Thursday, August 30, 2012
Jungle Bells, Summer Storm: John McFarland- Provocatif (1959)
"Queried as to his method of composition... McFarland asserts that he simply clutches the piano ouija-board style until he finds a musical figure that 'feels good' and proceeds to 'play it 'til it turns into a song, grabbing a little of 'this' with his left hand and a little of 'that' with his right.' While hesitating to recommend this wild-eyed routine as the new mode in composition, it must be admitted that McFarland's Mystical Method yields consistently exciting, humorous, dramatic, and intensely exotic music."-excerpt from the Provocatif liner notes by Blanchard King
I picked this beauty up in a Memphis antique mall many years ago. The first thing I heard upon setting foot in that blighted dragon's cave was the proprietor's blistering racism-- a paint-peeling and ignorant tirade that nearly sent me scurrying immediately back towards the exit. I persevered, warily, and had I not it would have been a tragedy-- for, upon the third floor of the place, in some long-forgotten bin, I found John McFarland's Provocatif. I was pleased to say the least when I paid my fifty cents and carried this superb work of art out of that foul ogre's lair and into the bright, loving world.
Provocatif is on the shortest list of great Exotica LPs not by Denny, Baxter, or Lyman-- a list which includes Drasnin's Voodoo, Hunter's White Goddess, Prado's Voodoo Suite, Sabu's Sorcery!, and Shindo's Mganga, to name a few. It's a true delight, and actually a lot of fun. Here's Mr. McFarland, in all his suavity, posing behind a potted plant on a stool, for some reason.
This is Exotica in the Denny vein-- a piano-led, small combo playing purely archetypal "exotic" compositions (many of them originals, awesomely enough), and making use of "exotic" sound effects and a variety of "exotic" special instruments. You could almost convince someone that this was a Denny record, but there's something rather notably different-- dare I say unique-- in McFarland's approach. All throughout the LP-- but particularly on the opener, "Jungle Bells", and the utterly exquisite "Watusi"-- you can hear a more pronounced language of jazz experimentation. As WFMU's Listener Mindwrecker puts it in his article on Provocatif: "McFarland's piano work is quite interesting and has some unusual colorations, with a tendency to push just so far out as he can within the piece without breaking up the structure altogether, which Sun Ra does so well on records like Super-Sonic Jazz."
It's this mild fracturing of the otherwise lush and inviting compositions that lends the record a kind of satisfying tension and makes it so particularly enduring. McFarland's work here is really wonderful, and a few tracks make a case to be considered among the best the genre has to offer. I'm so rapturously fond of "Watusi"-- which is an original McFarland composition, it should be noted-- but I'd be remiss to exclude the utterly sublime nocturne, "Midnight by a Persian Waterfall". Basically every song is pretty grand, even the more comic, zany "Chimp and the Bumble Bee", which is a pretty great specimen of its ilk, I have to say, although I do tend not to prefer those tracks in general.
This is really just wonderful stuff. Enjoy on some warm night, friends.
Thanks to the original ripper for the lovely 320 rip.