Percy Faith
Exotic Strings






Exotic Strings by conductor, composer and arranger Percy Faith (1908–1976) might well be seen as his only entry in the world of Exotica, with Malagueña (1958) serving as a second choice just in case. If a second choice is not allowed for whatever reason and if one insists on either the name-dropping of some exotic term in the title or various interpretations of genre gold standards, then Exotic Strings is rightfully in the limelight. And what a lucky coincidence, for both the exotic title and various oft-considered Exotica classics merge on this album.


Released in 1962 on Columbia and comprising 12 tracks in total – eleven of them renditions and one exclusive composition –, the Canadian luminary caters to the specific needs of this website’s readership… or so it seems. Percy Faith promises strings. And strings we shall receive. To be more precise: he promises exotic strings, and it is here where the album falls a bit short, at least if one really stresses every syllable of the title. Exotic Strings is a gorgeous Space-Age album of the partially romantic kind, offering huge doses of enchantment which were produced in this particular way around the 50’s and 60’s when even the productions of budget labels had only the sky as their limit and consisted of several or even dozens of musicians in a studio in order to play under the watchful eyes of the respective maestro. And since Columbia exists to this day in one form or another, it is clear that Exotic Strings is firmly based on these auspicious premises. One just must not make the mistake and expect a true string-related exoticism, i.e. sitars, ouds, kotos, shamisen and the likes, for Percy Faith relies on a rather classical setup and ennobles it with Latin percussion, mallet instruments and a few occurrences of a celesta. The textural base is thus wide enough to let the album tower above other bog-standard orchestrations. So do the gargantuan amounts of strings translate to languorous enchantment? I am going to tell you below.


George Forrest’s and Robert Wright’s Baubles, Bangles And Beads is the gateway to Percy Faith’s only specifically tailored Exotica album, and this setting is immediately fleshed out, for the first thing one hears after a hefty protuberance of the whirling strings is the mystique and pristine purity of the glittering wind chimes, followed by much more smarmy Space-Age strings of the encapsulating kind. The listening subject is entrapped right in-between these magnificent washes, but this is probably the state every follower of symphonic Exotica works seeks anyway. It is only in the second half that Baubles, Bangles And Beads becomes even more exotic when its textural base widens; ophidian shakers, harp coils and the hissing airflows of Chinese gongs round off the admittedly corny opener.


The rendition of Buddy Bernier’s and Nat Simon’s eternal classic Poinciana is much more successful due to its croaking Merengue guiros, surprisingly uplifting tempo and gorgeously euphonious string alloy whose harmonies offer a maximum of enchantment. The leitmotif is always in the spotlight, surrounded by downwards-spiraling glockenspiels, a bongo underbrush plus vibraphone accents and a piano accompaniment of three ever-repeated tones. I still prefer Andre Kostelanetz’ more melodramatic try off Lure Of The Tropics (1954), the magic of Morton Gould’s take as found on his LP Temptation (1957), and especially so Les Baxter’s otherworldly version included on Caribbean Moonlight (1956), but Percy Faith’s interpretation is not too far off by any means.


Up next is Dancing In The Dark by frequent collaborators Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz. This is a curious choice, especially so since the prelude of the arrangement is effervescent and loaded with spiraling strings, turquoise-tinted vibraphone globs and an almost completely opaque acoustic guitar, but alas, the tonality turns into histrionic segues one too many times, with only the quirky string-surrounded piano intersection offering a pinch of delight. This is much more spacey than exotic, but so be it. The final 30 seconds are glowing in rose-tinted colors once again and should suit the needs of bachelor pad inhabitants. And so will the superb take on Xavier Cugat’s Nightingale whose Latinized percussion thicket in tandem with the clicking claves, sizzling hi-hats and Honky Tonk piano tones works wonders. The strings whirl magically and resemble the faltering flight of the eponymous bird, the timbre changes between transcendence and nocturnal shadiness, in short, everything in this interpretation is as it should be. Hats off for the Latin translucency and its equally silkened impetus.


The Night Was Made For Love by Otto Harbach and Jerome Kern then allows a fleeting visit into the mauve-colored lands of love and devotion. A magnitude of vivacious Space-Age strings, their pizzicato brethren as well as glockenspiels make this an arrangement whose reduction is not noticeable due to the several shifts of timbres and textural prowess. It gleams and glows, so much so that it can even cover up its kitsch. The final piece of side A is Percy Faith’s only unique contribution to the LP: Chico Bolero delivers exactly what its title implies, a Spanish panorama of staccato maracas, bongo blebs and acoustic guitar scents. Sometimes the strings change their colors to sanguine and occasionally resemble a torero’s nervousness before the big fight, but apart from these short instances, this is a sweet ditty with lots of strings situated in higher regions.


Side B opens with Eric Madrigueira’s and Eddie WoodsAdios, and as stupid its placement may seem, the arrangement itself enthralls with its well-known ten-note motif on pizzicato strings and the cherubic glissando of the violins next to the celesta layers and exotic drums. Cole Porter’s I Get A Kick Out Of You is another corker, with the piano billows serving as the wave-like fundament for the strong string serpentines and sparkling glockenspiel scintillae. Yet again does the textural reduction not decrease the magic of this piece due to the technicolor brightness of each element. One of my favorite Exotica standards of all times, Ted Grouya’s Flamingo is next, and it is poignantly envisioned here, albeit with flaws. The screeching strings at the beginning are not my cup of feathers, but once there are additional layers in place, a partial transmutation sets in. The acoustic guitar placenta is bewildering to me, and I for one would have voted for longer segues of enchantment. Here, less would have been more, as the manifold shifts and structures tear the poor bird apart.


While the lovestoned and semi-lamenting Orchids In The Moonlight by Edward Eliscu, Gus Kahn and Vincent Youmans sees its shady Tango structure taken over without much harm to the string side of life and ameliorated by plinking shakers as well as short beatless interstices of insouciance, the less considered My Shawl by Stanley Adams and Xavier Cugat inherits the enigmatic and less colorful indifference from Orchids In The Moonlight and shuttles between celesta intersections, magnificently auroral string phantasmagorias and conga-underlined maraca groves (or was that grooves?). The finale is an interpretation of Cole Porter’s All Through The Night, a strongly romantic and cosmic take with cavalcades of strings and threnodic counterparts. There is not much else to distill from it other than the wealth of floating strings. A closer that is not exotic at all, but serves the – preferrably lovestoned – Space-Age audience.


Exotic Strings does not live up to the promise of its title, for the strings themselves are not exotic per se, but as if Percy Faith wanted to rectify the situation, he makes sure that the majority of the interpreted material is based on classics that are right at home in Exotica lands and which followers of the genre know by heart or come across sooner or later. While there are no Far Eastern or Oriental stringed instruments on board, the album is still delightfully silky and mellow. Since there is not one single brass instrument on board, let alone a perfectly normal flute, the string players have the big stage all for themselves, with the recurrent visit from mallet instrumentalists.


It so happens that Exotic Strings is very similar to Les Baxter’s aforementioned Caribbean Moonlight, even though Baxter’s strings are much spacier and incredibly galactic. This is no bad trade-off, however, for Percy Faith has access to a broader pool of Latin percussion instruments. They might not be used to their fullest effect, but renditions like Orchids In The Moonlight, Poinciana and Faith’s own Chico Bolero make prominent use of them. The strings are ubiquitous and never quiet, the work is a sapphire for Space-Age fans who do not mind a few shadier undertones and lamentos in their music. Rest assured that there is no melodramatic overdose injected anywhere. And as a bonus, an Exotica aficionado gets to know a few less-considered gems from the classic book of North American standards. Exotic highlights – in my humble opinion – include the super-dreamy Nightingale (which is on par with Baxter’s take!), said Poinciana and Adios, but your mileage may indeed vary. Exotic Strings is available on LP, remastered CD and download versions on Amazon MP3, iTunes and cohorts. 


Exotica Review 305: Percy Faith – Exotic Strings (1962). Originally published on Jan. 11, 2014 at