The Chaquito Big Band
Spies And Dolls






Spies And Dolls is an adventurous and completely nonhazardous Latinized Crime Jazz artifact by renowned composer Chaquito aka Johnny Gregory (born 1924 in London), released in 1972 on the Philips label. Bursting at the seams with breakneck incidents, beautiful sunset vistas and mountainous brass-fueled serpentines, this 12-track LP offers a wild ride that targets fans of James Bond and other literary-cinematic classics who want these exciting encounters to be ameliorated with bongo-and-conga chaparrals, bachelor pad organ sparks and scents of funky wah-wah goodness. The most striking genre, however, can best be summarized with the term Latin. Indeed, Chaquito’s  band comprises of 15 musicians, with five of them responsible for gleaming brass infusions, tramontane horn spirals and gyrating reeds. These are the main ingredients of every album Johnny Gregory recorded under his vivacious Chaquito moniker.


The title Spies And Dolls is evidently catchy, a pun on Frank Loesser’s 1950 musical Guys And Dolls. This is not the only hint at a more jocular and tongue in cheek attitude towards the subject at hand. Three tunes are created by Chaquito and contain similarly twisted titles. Even though these instances might lead the listener to think of Spies And Dolls as an overly simplistic tomfoolery that is exclusively funny and comical, the opposite is the case, as truthfully intensive moments of large scope appear as frequently as intersections of tranquility and breathers. Listing all involved musicians would take another paragraph, but specifically important for the density of the release is Chaquito himself who conducts and arranges the record, bassist Frank Clarke, drummer Ronnie Verrell as well as organist Harry Stoneham. In addition, four percussionists and said five brass players know how to rev up the impetus of each scenery. Put on your sunglasses, enter your Aston Martin and turn up the volume to the max.


Five incisive brass notes whose afterglow tumbles into the dark backdrop, that is the twilight state of Quincy JonesThey Call Me Mister Tibbs, a polyhedron Funk jewel whose gorgeous Hammond organ glissando as delivered by Harry Stoneham conflates with cavalcades of different horn textures, Al Newman’s Pagan alto flute spirals and various crunchy as well as wooden percussion instruments. The spy mood is deliberately presented over the top, with each danger-evoking note containing a warmhearted nucelus of benignancy. It is no easy theme per se, for the various volume levels and shapeshifting surfaces make it in fact much more demanding, but They Call Me Mister Tibbs is still an opener that feels right, as it embodies and unleashes the motifs to come. Lalo Schifrin’s Bullitt turns out to be much sleazier, with Frank Clarke’s sleazy bass guitar billows becoming entangled with slightly Doppler-ized brass infusions, Ronnie Verrell’s conga coppice and coruscatingly catchy vibraphone globs. The percussionists and organist Stoneham are given the necessary room to let their instruments unfold the magic in solo segues.


The Anderson Tapes is the second of three Quincy Jones constructions, and it is a strikingly polymorphous one, launching with gorgeously loungey bachelor pad-compatible mallet instrument scintillae and softened breakbeat rhythms, then going over to an organ-interspersed plasticity of tropical marimba magic, vibraphone virtuosity and sun-dried guitar scents before the arrangement reaches a more brass-heavy state that is still highly lacunar, feeling strangely turquoise-tinted and eminently gaseous. A wonderful piece, strikingly exotic and ever-changing.


Chaquito’s own eponymous Spies And Dolls follows: this title track is supercharged with hyper-catchy upwards spiraling brass erections, sunlit wah-wah guitars and good-spirited brass bubbles. The hot-like-lava organ rivers as well as the vitreous glass percussion round off the sunniest tune of the whole album, although the following The Looking Glass War by Angela Morley comes in second and is a downtempo glorification of an exotic trip to mellow mirages in pastel colors. Aeriform and enormously mellow horns, orbiting falsetto flutes and large-grained maracas altogether gleam and glow, creating a super-soothing phantasmagoria. Chaquito’s rendition of Don Ellis’ rhythm-shifting The French Connection then finishes side A in the expected eclectic way; a labyrinthine thicket of turbulent brass rhizomes, euphonious big band counterparts and covered organ creeks create a tasteful take on a classic movie theme.


Side B is in splendid shape as well, kicking things off with Angela Morley’s faux-hazardous When Eight Bells Toll which shuttles between orchestra bell-boosted horn helixes of the jazzy kind, bongo underwood and legato streams of adventure and mayhem, then moves over to Denis King‘s pointillistic The Spy’s Wife with its perniciously dark horn blasts in front of a one-of-a-kind staccato shrapnel full of vibraphones and trumpets, before the recurrence of the luminescent Funk joyfulness is mercilessly worshipped in Quincy Jones’ Heist – Money Is whose wonky organ jots underline muted falsetto trumpets and very melodious sun-dappled counterparts. The jocular, uplifting accessibility is almost a contravention to the jazzier Third Stream-evoking convolution which graces quite a few of the selected tunes.


Incidentally, Jerry Goldsmith’s Our Man Flint would be such a Third Stream tune, although it sits right in the middle of jazzy spirals and funky bursts of catchiness. The signature element of Chaquito’s arrangement is the wonderfully clinging and plinking percussion; cowbells, kettle drums, even the marimba droplets and glockenspiel fireflies illuminate the rufescent sunset-evoking majesty of the semi-dangerously droning brass cloudlets. Synergetically sylvan and brazen, Our Man Flint is superbly cinematic, adamantly opaque and fiery. A masterful interpretation! While Chaquito’s own The Spy With A Cold Nose is a brightly lit swinging daylight ditty with exclusively mellow brass layers in front of maracas, dusky bass guitars and strikingly cute tone sequences, the closer comes in the shape of Isaac Haye’s Shaft which, naturally and expectedly, is the funkiest bounce-o-rama with quavering flutes, gunmetal-colored wah-wah bass thickets and the famous four-note brass vesicles. Distantly spiraling organ waves and a harmonious second phase round off a memorable spy album.


A joyful ride through the thicket of spy clichés, that is the enchanting procedure of Chaquito’s Spies And Dolls. Right from the get-go, only by a mere look at the album title, does the listener know what to expect, and expects what to know. But Johnny Gregory’s album has more to offer, and one finds it in the interstices of the delightfully Latinized yet stereotyped renditions, for there are moments where the tasteful grandiloquence and fiery orange-colored spectrum elevate the album into truly magnificent spheres. Sure, these instances are short and probably caused by minor adrenaline rushes during my circadian jogging routine, but I really do think that Chaquito’s brass ensemble knows how to hit hard and at the same time lessen the staggering impacts of the blows it causes. When Eight Bells Toll and Heist – Money Is are prime examples of the aforementioned simultaneity: each darker tone immediately has a witty, amicable aura which makes the arrangements all the better balanced. Our Man Flint then takes the cake in this regard and unleashes saturated colors of heat and frenzy. Add Chaquito’s own concoctions to the scenery and their peculiar quirkiness and you got a work that can be justifiably called an Exotica album due to the tonality and percussion layers.


Those who despise the Funk genre and look nervously at the year of this LP’s release do not need to fear the expected ingredients. Granted, there are quite a few wah-wah guitars on board, but electric pianos and synthetic ingredients are ostracized in general; the few sleazier takes such as Bullitt and Shaft breathe Funk in their original incarnations, and so Chaquito embroiders these into his arrangements as well, but apart from these examples, this is a Latin Exotica adventure par excellence. Thankfully, the album has been reissued and is available with the artist’s similar TV Thrillers work on one CD. A download version is also available. Wannabe spies and would-be dolls, obey to Chaquito! 


Exotica Review 412: The Chaquito Big Band – Spies And Dolls (1972). Originally published on Jan. 31, 2015 at