Stanley Black
Sophisticat In Cuba





English bandleader, arranger and pianist Stanley Black (1913–2002) was primarily known for his string-infested, pompously orchestral works of the 60’s and 70’s before he faded into obscurity with daringly dizzying Disco diamonds on Black Magic (1976), an album which had its fair share of flashing delights. Exotica fans, however, adore the man for his jazzier works at the beginning of his career, as these often encapsulate that quartet sound of yore which makes the Exotica genre so vivid and flamboyant. Naturally, Stanley Black has never been a stringent promoter of that jungle sound, of rain forests before the inner eye, as he only (re)visited the genre when an opportunity materialized.


So without further musings, how does the cleverly titled Sophisticat In Cuba fare by comparison? Oh boy, surprisingly well! Sophisticat In Cuba, released on Decca Records in 1958, sports two different front artworks, and while they are both flawlessly realized, they do not manage to truly depict the lush mellowness that is harbored in the sheet and pressed on vinyl. This very mellowness is undoubtedly and most definitely based on Exotica. Dreamy vibes and languorous piano movements are ameliorated by Jazz guitars and varied percussion-and-drum underpinnings sporting bongos, cowbells, maracas and other ingredients not necessarily found in dense Jazz records. It is largely ignored by Exotica fans because its title, while marginally exotic, seems to be both too cool and distant to possibly evoke exoticism in the veins of the oft-cited grandmasters. Let’s see if these reservations are ultimately true.


Dennis Brown’s Should I kicks off side A, a superbly jazzy artifact which is transmuted by Stanley Black into a tropical Exotica piece supercharged with delight. The jumpy piano coils are mandatory in the realms of Jazz, true, but the glistening vibraphone, the good-natured double bass billows, the Brazilian shakers and drums as well as the mountainous guitar make Should I seem like a natural born Exotica hymn. With this first impression firmly in place, the listener (hopefully) anticipates that the whole album will maintain this mélange of moony carefreeness, be it Vincent YoumansTime On My Hands qua its shuffling Foxtrot reverie, euphonious piano-vibe couplings and not a care in the world, or Cole Porter’s bongo-accentuated All Of You whose peachy atmosphere adds a pinch of youthful joy to the roster, cheekily downwards-spiraling piano cataracts included.


George Forrest’s and Robert Wright’s And This Is My Beloved meanwhile appears many times on romantic Easy Listening LP’s, but here its melancholic-gracious duality is hued in a tropical haze; it is hard to explain, for the percussion side is low, only the double bass pulsates in the background, but since it is embedded in this album, it somehow absorbs the atmosphere from the other pieces to great effect, regardless of the comparatively spartan arrangement. Two additional songs by Cole Porter round off side A: while I’ve Got You Under My Skin is a vivacious-vitreous midtempo sparkler loaded with glockenspiels, high-rise piano tones and cowbell coruscation, You’re The Top features the archetypical wave-like double bass placenta amid a showtune-like aurora of Porter’s catchy tone sequence.


Side B is no less great, featuring the same amount of enchanting tropicism by means of cleverly arranged Jazz standards. Arthur Johnston’s One, Two, Button Your Shoe is a blur for Exotica fans, but surely wins them over in this version thanks to its diaphanous cowbell interstices, silky piano chords and a Latin shaker parade fueling the melodious movement of Stanley Black’s signature instrument. The bokeh background as delivered by the vibes is another boon. Melancholy Baby by Ernie Burnett and George Norton is another Foxtrot gem with a fairy tale nucleus. Veiled vibe vesicles protrude in juxtaposition to the sizzling maraca mist. The verdured glow of the piano rounds off the dreamy impression. Jack Lawrence’s Yes, My Darling Daughter would be an odd choice on any Exotica album – that’s why it was never considered in a proper genre work – but Black’s Jazz quartet makes the most of the scapegrace allusions texture-wise, but cannot annihilate the detesting resistance the original so aptly embodies. A rare letdown on Sophisticat In Cuba.


Whereas Fools Rush In by Rube Bloom is a surprisingly balmy hammock-friendly transformation with a gorgeous intertextural dependency on both the vibes and the piano, Ooh, That Kiss! by Mort Dixon, Harry Warren and Joe Young is arranged as a counterpart to the title: bongo blebs, helicoidal guitars and Latin pianos make this the most energetic piece of the whole album, with a good mood incessantly intact. Material by Cole Porter finishes side B as well. The saltatory It’s Alright With Me features a dark and rustic rhythm piano melody whose jangling and scuffling physiognomy is the contrapuntal force to the scintillating vibes and similarly illuminated guitars. The exoticism is suddenly much lower than before, but otherwise delineates the prestidigitation of every player involved.


Neither as sophisticated as its title implies nor as slick and sleazy, Sophisticat In Cuba is one of those albums that is wrongly categorized and thus nowhere near as often mentioned as Stanley black’s pianoramas called Tropical Moonlight and Cuban Moonlight (both 1958), the latter of which I find rather dull and uninspiring, but which has a rather large and all the more euphoric fanbase. I rather envy those who are able to distill a bit of magic from this album, but I for one have found a Cuba-themed sparkler by Stanley black I can thoroughly enjoy, and this is – shatter the surprise – Sophisticat In Cuba.


Be it the glistening vibraphone, the surprisingly tropical drum and percussion scheme which you would never ever find in a vintage record of likeminded pianist Rene Paulo, or the enthralling embroidery of the guitar, the whole album breathes Exotica. I know, this can’t be true, for there is no genuinely exotic piece delivered here, let alone a Cuban or Latin classic. But the greatness unfolds via the arrangements, the interplay and interdependency of the surfaces and frequency patterns. Don’t mind the occasional letdown such as It’s Alright With Me or Ooh, That Kiss! whose nervous catalepsy is an affront to the majestic night Stanley black and his quartet have erected heretofore, but the remaining bits and pieces are aural aurum. Is this Stanley black’s best piano-driven Jazz album? I don’t know the answer, but by tendency, it houses a stringent amount of perfectly bewitching material, so it at least comes close when viewed from an Exotica angle. It is available on vinyl and remastered download incarnations.


Exotica Review 488: Stanley Black – Sophisticat In Cuba (1958). Originally published on Oct. 28, 2017 at