Irving Fields Trio
Pizzas And Bongos






Like them or not, but pianist Irving Field's (born 1914) Bongos series of albums offered something new at the time of their respective release dates, although this novelty not only turned sour after a few years, but surprisingly regularly caused boredom over the course of the same album already. This assertion is also applicable in regard to Pizzas And Bongos, the Italy-themed counterpart from 1961 to the French edition called Champagne And Bongos, the Hawaiian Bikinis And Bongos and the Yiddish edition that started it all in 1959, Bagels And Bongos. On Pizza And Bongos, the management of Decca Records offers the Irving Fields Trio another opportunity to come up with the 12 usual vignettes; actually it's even 14 different songs, for Fields delivers two medleys. He is still accompanied by drummer Michael Bruno and bassist Henry Senick, though the latter keeps an awkwardly low profile and is barely audible, although the sound quality is quite pristine.


Without panning this release prematurely – since it offers a deliberately lightweight taste of Italy and is less keen on a complex interactivity – there is actually a surprising comment to make in terms of its arrangement-related style: the bongos are used on each and every piece, and while they are usually less inspirational, they do offer a curiously wondrous transformation. It actually turns out that the Italian mannerisms and clichés are turned into proper Latinisms due to the bongos! All of a sudden, Irving Fields' melancholic and sunnier piano chords seem to come straight out of Panama or Costa Rica rather than Venice or Capri. This shapeshifting curiosity works to the album's advantage and leads to an increasingly interesting chain of aural events. Exotica and Latin fans will potentially rejoice, and devotees of these Italian themes ought to see their beloved compositions in a new light. However, this prospect is hardly fulfilled by the Irving Fields Trio. While the piano sequences are vivid, colorful and changing, the percussion placenta underwhelms, not just on this particular album, but on each and every of Fields' Bongos entries. It is still valuable enough to review its 12–14 songs in-depth, I believe.


Claude Aveling's and Ernesto De Curtis' Sorrento Cha Cha marks the point of departure for the Irving Fields Trio, and it is here in this opener already that the remark of Italian mannerisms turning into Latinisms becomes reality thanks to Michael Bruno's bongo aorta. The slightly lamento-evoking chords on the piano boost this perception further, although the chorus offers quite a few uplifting sun-soaked tone sequences. Still, the opener is decidedly latinized and is thus torn away from its Italian roots. The following Just Say I Love Her is another rather murky tune coated in a hatched red timbre. Originally written by Jack Val and Jimmy Dale, their theme of devotion and affection is again augmented both by the bongos and silky shakers. It is no dedicated Tango, but resides close to that subgenre. Fields' work on the piano largely comprises of the faithful reproduction of the main melody, but with many added undertones and improvisations. Bassist Henry Senick is barely noticeable.


While Carmen Lombado's and Danny DiMinno's Return To Me seems like the next of kin to the classic Apple White And Cherry Blossom Red and finally breaks the dusky spell by uniting frizzling cymbals and distant bongos with a spiraling wave-like glissando on the piano charged with lots of tones in major seemingly imported from Rimini, Rocco Granata's ultimate vintage hit from Italy, the bodacious Marina, turns to an almost Samba-esque presentation in the hands of Irving Fields. The effervescent piano serpentines shimmer in warm colors, the percussion section is suddenly alive and less formulaic thanks to tap dance-resembling cymbals, maracas and the successfully muffled bongos in the backdrop. Believe it or not, but Marina is a less clichéd song.


The Maltese Folk song The Blue Grotto returns to mid-tempo climes and sees Irving Fields using the whole tonal range of the piano, injecting majestic solemnity and sunlit grace next to the well-known percussion scheme, but it is the great medley Ciribiribin / Oh, Marie that unites Alberto Pestalozza's and Eduardo DeCapua's respective composition in tropical surroundings. The bongos are more upfront than ever, their decay is clearly audible, the notes on the piano are lofty, lightweight and warmhearted. It is really true: the bongos make the boldest difference here, letting the arrangement reciprocate between the Tropics and the mountains of Sicily.


Side B opens in the way side A closed, with another medley, this time of pure schmaltz and syrup: Carl Sigman's and Renato Rasco's Arrivederci Roma is followed by Eduardo DeCapua's O Sole Mio. This is Italia to the maximum. The piano is almost liquedous while the bongos are curiously muffled and have to reside in the backdrop. The piano cascades are a bit unnerving, though the gentleness of the remaining chords makes this an almost dreamy effort. O Sole Mio is then cleverly interwoven and surprisingly devoid of any über-strong kitsch. The bongos and the faster tempo successfully kill off the remaining traces of ooze. Ciao Ciao Bambina by Domenico Modugno is next and consists of positively carefree piano sprinkles that are thankfully streamlined and not overly jumpy, whereas Volare, Italy's 1958 Eurovision entry that is envisioned by Domenico Modugno as well, is a feast on this LP and a hidden gem. Scintillating bongos and sizzling maracas have been heard before on this album, but they work fabulously well with Irving Fields' improvised melodies and segues. The chorus is really the least important part.


The cryptic Vino Della Rosa follows with sparkling tones which resemble the glittering sunspots dancing on the ocean waves and luckily refrain from the melodrama, the very ingredient that is perceptible throughout Giuseppe Fanciulli's Guaglione, the boldest Latinized tune on Pizzas And Bongos with an exciting bongo thicket, whirling piano tones and finally an audible performance by bassist Henry Senick whose double bass meanders along in a more eclectic fashion. If this tune appeared in my playlist randomly, I could not link it to this specific LP. No Italian stereotypes attached! The final location is the Isle Of Capri, originally built by Jimmy Kennedy and Will Grosz and nurtured here by Irving Fields. The percussion pattern changes. The tambourins and shakers are much more upfront, the bongos are yet again in the background, but manage to shimmer through in a delicate fashion. Fields' performance is noteworthy here for being almost Honky Tonk-like, with traces of warmth, dissonance and comic relief all clashing, departing and reuniting throughout the duration. Isle Of Capri remains the most uplifting piece. The trio has so much fun that the producer has to use the fade out knob to let the soundscape wash away. A great outro!


Here we have one of Irving Fields' Bongos works that truly shines. It is by no means a great album, for its ever-repetitive percussion scheme is again the weakest part or even the Achilles heel of the LP. However, something interesting happens nonetheless: the bongos truly transform the melodies of Italy's golden age of songwriters into Latin realms. Irving Fields fathoms the amount of improvisations and half-tones he can bake into the arrangements, and this achievement alone is interesting enough to keep a devoted listener on his or her toes. In some cases, the catchiness of the presented material wanes as in the case of Volare. There are then incidents where the schmaltz-soaked moisture wanes almost completely as the medley of Arrivederci Roma and O Sole Mio shows; especially the latter tune is Italy's implicit answer to Hawaii's Aloha Oe. Both tunes have been played to death, thousands of different interpretations are streamable with one click of the mouse or a touch of one's fingertip. In this regard, Pizzas And Bongos succeeds. 


In the end though, the skills of Irving Fields cannot camouflage the fact that this is one of those feature fun albums where everybody has a good time but plays the material out of necessity, not because of a truthful devotion or a particular connection. Well, that's the music business for you, I know I know, but still, the constancy of the presented material makes close listeners aware of the shortcomings. There are albums of percussion-underpinned piano arrangements which oscillate between a wider variety of play styles, dreamscapes and moods. Irving Fields only delivers the Latin lamento or the Italian sunshine panoramas, nothing in-between or far away. Exotica fans who are interested in this album because of the bongos (rather than the pizzas) will mainly be annoyed by the lackluster presentation.


No solos, percussion sections or labyrinthine intersections take place between the band mates, though everyone knows his game, so to speak. Those in the hope for an eclectic Jazz LP will be disappointed. I would normally advise anyone to pre-listen to this work, but the album has unfortunately never been reissued in any form. Only Bagels And Bongos has so far been authorized by Irving Fields himself for a reissue, so there is hope for the Pizza edition after all. A non-essential, all too picayune artifact of the Italian lifestyle. Hot-blooded Latin and bongo fans may invest when the vinyl is washed ashore for a low price.


Exotica Review 354: Irving Fields Trio – Pizzas And Bongos (1961). Originally published on Jun. 28, 2014 at