Arthur Lyman
Colorful Percussions






It has to be said right at the beginning of this review: The Colorful Percussions Of Arthur Lyman, released in 1962 on Hi-Fi Records, continues the aesthetic downfall of famous vibraphonist Arthur Lyman (1932–2002). I am a huge fan of his work and cannot pan any of his albums in its entirety, but starting at the end of the 50’s, Lyman’s work suffers from an increasingly obvious blandness, a highly curious remark considering that the bandleader is an Exotica luminary, open-minded for new ideas and styles while trying to integrate them into his renditions and unique material. I will carve out these thoughts in greater detail over the course of this review, business as usual, but am also going to hail the admittedly greater parts of the album. The title is a bold statement and another reaction to Enoch Light’s Percussion series he produced during the end of the 50’s until the middle of the 60’s. Even the front artwork mimics the style of Light’s Studio 5 productions.


Once the percussion force is unchained, it does indeed work splendidly on The Colorful Percussions, and the band is up to the task as ever, but also comes up with silkened and dreamy arrangements. Arthur Lyman plays the vibraphone and marimba as well as the guitar, Alan Soares sits in front of the piano, John Kramer plays both the double bass and the bamboo flute, with Harold Chang being the primary percussionist, but helped out by all other members as well. This is the same old group that has played many albums with Lyman, so the sound quality and interdependences are top-notch. And still: this album is the harbinger of the follow-up Cotton Fields (1963), as lots of tunes sport upfront acoustic guitars and harmonica layers. It is as if Arthur Lyman has fetched himself a copy of Tommy Morgan’s and Warren Barker’s Tropicale (1958). Read more about The Colorful Percussions Of Arthur Lyman on whose genius I have higher demands since we are talking about a skilled go-to artist here, one who cannot possibly be ignored even by the most fleeting listener. The good and bad things are dissected below.


1960’s Percussion Spectacular! was too bold a title in terms of the things it seemed to promise and advertise via the prominent exclamation mark. The Colorful Percussions, however, starts with a bang, and quite literally so: over five minutes of clashing drum mayhem are unleashed in the opener Exodus, originally concocted by Ernest Gold. Staccato drums, rotatory cymbals and quiescent moments interchange in a whirling string of events. The vibe tones and textures resemble Lyman’s own Bwana Ā off the eponymous album from 1958 which he dedicated to Henry J. Kaiser, the owner of the infamous aluminum dome which housed Lyman’s quartet during countless evenings. But back to Exodus and its several flaws, for instance the unnecessary military march structure which is so typical for Arthur Lyman’s closers, but otherwise mostly amiss in the opener. Here the alienating arrangement is ameliorated by Alan Soares’ rumbling piano keys and additional harmonicas. Granted, it won’t be the last time we hear the most famous of all mouth organs. The majesty may be large – even histrionic – but the rufescent sunset phase is way too cinematic and big. Then again, I should not complain, for it shows that Exotica can grow into humongous brutes even when it is played by a quartet.


The follow-up I Talked To The Trees by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe, however, gives the fan what he needs: plinking acoustic guitar licks, music box-like vibraphone glints, gently whipped percussion lashes and that overall hammock-friendly atmosphere. Some vibraphone tones are so low that they resemble dark green colors and boost the escapism factor further. One disadvantage becomes glaringly obvious though: this is a colorful song alright, but without the promised colorful percussions! The promise is redeemed in the gorgeous take on Herbie Mann’s Carabunta which showcases percussion prowess and jungular movements par excellence, with conga and boo-bam formations, clanging brazen drums, birdcalls plus Latin chants and the main melody played by John Kramer on a Pagan bamboo flute.


Mountainous and covered with trees, Carabunta is a great piece… as is Lyman’s interpretation of Leo Robins’ and Ralph Rainger’s Blue Hawaii. Yes, it is true, Lyman has never considered this quintessential gold standard heretofore, leaving the field to fellow arrangers and abhorring mutants  such as Billy Vaughn’s abysmal album of the same name, released in 1959. Soothing and fathoming the interpolation of glissando and sustain on the vibraphone, Harold Chang then revs up this downtempo ballad with a permanent aorta of bamboo rods. Whereas Albert De Bru’s and Rafael Audinot‘s Rhumba Rapsody sees Alan Soares’ Latin piano cascades united in the spotlight with a Balearic sundown guitar played by Lyman, John Kramer’s four note bass scheme as well as Harold Chang’s bongo blebs, the traditional Aloha No Honolulu takes a fleeting visit to Lyman’s strictest quasi-Ambient album Hawaiian Sunset (1959), as the tune could have been spawned from there. After a long solo performance on the vibes and golden guitar slaps, a bucolic piano undulation and changing rhythms worship another beautiful day in Hawaii.


Side B opens with the gorgeous Never On Sunday, undoubtedly the greatest hit by Billy Towne and Manos Hadjidakis. Arthur Lyman does its Calypso-oid gestalt justice, but not before launching the piece with a terribly chintzy schmaltz escapade of harmonica helixes and girdling guitar tones. Only later does the sun-soaked euphony permeate via ligneous xylophones, vibraphone foils and sizzling tambourine-maraca couplings. Carl Sandburg‘s and Lee Hays(The Wreck Of The) John B. then merges the unnerving harmonica sinews with the already known guitar placenta. A good mood song overall, the deeper vibraphones are delicately blurry and seem to come from down below which makes for a designedly drowsy effect.


Eddie Lund‘s Tangi Tika is basically a continuation of the atmosphere on John B., but driven by much more vivid ukulele injections and a revisit of the bamboo flute, with the mystical Geisha Waltz being the corker for fans of Japanized Exotica, as it boasts piercing gongs, cymbals and other clanging devices which surround the threnodic vibraphone tones. A take on Red Williams’ aka William Grosz’s Red Sails In The Sunset follows, but it is too bland since it applies the bamboo rods and percussive faux-whiplashes off I Talked To The Trees to the arrangement. A disappointment. Once distinct features appear on two songs, they lose their status as a feature and turn quotidian. Meanwhile, Moanin’ by Bobby Timmons is the Rock-infested finale of side B, and there must be quite a few people out there who pinpoint this song as the very moment when Arthur Lyman jumped the shark: jazzy double bass runlets conflate with cymbal-heavy proto-Funk vibes and Rock-insinuating piano tercets. The percussion does live up to the album title, and the melodies are catchy indeed, but the piece itself is frighteningly non-exotic by Lyman’s own standards. Another disappointment and one possible marker of the things to come, the ongoing countermovements and frilly styles that overcast the increasingly retrograde Exotica market.


The Colorful Percussions Of Arthur Lyman suffers from the shifting tides and increasingly open gates or vestibules of the bandleader’s style. Ever since he, his band or the marketing buffs at Hi-Fi Records decided to include material of Old Europe into Lyman’s Exotica canon, something went fishy in paradise. Even though Europe is completely amiss on this particular LP, the energey and vibrance of Lyman’s music starts to decrease with each subsequent album. Whereas Many Moods Of Arthur Lyman (1962) did rev up the amount of birdcalls in comparison to the aforementioned Percussion Spectacular! aka Yellow Bird – an album which features only one single song with birdcalls despite the luminescent title –, The Colorful Percussions Of Arthur Lyman falls back into the trap and only sports one bird-related rendition, the tropical Carabunta. Granted, birdcalls alone do not make an Exotica album, let alone a particularly great one, and the opposite is also the case, a complete lack of birdcalls does not disqualify a work from being linked to the genre, but since this animal echopraxia is one trademark of Arthur Lyman, it always saddens me to see it underused or almost absent. As usual, the quartet decides to be open-minded, but loses the focus, lets all too many other styles influence the work.


Sure, this is still a proper 100% Exotica record, but the synergetic effects and outer boundaries show that Exotica is no isolated isle, not even in hindsight, but situated in gurgling waters whose fluxion washes many interesting styles ashore. Yes, I am using prosaic language that could have been derived from multitudinous liner notes, but there are many instruments which evoke the changing tides and muddier waters, and no other device shows this better than the harmonica. In the end, the percussion withstands most of the album’s flaws… if it appears on a track and is as colorful as promised. That its inclusion is even seen as optional in cases such as I Talked To The Trees and Aloha No Honolulu is only further proof of the dissonance between title and material. Even if one just listens to these 12 tracks in a row, forgets about the title and simply sees the textures and patterns unfold, the material remains hit-or-miss, tumbles to one too many styles. There is gold in here, no doubt about that. But it is an album I cannot absorb from start to finish such as the vivacious Bahia (1959) or Taboo (1958) and Taboo 2 (1960). Thankfully, The Colorful Percussions Of Arthur Lyman is available to fetch on iTunes and Amazon MP3, so it is easy to prelisten to the table of contents and then pick one’s poison.


Exotica Review 350: Arthur Lyman – The Colorful Percussions (1962). Originally published on Jun. 14, 2014 at