Good Music We Can Know

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Waning Years of a Musical Prince, Pt. 3: Arthur Lyman- Yellow Bird/Percussion Spectacular (1961)

"The name Arthur Lyman symbolizes the exotic percussion era.  There have been other albums by the same title but none as apropos of the real spirit of exoticism... contrasting the native and the modern, the group, their instruments of sound, and their music, are native, pulsatingly primitive, often eerie.  The Aluminum Dome is unmistakably modern, the product of 20th century modern genius."- Back cover notes, Arthur Lyman's Yellow Bird (originally released under the title Percussion Spectacular, to which the notes obviously refer.)

For an Exotica record that inexplicably opens with "Hava Nagila," I have to say: Yellow Bird is not half bad.  Sadly, its rarely pulsatingly primitive or eerie-- in keeping with the other entries in this series on late Lyman, it's pretty straightforward cocktail jazz, albeit with some interesting composition choices.

The song-by-song back cover notes, on "Hava Nagila": "How exotic can exotic be? Here is a traditional Hebrew folk song with the intrigue of the middle east, which Lyman has used to produce a monument to exoticism."  Alas!  A variation of this delicious copy could have been used to describe any number of Lyman recordings ("Legend of Pele" immediately springs to mind, though "Taboo" would be just as apt), but as an appraisal of this kitschy (there I said it, damn me) version of "Hava Nagila," it's fairly laughable.  This is just a playful but rather tepid and straight take on the traditional composition, with the very mild added novelty of having it played on vibes.  It can boast neither the intrigue of the Middle East (at all, come on) or the Jewish musical culture from which it borrows.  In terms of capitalizing on the wary pop-culture interest taken in Jewish music/culture following the 1960 film Exodus, it would have been no less tiresome if Lyman had actually just used the theme song, "Exodus" (which is a way more exotic composition anyway).

But enough of that.  Onto the good stuff.  The next track, "Yellow Bird," was such a big hit that the album was quickly re-released under that name.  A 19th-century Haitian song by Michel Mauleart Monton with lyrics from a poem by Oswald Durand, "Yellow Bird" was arranged and given new lyrics by Norman Luboff in 1957 as part of a calypso trend of the time.  Lyman's instrumental version is the biggest hit of his career.  While it is indeed a lovely track, it's not particularly impressive, and its hit status is to my mind slightly damning of the market.  Not that Exotica as a genre lends itself particularly well to hit singles.

This is followed by "Ravel's Bolero," an always-welcome selection on any exotica album.  Ravel's most recognizable composition, an orgasmically repetitious exoticizing of Spanish dance music, is one of the most influential pieces of early-20th century classical music in terms of the formation of the "Exotica" sensibility (alongside Debussy's body of work, and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, etc.)-- so it's always fun to hear a classically Exotica-version of it.  It always falls short, of course.  How much tension can you build in two to four minutes?  It ends up being, by necessity, "Bolero" in miniature, but in this doomed task I think Lyman makes a good piece.

"Autumn Leaves" and "Arrive Derce Roma," which follow, both make better Exotica tracks than one might have suspected, with some really nice piano work from Soares energizing the tame selections.  "Sweet and Lovely" (described as "neither sweet nor lovely but completely intriguing") starts off slowly as a fairly unintriguing light little jazz blues, then with a wonderfully arresting gong crash and a wild howling scream, veers into... a barely intriguing light little jazz blues, spruced up with a decent bass solo.  Oh well.

Side two opens on a real banger, one of those perfect jungle-Exotica tracks in the vein of "Taboo," with a creeping bass, unnerving bird calls, and dreamy atmosphere, cut through with a sinewy and slightly menacing melody.  Entitled "Bamboo Tamboo," it's "A pulsating, exciting composition... more typically Arthur Lyman."  I wish it was even more typical of Arthur Lyman, because it's great, and he should have continued to do more in this vein.  I also wish it was even two minutes long, but its brevity does leave me excited.  This is followed by the evergreen "Andalusia" (also known as "The Breeze and I"), which "starts slowly, builds and the blossoms out into an exotic wonder," aided by a great cascading piano from Mr. Soares.

Up next is "Adventures in Paradise," the theme from the TV program of the same name.  A pretty perfect Exotica composition, it makes a sterling contribution to the LP.  Continuing side two's run of goodness is "Granada," the kind of spooky Latin selection that constitutes one of Lyman's specialties, full of playful tempo changes and loaded with extra percussion.  The side closes out on two rather odd numbers, Weill's "September Song" (here given a "dreamy south sea feeling," with totally positive results), and "John Henry."  The notes: "Probably no other group would choose this American work song, a folk tune, to give exotic treatment but Arthur does and it's different all the way."  This (and "Yellow Bird," in a way), is Lyman keeping up with folk trends being established anew by the likes of Belafonte and The Kingston Trio.  The admirable effort is not successful in the case of "John Henry"-- at least, not as good music.  But Lyman often closes out even his best records with disastrously tone-deaf denouments, so this should come as no surprise and ought be taken as par for the course. 

YELLOW BIRD (320 rip from sorta scratchy vinyl)
YELLOW BIRD (very low bit rate, sounds pretty ok actually, without the scratches and pops)


misoft said...

Hi there! Just found your blog in my way and I downloaded a bunch of them. Thank you so much! Great music here ...


francisco said...


AmericanSamourai said...

Thanks, FlashStrap!