Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Have A Little Faith, Percy Faith

I’ve long been attracted to the amazing sounds of Percy Faith (1908-76). He’s not as easy to write off as many might think. This guy was one of the sharpest of musical minds out there. He scored many hits for himself and others (Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, etc.), particularly in the 1950s. And he knew how to turn a good song into a great performance.

Faith’s ability to craft an enchanting recital out of the meekest of melodies is spectacular. He is particularly gifted with his writing for a string section, especially in interactions with a horn section. Indeed, his string writing has its own signature, whether swirling gorgeously like dreamy clouds of caressing cotton or bouncing around on pizzicato strings like children skipping off to play. These traits attest to the joyful delight Faith had in just about any kind of good music.

Not only could Percy Faith spot a universal melody in just about any genre – classical, jazz, show tunes, country & western, film music, Latin, pop, rock, whatever - he could reconfigure it into something that just about anyone of any age and any culture could appreciate. Everything he touched he did with respect and love for pure melody and even when he’s not quite as hip as you’d hope, he’s doing something that’s absolutely worth hearing.

I first heard Percy Faith when my dad bought the Disco Party (Columbia, 1975) album for one of my parents’ spectacular New Year’s Eve parties. Although I could never quite trust my dad’s taste, if any, in music, Disco Party automatically turned me on. It either made me cool that no one my age listened to this sort of thing or made me extremely uncool because no one my age would want to listen to it. Either way, it didn’t matter to me.

To this day, Disco Party remains one of my favorites. I had never known Neil Diamond’s “Cherry, Cherry,” Gary Toms’ Empire’s “7-6-5-4-3-2-1” or even “Hava Nagilah” until I heard this record. So I was thrilled when the Collectables label issued the album on CD in 2004, coupled with another 1975 Percy Faith album I had never even known about, Country Bouquet, which contains an absolutely exquisite take on Marty Robbins’ “El Paso.”

In combing through many other Percy Faith albums since then, particularly during the “bachelor pad” music craze of the 1990s, I have discovered that however I feel about many of the bandleader’s many, many records, one thing that I enjoyed most were his unique originals. Heard anew, they are remarkably familiar: timeless tunes that are so catchy and memorable, they are part of the fabric of life, like they are written in the wind. Trouble is there just aren’t that many of them.

Nearly every Percy Faith album is made up of countless covers, usually under some sort of a rubric theme (Latin, which is a favored specialty of Faith’s, Spanish, country, radio hits, etc.). But in a few cases he’d sneak on an original that made the otherwise gimmicky album somewhat more substantial.

I have, by no means, heard all or even many of the many Percy Faith albums that are out there. But the following represent some of the Percy Faith originals I love and have heard. I’ve also provided some minimal commentary on the albums from which these songs are taken. And, to be fair, there is a lot of fluffy dreck to be heard on so many of these records. But since many of these records have made it into the digital age, it should be easy enough to pick and choose these particular compositions directly from a download source like iTunes – just to get the good stuff.

(As an aside, Percy Faith has given CTI jazz some of his attention with exceptionally nice – and appropriately jazzy – covers of Freddie Hubbard’s “First Light” from 1973’s Corazón and Deodato’s “2001” from 1973’s Clair. Jobim’s “Wave” is featured on 1971’s Black Magic Woman but it’s probably one of the clunkiest arrangements of the beautiful song ever heard.)

“Cheesecake” from The Love Goddesses (Columbia, 1964): Percy Faith’s music to the 1965 documentary film The Love Goddesses takes up the first side of this all-Faith affair, the highlight of which is the delicious “Cheesecake.” It’s a rocking big-band number that sounds like the sort of thing that film composer Kenyon Hopkins would have composed for juke joint scenes, with plenty of exciting changes to keep it fun for the “in” crowd, funky for a swinger and polite enough for the old-timers. The second side of the record features Faith’s two themes from the TV show The Virginian, “The Monaco Theme” from the 1963 TV film A Look at Monaco, and the originals “Our Love” (which appeared again, oddly enough, on 1973’s Corazón and is also known with lyrics as “A World of Whispers”), “Chico Bolero” (from 1962’s Exotic Strings) and the somewhat interesting “Oba! (Bossa Nova),” the b-side to a 1963 45 of Faith’s take on “Lawrence of Arabia,” featuring a Stan Getz-like sax solo.

“Kahlua” from Latin Themes For Young Lovers (Columbia, 1965): This glitzy number seems tailor-made for a film montage about young people from the country discovering the joys and excitement of the big city. It reminds me of when Bart and Milhouse went on a squishy bender in the “Boy-Scoutz N The Hood” episode of The Simpsons. But I don’t want to minimize the great appeal of this track. The show’s composers were obviously going for this sort of thing.”Kahlua” is a great track and a truly delightful listen. The remainder of the album mixes then-in bossa nova and Tijuana Brass-styled ephemera with several seemingly south of the border AM radio hits of the day to come up with an excessively appealing listen that’s much more jaunty than one would ever expect by a brief glance at the titles. As always, Percy Faith provides some remarkable horn and string charts here. Even the background vocals (ooh’s and ahh’s) are well placed, as “Kahlua” will attest. Faith one-upped Latin Themes For Young Lovers the following year with the similar and even more clever Bim! Bam!! Boom!!! (Columbia, 1966), a great Latin dance program that weighs in better than Faith’s original here, the sprite travelogue “Tropic Holiday,” would suggest (it reminds me of what Lyn Murray was attempting to convey – or parody? – in the main theme to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 classic To Catch A Thief).

Koga Melodies & Ryoichi Hattori Melodies (CBS, 1970/CBS, 1972): Sometimes it takes the unknown to make you understand what you like about what you do know. This 2006 Taragon CD release, combining two Japan-only albums Percy Faith made, each devoted to a specific Japanese composer, is for me such a thing. I’d never known about either one of these records, recorded in Hollywood in 1970 and 1972, until this CD combining the two albums was issued in the US in 2006. From start to finish, these are probably among Percy Faith’s very best albums. Unlike almost every other Percy Faith album ever recorded, it is because this music is so unfamiliar to Western ears that it reveals what is so special about what Faith does: honing in on beautifully constructed melodies delivered with a rich complexity of someone who knows how to manipulate an orchestra to bring out the simple beauty of a good melody. The music is not, as one might expect, traditional Japanese music or clichéd Japanese flavored. These particular composers are known for combining traditional Japanese music with Western elements like pop and jazz. Faith knows how to handle this music respectfully and appreciatively. For me, Faith’s generous but decidedly economic use of pizzicato strings – in full bloom here - is always appealing, the model being Britten’s wonderful “Playful Pizzicato” from the Simple Symphony. Of the two records, the one devoted to Masao Koga (1904-78) is my favorite, often reminding me of John Barry’s music of the period (imagine what Barry would have come up with had he scored Rosemary’s Baby). The Ryoichi Hattori (1907-93) record has considerably more of a jazz feel to it, with some horn solos to enliven things, but sounds very much like what Nelson Riddle was doing at the time (like Riddle, Hattori composed for films too). While there are no Percy Faith compositions here, this terrific CD has more of Faith’s personality than nearly every other of the many, many records he ever made.

“Très” from Black Magic Woman (Columbia, 1972): A jazz-noir Latinate that is initially led by Anthony Ortega on sax and leads to some of Faith’s best writing for horns and strings. There’s a tremendously intoxicating piano solo here that could very well have been played by the composer himself (no pianist is credited on the sleeve). Black Magic Woman is one of Faith’s strongest albums and contains a number of fine Latin rock covers including “Black Magic Woman,” “Viva Tirado” and “Oye Como Va” as well as decent covers of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and The Beatles’ “The Sun King.” While the great Brazilian classic “Reza” gets an especially muscular reading here, Faith’s take on Jobim’s “Wave” is among the stodgiest and least subtle renditions I’ve ever heard.

“We Were Havin’ Some Fun At The Conservatory, When...” from Clair (Columbia, 1973): A groovy take on Baroque music that is as groovy as it is Baroque. My guess is that Ralph Grierson is playing the piano, if not the harpsichord as well. Faith’s tremendously complimentary take on Deodato’s arrangement of “2001 (Also Sprach Zarathustra)” – probably featuring Mike Lang grooving fantastically on electric piano and the amazing Joe Pass getting funkier than he’s ever been heard before – makes Clair worthy too. Faith also goes for baroque on “Viva Vivaldi” from 1973’s My Love, a somewhat funky, wakka-wakka take on “La primavera” (Spring) from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.”

“1, 2, 3, 4” from The Entertainer (Columbia, 1974): “1, 2, 3, 4” is a brassy Vegas-styled big-band number that balances blazing horns with delicious disco strings (can you imagine what Percy Faith would have done had he lived during the classic disco period of 1976-79?). This groove, which seems tailor-made for a splashy Vegas show (circus act? magic act?), ends up prompting a fiery organ soloist to dazzle the keys overtop it all. “1, 2, 3, 4” comes from the rousing 1974 album The Entertainer, which Columbia withdrew almost immediately after release to replace the “1, 2, 3 ,4”-like cover of the pop hit “Bend Me, Shape Me” with Faith’s cover of Jerrry Goldsmith’s theme to then-new hit film Chinatown. The album was soon reissued as Chinatown featuring The Entertainer (catchy, huh?), much to Faith’s chagrin, with a much less imaginative cover than The Entertainer presented (above). Fortunately, when Collectables issued Chinatown featuring The Entertainer on CD, coupled with Faith’s final album, Summer Place ‘76, in 2003, they restored “Bend Me, Shape Me” as a bonus track to the CD.

”Chompin’” from Disco Party (Columbia, 1975): This is a groovy jazz-fusion song that would appeal as much to people digging Van McCoy’s then-in “The Hustle” as to those loving some of the funky film and TV scores that Dave Grusin (Baretta, Three Days of the Condor), Tom Scott (The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, Uptown Saturday Night, Baretta, Starsky and Hutch) and Patrick Williams (The Streets of San Francisco, Cannon) were doing at the time. It’s a curiously clever amalgam of Blaxploitation and disco. I love every note of this album, my first exposure to exactly what Percy Faith can do. It’s a joyous fusion from start to finish that’s electrified in its jazz and full of clever melodies and exciting sounds.

Here's a sample of "Chompin'" to enjoy:


Al Rearick said...

I've always associated Percy Faith with some of the loveliest Christmas music around. CHRISTMAS IS is justifiably famous, and is my favorite Christmas/holiday album. Every song is a treasure, but my favorite track has to be "Do You Hear What I Hear." There is so much to love about this track: the musical buildup with each verse; the lithe commentary of various flutes between the lines; the colorful musical illustration that paints a mental picture of the unsung words. Every Christmas song should be this moving, this imaginative, this beautiful!

If you happen to stumble upon it around the holiday season, MUSIC OF CHRISTMAS (Columbia CL 588, reissued as CS 8176) isn't nearly as much fun, but it is a subtly majestic album that grew on me with repeated listenings.

Thanks for posting this. I've often been curious as to what his music outside the holiday realm was like.

Anonymous said...


Great blog.

Must pursue those Japanese only issues!

Otherwise it is "First Light" for me. Is this the EZ answer to Mirouze's "Sexopolis"? Why is the latter revered when the former isn't?

Followed by "Tubular Bells" - a funked up orchestral take! With a Tijuana trumpet break!



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