Jack Medell & His Orchestra: “Umbe” (United U-213, 1957)

If you’ve ever followed conversations about music, you know that one topic that rears its head fairly often, no matter how many times we think we’ve banished it, is authenticity. The debate around Vampire Weekend was soaked in various interpretations of and reactions to this notion, to name a recent example, but it rears its head more subtly, too, all the time.

I hate this line of debate. Not least because it has the effect of positioning the debaters as arbiters of other people’s sincerity and qualifications to sound or act a certain way, but also because, frankly, a lack of authenticity, however defined, doesn’t mean a piece of art can’t be awesome and fulfilling, for the artist and the experiencer of the art. 

One of my pet genres, one I’ve always collected in the background of my various obsessions with prog rock and Afrofunk and post-rock and soul and all the other things I’ve dove deeply into, is exotica, which is in some ways built on inauthenticity. It’s not real African or Latin or Asian music, it’s a simulacrum of same, or at least somebody’s second-hand idea of it.

But it’s more than that, even. Surely a lot of it was garbage, uninspired cash-in trash that rightly moldered in people’s basements for decades after the hi-fis got put away.

But at its best, exotica was inspired, and in the hands of its most creative practitioners, like Les Baxter, it became an imaginarium where borrowed rhythms from locales its creators and listeners might never visit collided with early stereo experimentation, new-fangled electronic noisemakers, unusual harmonic and arranging decisions, and a spirit of adventure and excitement at the new that dovetailed nicely with the Space Race that kicked into high gear at the end of the 50s, exotica’s peak decade.

"Umbe" was recorded in Chicago in 1957, the year that physical exploration reached beyond terrestrial destinations for the first time with the launch of Sputnik 1. Little is known about Jack Medell, the bandleader of the recording, and it doesn’t appear that he had any releases beyond this, which was paired on a 45 with a tune called "Enchantment."

United released mostly blues, gospel, and r&b, and I wonder at the circumstances that led them to put out a moody orchestral instrumental that opens with a chant that may or may not be based on something actually found within Afro-Cuban music. It sounds like it could be, which is the kind of blurriness that makes exotica compelling to me. One thing that definitely is real is Dom Garaci’s fantastic trumpet solo. I particularly love the way he slinks away after stating the main theme with that series of rough, descending notes before the strings and then piano move forward (just guessing that it’s Medell on piano). Geraci may also have played on this LP.

I don’t know who the singer was or what he’s saying, although I think he does say “incendio” in the intro, which means the lyrics have something to do with fire, a not uncommon element of the imagined rituals of exotica. Regardless, his performance matches Garaci’s for intensity, and between the two of them, they elevate this from a humid little mood piece into something captivating that earns all the motion in its rhythm section. 

Does it exploit ignorance and the ideal of the exoticized Other in the hopes of selling a few records? Probably. Does it sound exciting and full of vitality almost sixty years after it was recorded? Absolutely. “Umbe” is ersatz Afro-Cuban music with enough fire in it to claim a personality of its own. It’s not authentic world music, but to me it sounds authentically awed by the possibilities of the world outside immediate experience, and that makes it worth listening to.

First Five on the Shuffle 3

The first two shuffle features I did for this blog each brought up stuff from deep in my amassment of mp3s that I wasn’t much familiar with; this one’s a little different—it’s all music I’ve spent time with in one way or another. Download these five songs here

Les Baxter: “Rain” (African Jazz, 1959)

Les Baxter was one of the exotica masters, and his African Jazz LP, while badly mistitled, is very entertaining. It takes most of its rhythmic cues from Cuban music, but it’s the crazy arrangements that I really love about this music. Baxter has strings, flutes and marimbas playing short, catchy melodies over cycling clave beats, but he also adds thunderstorm sound effects, chimes and bells, and toward the end, pounding kettle drums, used as a lead instrument. This music is on some levels easy to write off as kitschy, maybe even exploitative, but I think there’s far too much creativity in it for that. Kitsch can be strangely innovative. 

Abdel Halim Hafez: “Samra” (live recording, probably 1976 or 1977)

This is a 23-minute live recording made somewhere near the end of Abdel Halim Hafez’s life. These long, labyrinthine performances of single songs were actually somewhat common among the big Egyptian performers of the mid-20th Century, and Hafez was among the biggest, rivaled only by Um Kalthoum in popularity. “Samra,” in its many different transliterated spellings, was paired with “Qariat al Fingan” (which also has a multitude of spellings) on his final LP, though I’m honestly not sure if this is the same version—writing on the subject in English is light on details, and I got this years ago off of a sort of clearinghouse server full of classic Arabic music mp3s. It had no album tag.

It is a really stunning performance, though. A huge string and percussion orchestra and choir essentially duel with the headline performer. Their job is to build bridges between his showcase verses, where he’s mostly alone, working through variations on the themes of the song, and their bridges have huge variety, some stabbing ferociously, others whirling like dust devils, and others responding more directly to his drawn-out lead vocal passages. It’s really something to hear.

Einsturzende Neubauten: “12305 (Te Nacht)” (Tabula Rasa, 1993) 

This is a pretty sharp shift in direction from the sumptuous orchestration and ornamentation of the Hafez track. “12305” is little more than buzzing bass, scraping percussion and Blixa Bargeld’s menacingly hushed vocal. Randomly placed and mostly understated concrete and electronic noise intrudes here and there, and a dark synthesizer theme slowly emerges from the cultivated wreckage as the song goes along, but this is never really a showcase for anything other than damage and rust. The genre tag is industrial, but the tone and sound of it more post-industrial, a soundtrack to a tumbling-down factory that hasn’t made a thing in years.

Radiohead: “So Surprises” (2001/04/06 Pinkpop Festival, Landgraaf, Netherlands, 2001) 

This is a live version of “No Surprises,” recorded, as my album tag implies in 2001 at a festival in the Netherlands. This is how I’ve taken to tagging all of my bootlegs, for whatever band: year/month/day, venue, city, county, and if the bootleg has a special, cutesy title, I usually add that too. This keeps things nicely organized in iTunes, as all the bootlegs line up in chronological order when I have things sorted by artist. this is a good version of “No Surprises” from a generally strong show, and the audience is clearly happy to hear it, clapping along at the beginning, even though this isn’t really the kind of song you clap along to. 

Michel Legrand: “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (Legrand Jazz, 1958)

Legrand Jazz is the all-star jazz LP to beat all other all-star jazz LPs. Seriously. Michel Legrand was (and still is) a French composer—his most famous work is probably the score from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or perhaps “Windmills of Your Mind” from the original Thomas Crown Affair. His foray into jazz was much more natural than a lot of other composers’ attempts to engage with the music—he really felt this stuff, and he assembled an truly astounding array of guys to play it for him. Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Ben Webster, John Coltrane, Hank Jones, Donald Byrd, Herbie Mann, Jimmy Cleveland, Art Farmer, Phil Woods, Barney Wilen, Paul Chambers, Milt Hinton, and bunch of others (31 musicians in all) all played on this album. Admittedly, it would’ve been hard for Legrand to put a foot down wrong with all that firepower at his disposal, but does much better than simply get by with his inventive arrangements. 

"Don’t Get Around Much Anymore" features bassist Chambers and flutist Mann as its standout performers, and they are in top form, Chambers especially. The song was originally written and recorded by Duke Ellington as an instrumental called "Never No Lament" in 1940, but it was retitled two years later after Bob Russell wrote lyrics for it and new title stuck, even for new instrumental versions. I love Chambers’ long intro and outro solos on this; soloing on string bass is tough, and he phrases everything so beautifully. Also notable is the unusual horn arrangement, which is all trombones, with no trumpet.

Bill Justis: “The Dark Continent Contribution” (Bell 921, 1970)

In 1957, Bill Justis (with a big assist from guitarist Sid Manker) had a huge hit with a song called “Raunchy” (the working title was “Backwoods”). It was the first instrumental rock and roll hit and is a clear forerunner of the surf music that would rise in tandem with rock and roll over the course of the late 50s and early 60s.

Justis didn’t really care for rock and roll, though. He’d grown up in Memphis and returned there after going to college in New Orleans. He played trumpet and sax, and had been in jazz bands during school, and now he was keen to make his living in the music business. Sam Phillips brought him into the fold at Sun Records, which of course was one of the incubators of rock and roll in the early days.

Justis may not have liked the music much, but he saw that this was the future, and though he didn’t have any other big hits after “Raunchy,” he earned his keep at the label arranging songs for Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich, among others.

Both Rich and Justis left Sun in the early 60s, but they reconnected in Nashville, where Justis had a jack-of-all-trades career in the works, producing, doing A&R work for Mercury, arranging for Patsy Cline and Tom Jones, and releasing fairly anodyne instrumental LPs under his own name. Those LPs featured his own instrumental arrangements, and first of them looked back home to Memphis for a version of Booker T & The MGs’ “Green Onions.”

So where does “The Dark Continent Contribution” fit into all this? It’s hard to tell, actually. Justis did soundtrack work in the late 70s (most notably writing the score for Smokey & The Bandit), but most bios go cold around 1970, when this was apparently recorded. It is a record strangely divorced from the era in which it was made.

It has more in common with the ambitious exotica and third stream music of the late 50s than most other studio music being made at the time, even in its title. Still, it’s a pretty spectacular piece of music, from its mysterious, atmospheric opening and closing movements to the wild orchestral jazz passage that occupies the center of the composition. That seems to be Justis himself tearing it up on trumpet in that passage.

So this is what Bill Justis, creator of “Raunchy,” was doing in 1970. And it seems to be basically a one-off project. Justis passed away in 1982, so we can’t ask him where this music came from, but I think it’s a fascinating record.

Manuel Galbán & Ry Cooder: “Duerme Negrita” (Mambo Sinuendo, 2003)

Yesterday’s Los Zafiros post bade farewell to the late, great guitarist Manuel Galbán by dipping way back into his past. I thought it would be nice to do a second one today to explore where he ended up.

Mambo Sinuendo was the last album Galbán made. It was recorded in 2001 with Ry Cooder in the aftermath of the Buena Vista Social Club sessions and tours. It came out two years later and wound up winning a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album. And it is a thoroughly awesome record.

Some tracks feature both Galbán and Cooder on guitar, but it’s mostly Galbán while Cooder plays other things, including pedal steel. The whole album has this swaying, intoxicated night feel—it’s almost a retro-futuristic version of Cuban music. There’s a sense of Space Age excitement and exploration in it that’s strange to hear on an album recorded so late.

"Duerme Negrita" gives a pretty great demonstration of the heavy reverb and sharp attack that characterized Galbán’s playing and made him so unlike any other guitarist from Cuba.