genre in mind. John Evans decides to mix mystical vibes with a lead trumpet and places them in a punchy bongo and conga coppice loaded with maracas. What works so well is the insouciance of the Pagan flutes and the utter warmth of the piano accompaniment. Everything breathes euphony, even the staggering oomph of the drums. Vintage Exotica alright! The last song of side A, Cuban Caper by Billy Taylor, is a wonderful clave-interspersed Mambo with jazzy intersections and alcove-like niches through which the sunlight of the pianos can illuminate the darker backdrops. This arrangement is definitely evoking a daylight scenery rather than a nocturnal setting.


Maybe John Evans only accidentally delivers an Exotica LP and rather focuses on Latinized interpretations? No. Side B shows this better than any other side, as it launches with a glaringly dedicated Exotica triptych of famous anthems. John Evans’ downtempo take on Les Baxter’s Quiet Village kicks off the trio exótico with warbling birds of paradise, the mandatory piano base frame and the main melody played on an alto flute, cautiously accompanied by emerald vibraphone flecks. The middle section sees the piano glowing in technicolor as it not only underlines but outshines the legato brass strata. Hammock-friendly and oddly dichotomous – the effervescent birds clash with the relaxing lower tempo –, Quiet Village works well enough, as does Duke Ellington’s Caravan. The arrangement is definitely bog-standard and does not add anything new to the table, comprising of the usual brass spirals and piano aortas, but succeeds with the shawm-like undertones, a parallax percussion placenta as well as a short vibraphone solo.


Return To Paradise by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington follows, and even though it does not reach the orchestral bliss of Axel Stordahl’s take on The Magic Islands Revisited (1961) or Arthur Lyman’s paradisal ennoblement as featured on Taboo 2 (1960), it succeeds nonetheless due to its birdcall galore, the midtempo liveliness and the last thirty seconds which ameliorate the pentatonic horn sections with frizzling maraca shrubbery.


Venturing to Old Europe, the continent John Evans hails from, Bob Merrill’s Mambo Italiano is up next and transmuted into a Latin ditty here, not entirely strange given the fact that this is, after all, a Mambo. The percussion side is definitely enchanting, as are the eminently vitreous vibraphone vesicles which whirl through the rain forest, with the bamboo rods creating a ligneous addition to the scenery, but I never liked the melody in particular, so this is purely my personal loss out of narrow-mindedness, I guess.


And in Europe the listener shall remain a tad longer, as Amadeu do Vale’s, José Galhardo’s and Raul Portela’s 1937 hit Lisbon Antigua follows, an arrangement which showcases a wideness to submerge into, with the drums having the right amount of reverb and echo to maintain a plasticity which is not even destroyed when the short protrusions of the revved up percussion sections come into play. Having that Mediterranean feeling and marrying it with the South American landmass, Lisbon Antigua is an uplifting version, only outdone by the stupefying Cool Mambo. Written by Cal Massey and Sonny Stitt, it presents shedloads of fizzling shakers, euphonious backing pianos and pointillistic conga blebs. Pumping, almost abyssal drums round off the final piece of John Evans unsuspected opus tropicanum.


John Evans, his orchestra and that noble savage named Chaino have created an Exotica classic, a colorful kaleidoscope of spheroidal strings, effulgent horns and tropical percussion. This is indeed one of Exotica’s best works, neither too Latin nor Space-Age-oriented, but truly, glaringly exotic. Anyone beg to differ? I cannot blame the respective person, for so do the rightsholders and true-bred Exotica aficionados who do not cite this work as an important milestone too often. And to be utterly honest, it is me who is on the wrong path, I have to admit. For instance, John Evans and his troops may create a wonderful take on the Exotica craze, but do not add anything groundbreaking per se. Birdcalls and paradisiac versions of the same material can be found on Ted Auletta’s Exotica (1960) as well, and this one is rightfully cited as a great carbon copy of the archetypical quartet style (though it is played by a septet, but this is nitpicking).


Evans, notwithstanding the works that were released before Exotic Percussion And Brilliant Brass, creates an equally successful album based on the common blue print. The birdcalls are magnificent, the field recordings conflate with the jungle thicket, and there is insouciance written all over it. Four features are particularly noteworthy to me: firstly, there is not Latin lamento flavor in here, and once it appears, it remains in the distance. Secondly, the brass sections are not overly fiery, but perfectly silkened without sounding emaciated or bland. Thirdly, Chaino is on board and erects, builds up and stacks dozens of percussion devices which are then played in parts by the orchestra, some of them even medulla-emptying in their abysmal depth. And finally, Evans breaks free of the stereophile circumambience, at least aesthetically so. Whether his orchestra plays Exotica gold standards or transforms Jazz anthems into tropical themes, there are only two things horribly wrong with this album: its title and the fact that it has not been reissued digitally as of yet.


Further reading:
As usual, sports detailed info about John Evans and his discography in their Francis Bay article.


Ambient Review 304: John Evans – Exotic Percussion And Brilliant Brass (1961). Originally published on Jan. 11, 2014 at