In The Mystic East
Orchestra leader and composer Frank Chacksfield (1914–1955) has produced and amended to over a hundred records, and if I wanted to review them all, I needed a few months solely dedicated to this task. This is the reason why I focus on his magnificent material more often than not, with nary a mention of the mediocre non-exotic gimcrack. Besides, I have not even heard 25% of Chacksfield’s output, but as luck has it, I have inherited – and inhaled – In The Mystic East, a 14-track LP originally released on Decca in 1957, followed by a reissue made by London Records.
Unsurprisingly, Chacksfield guides the listener through mildly enigmatic, mostly enchanted places all across the Far East, with lots of exciting entanglements to unfold. The orchestra, meanwhile, focuses on an Occidental setup, meaning that there are strings, horns and woodwinds as expected, but no dedicatedly Japanese or Chinese instrument, except of course for that Chinese gong. No koto or shamisen, no panpipes grace the release, but what In The Mystic East lacks in these regards, it gains with the power of the tone sequences and its voluminous arrangements: once the luminescence of the violins and harps merges with the down-to-earth big band brass moiré, delight ensues. Better still if the occasional bongo and goblet drum crosses Chacksfield’s route. Side A is the more bustling one, whereas side B sports many an oneiric diorama. Their contingency and own flavors are analyzed below.
The following description of the opener Japanese Sandman might be a good sign and bad omen at once: Frank Chacksfield does not continue the route that rises from Richard A. Whiting’s classic composition, even though it provides a vivacious hydrazine of wonderfully stereotyped escapism. The orchestra does not waste any precious time, showcasing its fully equipped brass-and-string sections amid Chinese gongs, pentatonic xylophone droplets, Asian flutes and intertwined harp licks. The scope is enormous at the beginning, galloping goblet drums and silvery cymbals round off a ginormous piece that turns more streamlined after the first minute and then resembles the physiognomy of a show tune. Everything that happens after said first minute ostensibly functions as a foreshadowing device of the more common things to come. The material remains faux Eastern, if you will, but Chacksfield draws much more from Occidental harmonies, the glaring array of vintage asianism is never reached again, though it is still injected in slightly smaller doses.
Worth mentioning, however, is the moonlight pair adjacent to the opener: John Turner’s Moonlight Above Malaya is a soothingly nocturnal glockenspiel-underlined string serenade with overwhelming amounts of violins and ethereal euphonies, with Sherman Myers’ and Chester Wallace’s Moonlight On The Ganges sending in the bongos in order to provide a more uplifting, less dreamy rhythm that evokes the sense of movement in-between the cautiously ophidian melodies of the Orient.
Meanwhile, Jerry Kennedy’s By An Old Pagoda turns out to be a contemplative recess that is aurally painted via wafting clarinets and other woodwind devices, but falls short the very second that the mellow brass layers conflate into an all too commonplace specimen of metropolitan glamour. Luckily, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Exotica gold standard Song Of India adds magic and enchantment to the Easy Listening context, comprising of helicoidal flute billows, augmented interplays between the horns and strings as well as a magnificent pattern of placid moments where the textural wealth of the hidden clarinets and hautboys can be examined closer.
March Of The Siamese Children by Oscar Hammerstein II, Richard Rodgers is another common appearance in the Exotica genre, although it is usually transmogrified by quartets. Frank Chacksfield’s arrangement is naturally much closer to the original vision and enthralls with its almost tangible phase of soothing quiescence before the festive solemnity is amplified during the apex. Almost resemblant to a real piece of classical music, the orchestra leader’s conception is certainly a highlight of this album. The traditional Rose, Rose, I Love You rounds off side A with a cavalcade of mauve strings, cheeky but mountainous staccato horns and a few etiolated pizzicato strings which add a pinch of typical Westernized Asian tone sequences before the Chinese gong hits.
Side B does not degrade in quality, especially not when Exotica’s paragon greets the listener: Duke Ellington’s Caravan is presented here in a rather mellifluous take. The leading alto flute is pristine yet reverberated, the drum pericarp is toned down to lower phases. One might think that the volume level erupts any moment, but no, this is a tame caproic capsule, almost paradoxically so, considering the wild arrangements of Caravan that are shattered all around the Exotica genre. Meanwhile, Billy Hill’s On A Little Street In Singapore turns out to be a brass-driven mellow mélange, iterating a similarly laid-back stasis by sporting the right amount of dreamy plasticizers and mellifluous afterglows, whereas Jerry Kennedy’s second song Rickshaw Ride adds a careful rhythm to its tramontane morning atmosphere. Bugles, comblike harp coils and unexpectedly flaring pentatonic sparks make this another smooth ride. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Danse Chinoise is perfectly serrated with the joyous Far Eastern aura and connects seamlessly with its aqueous violin veils, pizzicato foils and glissando flutes.
Whereas the traditional La Petite Tonkinoise boosts the presence of the strings another time and sees gorgeous horn/string duos splash through the benthic atmosphere, Franz Waxman’s Katsumi Theme is for lovers only due to its hexangular quilting of viscoelastic string waves, retrojected horns and cajoling tone sequences. The finale is delivered by Frank Chacksfield’s own composition San, a fantastically colorful piece with neon cymbal flashes, ablaze with Hollywood horns, a string galore and an actually cleverly interwoven vestibules to swinging Saturday show tune riffs. A great endpoint, merging the East with the West in a great manner.
Frank Chacksfield’s In The Mystic East is not an epiphany tonality-wise, for this achievement should still be given to Warren Barker’s A Musical Touch Of Far Away Places (1959) or Paul Mark’s various Exotica records of Japan, but this is not to say that this LP has missed the spot! There is one particular thing to praise, and that is the amalgamation of Western big band spirits with Far Eastern wisps. While this procedure does not work all the time and is quite a bit de trop and chintzy even within the Easy Listening context, songs like Chacksfield’s own San and the pompous Japanese Sandman show the Asian melodies in full force… well, they actually exude the Western viewpoint of the Far East, but I’m not telling the Exotica and Hollywood fan anything new. The material is well-chosen, tightly related to the concept, but there is of course one major flaw to detect – and possibly detest – here: there is no truly outlandish theme on board, let alone an artifact by an Eastern composer.
Traditional material is on board alright, but it is only considered due to its flimsy appearance in the US-based culture. Considering Arthur Lyman’s renditions such as Moon Over A Ruined Castle or Dahil Sayo among many others, Chacksfield cannot win in this regard. The, er, easternmost composer considered here would be Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. These contexts aside, Chacksfield’s In The Mystic East is still sumptuously resplendent, worth every dime if you are a fan of symphonic Exotica, and luckily available on vinyl, a download version and on CD where it is coupled with Chacksfield’s Polynesian South Sea Island Magic.
Exotica Review 478: Frank Chacksfield – In The Mystic East (1957). Originally published on Dec. 18, 2016 at AmbientExotica.com.