I’d love to give away the essence of my thoughts about Les Baxter’s (1922–1996) masterpiece Caribbean Moonlight in this opening paragraph, and yes, the signal term masterpiece should trigger a large amount of perception-related synapses anyway, but let me try to be objective before the worshiping parade starts: Caribbean Moonlight, released in 1956 on Capitol Records, is a symphonic album that contains twelve interpretations of Latin music and various other classics. Thanks to Baxter’s insistence on the string ensemble, typical Latin mannerisms like lamenting piano chords are much reduced, at times even completely replaced – there’s not even a sole trumpet to be found on this release, an omission that would never happen in an arrangement by, say, Axel Stordahl, for instance. And even though the vibrance of the strings comprises the trademark sound of Les Baxter, there is a large amount of additional instruments integrated, from vivid bongos over mellow bass flutes to a variety of sparkling mallet instruments.
1956 is still a pre-Exotica phase, so the bongo grooves are as exotic as Baxter can get, for there is no tribal feeling attached or implied on this release. And yet does the album pinpoint the yearning of the first generation that had the opportunity to frequently travel via airplane and got to know foreign countries and locations in a rapid way like no other generation could before. The exotic feeling derives from these moonlight escapades and romantic notions, nightly beach strolls and black palm trees that are illuminated by the pale moon and aurally underlined by the gentle noise of the ocean waves. Caribbean Moonlight is all that, and so much more. Due to its strong melodies and shimmering rainbow-colored string sections, Baxter’s album opens the door for many a listener, especially for me. Once you know Baxter’s string-focused interpretations of these Latin classics, they seem rather pale in other contexts at times. That’s not to say that Exotica trios or quartets don’t know how to handle these tunes, it’s just that the lushness of the strings can be overwhelming and bedazzling at the same time. Baxter delivers, and the way he does it is explicated below.
Margarita Lecuona’s classic Latin composition Taboo is the first song, and boy, does Baxter start this album with a blast. He provides the best Taboo version that has ever existed! Usually I’m not too keen on the many renditions that are out there. Most of them are too lamenting and melodramatic, and I favor brighter Latin tunes. However, the yearning and doleful mood are not made for me, even though I acknowledge Taboo’s rank as a world-famous piece. Baxter’s take, however, is completely out of this world and exchanges the Latin piano and intimate mood with the pompousness of Hollywood strings that are played in the typical floating way that is so typical for Baxter’s productions. Far Eastern tone sequences are played on spectral violin strings that waft in the background, while an acoustic guitar inherits the intimacy of the original.
Harp strings, a darkly hammered piano that is not the least bit Latin, wonderfully exotic bongo beats, a magically quavering bass flute and bright claves all mesh in the presence of the strings. The climax is reached after almost one and a half minutes when the strings increase in number and volume and wash over the listener, all the while a paradisiac alto flute is accompanying them. The heaviness of Lecuona’s original is still apparent, but much reduced thanks to the liquid nature of the strings. Taboo ends on a mystery note with a quickly played seven-note bridge that ends the song with an eighth polyphonous tone with a long sustain that marks the definite closure of it. To my mind, Baxter’s offering is one of his best renditions and my personal access point to this piece. Whenever I encounter another try, I compare it in great detail with this colorful take which boosts the romance in favor of the yearning. A most wonderful interpretation which I’ve dedicated a whole paragraph to. It’s that important to me!
An interpretation of Deep Night, originally written by Charlie Henderson and Rudy Vallee is next, and it is again the fascinating interplay between the gloomier undertones of the strings and the Space-Age tonality-related warps that make this a highly attractive inclusion. The violins gleam in nocturnal colors, and the laid-back bongo groove adds great plasticity to this string-heavy composition. The alto flute melody rests in itself and proves to be a great inclusion in front of the resplendent stream of strings. Occasionally, there’s a single violin that improvises greatly – if that’s even possible in an orchestral setting – in adjacency to the strong romantic flavor. Orchestra bells and staccato performances on the bongos round off the dark blue atmosphere of this wonderful tune.
While Ernesto Lecuona’s The Breeze And I is presented in an unexpectedly upbeat manner and rapid tempo, with a piano playing the main melody in higher regions, quickly paced eruptions of the strings which turn into lush cascades later on, frantic maracas and spiraling harp fragments, Xavier Cugat’s Nightingale is a wonderfully easygoing piece of great mystique whose bass flute is flawlessly integrated into the airy string sections which are again among the most warped and far out examples you’ll ever encounter. The added alto flute is exuberant and truly encompasses the rose-tinted feeling of the Tropics. The presentation ends with swinging waves on the piano and the last tone of the quavering flute. This is yet another stomper of a song, so cozy and strong. Easy Listening is an audacious insult for these compositions that sparkle so brightly.
The following Temptation by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown starts as a Bolero with the typical rhythm of the shakers, drums and sunset-laden strings, but soon changes its rhythm into a glockenspiel-fueled maelstrom of paradise with high-flying violin breezes and down-to-earth bongos. The best bit, however, is the potpourri of spiraling mallet instruments, scattered flutes and double bass backings. The song ends on a mystery note with electrifying glockenspiel sparkles and a trembling flute.
After five successful songs in a row, the old classic Poinciana (Song Of The Tree) ends side A in a heat wave-evoking blur. The strings are playing in darker regions as usual and are almost evoking a thread that is thankfully vaporized by a warbled paradisiac flute, another bunch of glockenspiel droplets and a great couple of both mellifluous and galactic Space-Age violins that play the main melody with a melodramatic Middle Eastern style attached to them. Even though there are towering strings included, the composition depicts the sizzling mirage of a desert and the hazy field of vision that is so typical in such a place. The droning nature departs from the established formula, but it is still a strong interpretation that remains the weakest track of side A – which is no shame in the given context of five consecutive screamers.
Side B opens with a highly unusual offering not often heard in the realms of Exotica: Ay, Ay, Ay, originally written by Osman Perez Freire is a warmly shimmering piece of Romanticism with mild string creeks and their magically spiraling brethren. The conviviality of the violins reaches a new height on this string-heavy composition, and it is only at its end that the coruscating sparkles of the glockenspiel and the dreaminess of the flute are revved up. A splendid inclusion!
The same can be said about Eddie Woods’ and Enric Madriguera’s Adios. A new generation of Exotica lovers encountered their iconic composition thanks to De-Phazz which used the melody on their international hit The Mambo Craze. Baxter’s interpretation is closer to a reverie. Exhilarative strings move around the less carved out main melody that is played on a flute. The ten-note motif meanders along and is almost swallowed by the multicolored glitz of the strings. It’s a fantastic rendition whose verve and timbre are close to being celestial. Thanks to the bold string accompaniment that outshines the main melody, this composition inherits the maximum of the typical Baxter style. A huge winner!
It is Bob Russell’s and Harry Warren’s Carnival that opens the nocturnal formula in favor of a sun-soaked family trip whose uplifting nature is largely based on the prominent inclusion of the xylophone as well as playful flute melodies of various kinds. Naturally, the string washes are also on here, but the other instruments remain in the spotlight for this time. While Green Eyes by Adolfo Utrera and Nilo Menéndez starts with a repeated motif of cascading flutes and a slight string-wise variation of it and presents the well-working formula of violin rivers and flute breezes, Johnny Mercer’s Out Of This World could well feature the signature track title of this fantastic album, but is the weakest inclusion on side B that oscillates between a strong melancholia and a melodramatic setting; yet again, the term weakness is inappropriate, as the second phase of the song gets rid of any shadows and allows sumptuous string waves to enter. Another entry on the plus side consists of the lush bongo groove, and even the glockenspiel glints that are briefly featured are a strong addendum, if a bit too rare.
The final Sway (Quien Era) by Norman Gimbel and Pablo Beltran Ruiz makes for a curious outro, as the eruptive staccato nature of this song is a definite counterpoint to the majority of Baxter’s previous interpretations. It is also the composition with the strongest Latin feeling and the boldest exotic percussion, with many claves and smooth cymbals integrated into the mix. On top of that, the song ends rather abruptly and unexpectedly. Due to the variety and arrangement-related change of formula, I like this song better than Out Of This World. But these are really nit-picking assertions which are in the end obsolete…
Caribbean Moonlight by Les Baxter remains his best and most coherent album of the 50’s. I know that the fan favorite Ritual Of The Savage of 1952 was way ahead of both its time and the competition, but if you want to salvage shedloads of warped strings and feast on their comforting Space-Age qualities as well as their vibrant colors, Caribbean Moonlight is the coherent top pick. Each song is a winner, almost all of them are nocturnal, but immensely bright due to the powerful luminescence of the strings. There’s even room left for other instruments to shine, and hence the listener encounters tropical bongo grooves as well as silky pianos and paradisiacal flute melodies. This isn’t Easy Listening by the numbers, it is far superior. Baxter’s take on Taboo opened the whole song structure to me, and the mystique of Nightingale is as delicate as the catchy melody of Adios is dreamy.
The sound quality is top notch, and the kitsch factor imperceptibly low. If you are the least bit interested in symphonic Exotica cuts, consider Les Baxter’s Caribbean Moonlight. I’ll stress it once again: you cannot pick any better string-heavy pre-Exotica album that was created in the 50’s! Sure enough, Baxter is his greatest competitor, and Nelson Riddle released 30+ string albums in the 50’s as well, but it is the depicted moon of Baxter’s album that glows in the shiniest possible manner. There are more exotic releases by Baxter, and the bongo percussion on here isn’t particularly innovative or earth-shattering, but every doubt is washed away by the strings anyway. They are utterly catchy, exuberant, soothing or dreamy, depending on the given circumstances and needed mood. A symphonic album of the highest order. Yes, it is an Easy Listening album of the Space-Age era, but it tucks you in, it washes over you and lets you submerge into its night scheme. A highlight for people with ears. It’s that simple. (Thomas J. Pernice)
Les Baxter & His Orchestra
01. Taboo (Stillman/Lecona) 2.40
02. Deep Night (Henderson/Vallee) 3.09
03. The Breeze And I (Stillman/Lecuona) 1.20
04. Nightingale (Rosner/Cugat) 1.51
05. Temptation (Freed/Brown) 2.26
06. Poinciana (Song Of The Tree) (Bernier/Lliso/Simon) 3.00
07. Ay, Ay, Ay (Freire) 3.01
08. Adios (Woods/Madriguera) 2.35
09. Carnival (Russell/Warren) 2.47
10. Green Eyes (Utrera/Menéndez) 2.53
11. Out Of This World (Arlen/Mercer) 4.06
12. Sway (Quien Será) (Gimbel/Ruiz) 2.17