Sunday, April 20, 2014

Enoch Light: Persuasive, Provocative, Percussion

Enoch Light.  Persuasive, Provocative, Percussion. Reissues of Classic Albums.
Persuasive Percussion 1, 2 & 3/Provocative Percussion 1 & 2.  3-Disc Set.  Goldies, 2011.
Provocative Percussion 3 & 4.  Sepia Records, 2013.
Pertinent Percussion Cha Cha’s/I Want to Be Happy Cha Cha’s.  Sepia Records, 2013.
Big Band Bossa Nova/Let’s Dance the Bossa Nova.  Sepia Records, 2013.
Stereo 35 mm/Far Away Places.  Sepia Records, 2013.
Stereo 35 mm, Vol. 2/Far Away Places, Vol. 2.  Sepia Records, 2013.

Exactly how you perceive this music probably depends on many factors, including age, gender, musical preference, and audiophile tendencies.  If you owned an atomic age bachelor pad in the late 1950s, equipped with high-end stereo technology, you love this stuff.  If your memories of the late 50s and early 60s are rock & roll, you might despise it as the creepy music your parents listened to.  Call it what you will, late big band music, space age pop, easy listening, or exotica, Enoch Light had a huge influence on the development of music from 1958 until the mid-1960s, when other folks caught up with him.  His technological experiments with extreme stereo channel separation and use of 35 mm film for recording rather than regular audio tape changed the way sound was perceived on record albums of the time.  He even popularized the gatefold vinyl album cover to contain the notes for his albums.  Most people with a quality stereo system bought at least one of his albums, if only to test their equipment.  Many of the releases charted in the top ten, with Persuasive Percussion 1 reaching Billboard’s No. 1 in 1960, with others following suit.  Here, we review some of the albums produced by him that have recently been remastered and reissued by two labels, IMC/Goldies, and Sepia.  

Enoch Light was born in Canton, Ohio in 1907 (died 1978).  I haven’t found much on his early life, but I’m sure it’s out there.  Trained as a classical violinist, he ended up working in big bands in the 1930s, forming Enoch Light & the Light Brigade, which had a hit or two before the War, toured Europe and played on the radio until disbanding in 1940.  After World War II, he did session work and got into music production.  After some success with Grand Awards Records, where he headed the Charleston City All-Stars on albums of Roaring 20s music, he recorded a variety of material, including cha cha albums and film music.  He changed band names with relative ease, from the Light Brigade to the Command All Stars, to Enoch Light and His Orchestra.  In 1960, Light formed Command Records, where his biggest hit albums were created.  His fascination with the possibilities of stereo led him to try various experiments through the early 60s with channel separation, sometimes using the “ping-pong” effect of moving rapidly from channel to channel, the effect most extreme on either widely separated speakers or headphones.  For a violinist, he was particularly fond of percussion and its effects in the stereo environment, which may have had something to do with his fondness for Latin music.  Many fans of Latin music would object to his manipulation of the style to suit his own purposes.  Others might object to the relentless cheeriness of the music.  Regardless of their origin in wistful ballads, sentimental oldies , or noir atmospheres, the tunes became bright, upbeat homages to a new ultramodern, sleek decade.  Light sold Command Records in 1965, then formed Project 3, which continued to churn out a variety of big band and easy listening music, including covers of everything from Dylan to the Beatles to film themes.  Many of the more experimental albums had only instrumental tracks, but he used vocalists on others.  Cover art was often minimalist in style, featuring artwork by Jerry Albers.

The above-listed albums are all from the prime period of his creative output, the late 1950s and early 1960s.  The 3-disc set of Persuasive Percussion and Provocative Percussion (the first attributed to Terry Snyder and the All Stars, Snyder being the drummer), from the import label IMC/Goldies, while containing five of his best, is burdened by the lack of notes, either the original liner notes or any sort of overview of Light’s career and impact.  This minimizes the value of the set, which is a real shame, because the remastering is quite good, and the music itself is well-presented.  Persuasive Percussion 2 is split between discs 1 and 2, with all the other albums placed on part of one of the CDs.  The music ranges from pretty nice big band tunes (trumpeter Doc Severinsen, pianist Dick Hyman, and guitarist Tommy Mottola were in the band), to exotic percussive excursions, to somewhat gooey versions of popular hits.  I find many of them entertaining, since I heard this stuff on the radio when I was a kid (“Whatever Lola Wants,” “Blue Tango,” “Hernando’s Hideaway”), and they bring back fond memories of my mother’s favorite radio station when I was 8 years old.  Some are admittedly either over the top, such as some of the wilder experiments (bongos and rasps on “Love for Sale”), or just plain wrong as arrangements of tunes that should have been done differently (“Mood Indigo” is butchered, and “Foggy Day” done as a cha cha is simply ridiculous).  

Provocative Percussion 3 & 4, teamed together, mines much the same vein as its predecessors, although by way of a different label.  The remastering is excellent.  The goal was easy listening/big band in high quality sound and they certainly achieved it.  Compression elimination gives the listener all the highs and lows, and it’s all clean, sharp, and bright.  As with the earlier albums, some of the songs do pretty well in Light’s arrangements. “The Continental,” “Old Devil Moon,” and other big band tunes are friendly enough without being over the top.  Other songs, such as “Pagan Love Song” and “Acc-Cent-Tchu-ate the Positive” are loaded with silliness and gimmickry.  Curiously, the liner notes for Vol. 4 stress how little gimmickry was used.  Eye of the beholder, I guess.  I must note my own personal prejudices here.  The more the orchestra sounds like a hard swing band (i.e. Goodman or Barnet) the more I like them, and when they veer toward sweet band novelties and film themes, the less I want to hear.  The issue in one sense is that in order to please as wide an audience as possible (which they did), Light vacuumed up popular music from everywhere and reprocessed it with his own unique stamp.  Generic Latin beats, 60s-style time changes that sound like themes for TV shows of the period, and lots of percussive and brass tricks continued to make his music harder than Lawrence Welk, but way short of Woody Herman.

Arriving at the Latin rhythm recordings, we begin to have more serious issues.  Pertinent Percussion Cha Cha’s, teamed up with I Want to Be Happy Cha Cha’s gives us 28 tracks, four of which never appeared on the original albums.  As with the other albums, the sound is crystal clear.  However, it is the arrangements that disturb me.  At first, I couldn’t figure out what I didn’t like about them, aside from the irritating low-brass farting that begins and punctuates so many of the tunes.  So, I went to YouTube to check out some other cha cha recordings.  It wasn’t hard to find a recording from the same time period, Antobal’s Cuban All Stars from the late 1950s.  Both are big bands, but the difference is striking.  Antobal’s group flows, swings, and has an irresistible groove.  Light’s tunes are square by comparison--cha cha for middle class Americans who can’t quite get the foxtrot out of their heads.  Added to the problem is the choice of songs once again, with cha cha versions of “Volare,” “Tea for Two,” and “How High the Moon.”  Song choice is less of a problem with Big Band Bossa Nova/Let’s Dance the Bossa Nova, as Light chose plenty of bossa nova and samba tunes for the albums (although “Days of Wine and Roses” and “Moon River” are more than a stretch).  But once again, the rhythms are squared off, and the groove, while better than the cha cha albums, is less soulful than many other choices.  “Blame It on the Bossa Nova,” should be easy, but Light’s version compares less with Eydie Gorme’s version and more with Annette Funicello’s in terms of being hip.  Then again, we must consider the audience, one largely unconcerned with issues of authenticity, and more interested in hearing cheery, pleasant music in full stereo sound.

Finally, we have two CDs that demonstrate more innovation in sound, with Light using 35 mm film to record the music rather than standard tape.  The results at the time were much improved, but less exciting from our current perspective when compared with later recording technology.  It was an interesting experiment.  Volume 1 of Stereo 35 mm is paired with Volume 1 of Far Away Places, and Volume 2 of each appears as a separate CD.  Both have 24 tracks.  In Volume 1, the musical result is a mixed bag of wonderful and cringe-inducing, with lush orchestral versions of “The Man I Love,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and “With a Song in My Heart.”  Gone is the heavy percussion, and much of the brass is replaced by strings.  These are songs that work very well in this sort of easy listening arrangement.  However, the songs on Far Away Places change the mood radically, with a move back to extremes of percussion combined with what can only be called bizarre exotica arrangements of everything from “Waltzing Matilda” to “The Banana Boat Song” to “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?”  To me, they sound nearly comical, as if Spike Jones got into the studio.  Far Away Places also introduces vocals, although not sung lyrics, quite a departure from previous albums.  Volume 2 does much the same sort of thing, with two albums on the CD that simply should not be together.  Pleasant orchestral, string-heavy (more brass is evident here than in Volume 1) versions of “September Song” and “The Very Thought of You” hide in embarrassment as they are followed by quirky versions of “Ching Ching Ching Chow,” “Tales from the Vienna Woods,” (complete with vocalese), and “Under Paris Skies” (with terrible vocal “la la la’s”).  The label might have better served its audience by pairing the two Stereo 35 mm volumes and leaving the others in the vault. Then again, some folks might find the most unusual material to be the most interesting. Time will tell.

In sum, we have here a set of historical recordings that are important both as a window into the history of recording technology, with Enoch Light leading the way with experiments that influenced virtually all subsequent audio recordings, and as a time capsule of musical entertainment that has largely slipped away from our grasp, much like fallout shelters, smoking jackets, and The Man Who Reads Playboy.  If you are interested in entering a musical universe not reflected in the oldies stations on the radio, please enter here.  You may find it fascinating.

Personnel:  Enoch Light & the Command All-Stars, Enoch Light & the Light Brigade, Enoch Light & His Orchestra, Terry Snyder & the All Stars (produced by Enoch Light)
Tracks:  Persuasive/Provocative (60 tracks), Provocative 3 & 4 (24 tracks), Stereo/Far 1 (24 tracks), Stereo/Far 2 (24 tracks), Big Band/Let’s Dance (24 tracks), Pertinent/I Want (28 tracks)

Jeff Wanser

1 comment:

  1. Can anyone share with me the Persuasive Percussion Vol.2 ???