Percy Faith






Shangri-La! by Canadian arranger and composer Percy Faith (1908–1976) is a twelve-track Far Eastern Exotica romance and out-of-body journey to several locations, incidents and languorous isles. Released in October 1963 on Columbia Records, the exclamation mark in the title itself is as good a stylistic marker of the things to come as the front artwork and the tracklist. Even the flimsiest look reveals several gold standards that made it to the album, all of them beloved by tiki aficionados and lovers of that quartet sound. On Faith’s albums, however, strings and horns reign, and this is no different in Shangri-La! and its roster of well-known compositions, among them a unique cut written by Percy Faith.


Fans know what to expect when they listen to the arranger's albums; these are most of the time based on standardized instruments and orchestral equipment, so even though the album promises many an Asian song or Japanized take, there are no sitars, shamisens, kotos or tamburs on board. If this is a no-go for the Exotica fan, I can fully relate to this disappointment. However, I must also add that the material is enormously enchanting regardless of the missing exoticism instrument-wise. Space-Age fans will have a field day with this album, as warped, warbled and wonky strings float through the ether and boost the romantic notion. And fittingly so, as the album’s subtheme is based on romanticism and love. There is only one instance that is too chintzy and saccharine for my taste, the rest of the list is top-notch. If your mileage does not vary overly much, you are in for a treat. Here is a closer inspection of that very treat.


The greatest thing about Shangri-La, both in terms of the whole album and in regard to the eponymous opener as composed by Matty Malneck and Robert Maxwell, is the blissful eruption with which Percy Faith’s orchestra greets the listener. If the opener were a closer, I would not have raised a brow, but since this is a prelude, one feels overwhelmed and hued in veiled lilac flashes and fluffy cotton balls. Yeah, no kidding. The mixed choir hums along to the Space-Age melodies, paradisiac flutes coalesce with glockenspiel sprinkles. Granted, the orgasmic exuberance experiences a downfall after 20 seconds or so, the strings and choir, however, keep on carrying the famous melody. Thickly wadded in elation, Kashmiri Song continues the same tonality. Written by Laurence Hope and Amy Woodeforde-Finden, the melody remains fully intact and is unsurprisingly based on multilayered string washes and warped airflows, and yet is there a surprise in here in the shape of jazzy piano accompaniments whose aqueous bubbles mesh well with the hazy double bass backdrops.


Material by Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers must not be amiss on albums of that decade, and so The March Of Siamese Children augments the Asian flavor of romanticism with loftier March structures and smashing cymbals. Thankfully, the clarinets and horns never sound childish but evoke a soft mountainous aura. A terrific sparkler, surprisingly orchestral and non-gimmicky. While Alexander Borodin’s, George Forrest’s and Robert Wright’s Stranger In Paradise functions as a Polynesian Exotica pit stop amid the Far Eastern theme and sees the strings gyre piercingly around the mellowed brass capsules and faraway choir, Percy Faith’s own Cherry Blossom is supercharged with galloping drums, helicoidal harps and transcendental string washes. The echoey gurgles of the drums add depth to an eminently wadded sanctuary, with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Song Of India rounding off side A with a clandestine reticulation of jinxed fairy tale strings, a senescent lead fiddle and a grave majesty. Sporting Chinese gongs and rufescent aureoles, this interim finale is serious business but most importantly a superb arrangement which negates the proto-Easy Listening status Shangri-La! might have carried otherwise.


Mountain High, Valley Low opens side B. Bernie Hanighen’s and Raymond Scott’s solemn composition is tastefully transformed into a glorious vista, although Percy Faith does not need to do much terraforming himself, as the dichotomous synergies between the aeriform veneers in the form of flutes and the tumular hills as depicted by eruptive hi-hats and sky-high strings is only a faithful adaptation of the original. Another Polynesian counterpoint comes along: Jack Pitman’s Beyond The Reef is best known for Arthur Lyman’s rendition as found on Bahia (1959), but diffuses and meanders ethereally when the Canadian arranger has his hands on deck, unchaining warped Space-Age strings whose cautiously droning glissando is a deliciously spacy foil to the the rotatory harps and pristine glockenspiel sparks which in tandem resemble the moonlit ocean waves.


The moony procession is the perfect opportunity to add another nocturnal gem to the seashore: Frank Loesser’s and Alfred Newman’s Exotica gold standard The Moon Of Manakoora. Heard a hundred times on as many different Exotica or Easy Listening albums, it has not lost any of its magic once transfiguring strings are placed in downwards-spiraling alto flute cascades and adjacent clarinet backings. The quieter phases on this rendition allow a whitewashed afterglow to twinkle over the scenery. If there is one flaw to be mentioned, it is the missing link to the Far Eastern theme, but the subtheme of romanticism is addressed all the better, and this is also the case on George Forrest’s and Robert Wright’s second inclusion on this album: And This Is My Beloved brings back the choir in full force in an overly pompous and maudlin scenery loaded with sloppy sentimentalism.


Irving Berlin’s Sayonara appears at the right time, putting an end to the overcharged flirtation by sweeping along with a flute-string runlet whose galactic string-based polar lights are beautifully haunting. Dimitri Tiomkin’s and Ned Washington’s Return To Paradise kisses the listener goodbye with a surprisingly long take of almost four and a half minutes. This Exotica masterpiece encounters golden piano groves, dreamily fuzzy vibraphone nebulae, quieter moments of contemplation followed by mountain horns and rose-tinted string sinews, making this version a symphonic highlight that is only outshone by Axel Stordahl’s version on The Magic Islands Revisited (1961).


Neither as strongly Far Eastern as many would have wished, nor as mercilessly romantic as expected, Shangri-La! is a wonderful symphonic Exotica album. Yes, the Chinese gong and the galloping goblet drums are unfortunately the most exotic ingredients on this album, it does not get any more exotic than this, but what Percy Faith’s orchestra lacks in this regard, the master delivers with his interpretations of undeniable gold standards à la The Moon Of Manakoora and Return To Paradise. Actual landscapes, places and location remain a blur, they must not be pinpointed. This is a journey that is as aural as it is auroral, with mercilessly silkened reeds and bolstered woodwinds.


There is some negativity whirling around this album too, so it should not be secretively denied: Shangri-La! is one of those LP's whose promise or premise is not met throughout its runtime. This is more often than not a given on Exotica albums and Easy Listening artifacts, but here the gap between the concept and the soundscape becomes all the more apparent as it is actually working quite often; Faith does not use Far Eastern instruments to make the material become truly exotic in the veins of Martin Denny's Hypnotique (1958), Werner Müller's Holiday In Japan (1958) or Warren Barker's A Musical Touch Of Far Away Places (1959). This is the only glaring negative aspect, but fans of strings need to own this album anyway, as even a striking amount of horns and flutes made it to the arrangements. Shangri-La! is available on vinyl, CD and as a digital download version.


Exotica Review 420: Percy Faith – Shangri-La! (1963). Originally published on Mar. 14, 2015 at