Arthur Lyman
Cotton Fields






It might be superfluous in view to the front artwork and the bandleader behind the work, but heck, I mention it nonetheless: Cotton Fields is a twelve-track Exotica album by vibraphone virtuoso Arthur Lyman (1932–2004) and is released in 1963 on the artist’s house label Hi-Fi Records. Another thing is for sure: the front artwork of Cotton Fields brings back mightily good times! After a few less than optimally balanced albums with underdelivered promises such as Many Moods or The Colorful Percussions (both 1962), is Arthur Lyman back for good with a well-oiled jungle machinery? Unfortunately no; not if the complete product is put to the test. But this is my personal opinion only, so who am I to fool, for the premise is actually highly interesting, bound to be explosive and energetic: Cotton Fields presents the first clear-cut big budget blending of Exotica with the energetic and shiny Rock movement. Balmy Surf Rock billows round off the cocktail.


The creation of a synergetic album is actually a great idea, whether it is the exotification of orchestral material or the Japanized take on Occidental classics. However, intermixing 50’s Exotica with the infancy stages of 60’s Rock is a difficult endeavor, one which Arthur Lyman cannot successfully steer through, I can tell you this much in advance. The Exotica coxswain tries his best, and the same old gang of multi-instrumentalists is on board as well, comprising of John Kramer on the double bass, flute and guitar and Alan Soares on the piano, percussion and glockenspiel, with Harold Chang providing drums, ukuleles and xylophones aplenty. The members change instruments on the fly, and frequently so, business as usual. So how can these and many other exotic instruments such as boo-bams, bamboo rods and marimbas transport the Rock flavor? Which true Exotica gems are on board? And what went wrong in the end? Find out in the following paragraphs.


It is true that Exotica went downhill during the 60’s, but this does not mean that you can pinpoint this dilapidation on a per-track basis. The opener Jungle Drums is one mighty example that elbows away all contemporary skepticism. Written by Ernesto Lecuona, this Exotica gold standard is brought to life the very second the croaking guiro is grinded. Lyman’s birdcalls and polyphonic vibes, John Kramer’s softly bubbling double bass as well as Alan Soares’ warm piano rays depict a beautiful day… which then turns into a more shady percussion-driven scene chock-full of bongos and rhythmic changes before the renowned piano melody returns. The verdured parallax layers continue to prosper in the classic folk tune Greensleeves. Fortunately so, for the most famous song of all holding patterns and phone call queues becomes an enchanting crystal cavern of aquatic pianos, vitreous vibes and earthen acoustic guitar rivulets. The melody feels as doleful and melancholic as expected, however, it is the textures that make the difference, laying a soft and fittingly green hue over the blotchy cannelure.


While Leonard Bernstein’s Walk On The Wild Side exotifies the steamy timbre of Rock via piano globs of lava and saltatory vibraphone air twirls straight out of a a concrete jungle’s canyon, Billy Strange’s and Jon Sheldon’s Limbo Rock is presented in a superb Bossa Nova version here that seems to be played in Rangoon due to the interplay of glassy-wonky steel pans, the cautious marimba placenta, many sizzling maracas and a tropical wideness par excellence. Precious time is wasted on George Forrest’s and Robert Craig Wright’s ballad And This Is My Beloved, for the piano arrangement remains too chintzy and romantic despite the occasional Rock allegory and Lyman’s sparkling vibe adjuvant, but Prince Leleiohoku’s Hawaiian War Chant comes to the rescue! Presented in an opaque Bossa Nova version here, the first minute is played in minor before the band bursts into wild technicolor moods. The bongos and vibes saccharify yet another portentous Rock infestation.


Side B sports the title track: Huddie William Ledbetter’s Cotton Fields is the shortest artifact and barely cracks the mark of 100 seconds, for better or worse, as the staccato shakers and jumpy vibes in tandem with the stuttering piano only lead to one conclusion: Arthur Lyman and his group try to shuttle between Rock and Exotica yet again. This time, however, the melody does not work with the instruments. It needs feistier, more vigorous textures to succeed, and since this is the title track of the album, it pinpoints the principal problem of this LP like no other song ever could in this clarity. Maddy Lam’s Singing Bamboo, however, offers a sumptuously soothing scenery akin to Hawaiian Sunset (1959). Harold Chang’s ukulele licks next to Arthur Lyman’s vibraphone nebulae both offer welcome minimalism and textural wealth as the afterglows can freely bloom in the interstices. Ary Barroso’s Brazil breaks the languorous spell, but not for the worse, as its mightily exotic potion of heavily sizzling maracas, bamboo rods and boo-bams finds the melodious foils in Alan Soares’ piano, with not a vibraphone, let alone another mallet instrument in sight. Here, the percussion outshines the world-famous melody.


Whereas Richard Rodgers’ and Lorenz Hart’s Little Girl Blue turns out to present a less successful moiré of rhythm-changing Rock patterns, ligneous Honky Tonk tomfooleries and piercing vibraphone scythes, Evelyn Danzig’s and Jack Segal’s Scarlet Ribbons is a fleeting visit to Tommy Morgan and Warren Barker’s Tropicale (1958) as it depicts a horticultural sunset field in Arizona complete with harmonica-based superfluids and acoustic guitar licks. I hope your bonfire is already lit; it could become a whole firewall in the wake of the finale: Robert Meredith Willson’s I Ain’t Down Yet rolls along with its march-like pompousness, orchestra bell galore and sizzling percussion catenae. The best thing is the Ambient prelude of 60 seconds, though the dream ends immediately and makes room for high-energy convulsions and proton-heavy aureoles.


Cotton Fields shows the quandary the Exotica genre is in, at least during 1963. The big labels do their best to push their great stars, but the concepts become strange. Estranging even. The album is not a complete disappointment, and to be honest, the marketing buffs of Hi-Fi Records have made a great choice with the front artwork which is a great homage to Taboo (1957), The Legend Of Pele (1958) and possibly Yellow Bird (1960), but the blending of Rock and Exotica simply does not work in the way the quartet wants the listener to believe. It is not enough to replace string-based lead instruments with mallet-based counterparts. The bongos and congas and birdcalls and whatnot turn out to be exciting ingredients, nothing wrong with that, but today’s listener can choose from many an album which sports these instances, and so Cotton Fields is not a particularly towering example in this regard.


Arthur Lyman’s previous albums of the 60’s were already placed in-between changing structures, businesses and – most importantly so – tastes of the music press and listeners alike; after all, the former guided or steered the appeal of new genres. And granted, Lyman chooses the material wisely and showcases that every genre can be transformed into Exotica. But can it be transformed successfully? Yes, but not on this particular album! For instance, the gorgeous opener Jungle Drums and the hyper-dreamy Singing Bamboo are undoubtedly gorgeous takes which I consider time and again. There’s only one problem: these are no transformations; they may be called just that in the narrow sense – Jungle Drums was created on a piano and then ported to symphonic settings –, but they are no examples in terms of the very Rock aspects that swoosh through the album. Every time the typical Rock pianos, rhythms and timbres find their way onto the album, i.e. in six out of 12 tracks, the magic wanes. If this is my personal problem only and your mileage varies, I can fully embrace this. I envy everyone who is able to thoroughly enjoy this Rock/Exotica blending. I simply can’t, that is why I absorb the classic Exotica material on this LP and otherwise move on. Cotton Fields is available on vinyl, double CD and download versions as well as on streaming services.


Exotica Review 402: Arthur Lyman – Cotton Fields (1963). Originally published on Jan. 3, 2015 at