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Listen to "Middle East Mambo"

Music Makes Me Want to Dance!
Mercury MG 60926

Cover of Music Makes Me Want to Dance by David Carroll

This is probably my all-time favorite Space Age Pop track, though I'm not sure I can explain why in any convincing way. David Carroll made some fun records, but he also made some dull ones, and he's certainly no Esquivel. It's a tight and well-played number, but it's not a tune that's likely ever to be covered again--nor does it need to be. It's no "Round Midnight," after all.

Part of its attraction stems from a particularly stubborn resistance on my part to liking anything that's popular--at least, while it's popular. Thus, when Esquivel was rediscovered and being reissued, the two Esquivel albums I'd found years before and loved became unwanted orphans, stuck well back in the shelves. I prefer to enjoy the popular when it's become forgotten and irrelevant, which is probably why I'm stuck on John P. Marquand at the moment.

Although serious Space Age Pop fans recognize David Carroll's name and probably own a few of his albums (Percussion Orientale being the one most sought after), no one outside this tiny circle and his surviving original fans know him from Adam. And though he released something like 25 albums under his own name, most of them for Mercury Records, there's not a snowball's chance in hell any of them is likely to show up on CD anytime soon. Even Space Age Pop fans aren't likely to look much after they've found a couple of his in the used record bins. So I feel relatively confident in believing that in finding and celebrating this gem of a number, I've remembered something most of the 4 billion other inhabitants of the planet have forgotten. Which is, of course, the kind of sophisticated elitest feeling that cognoscenti of oddball music get off on and that irritates or bores the crap out of everyone else.

But to the music, which is what matters. The liner notes describe it in language resembling that of a pretentious restaurant menu: "Mouth organ and Hammond organ collaborate over a driving Latin beat topped off with some tasty guitar." "Mouth organ" meaning harmonica to normal people. It's an uptempo number, but I think it's that big three-beat accent from the trombone section that really moves it along until the harmonica and guitar solos, which just kick ass.

Most of David Carroll's albums were recorded in Chicago, using the small but strong cadre of studio players working there--Mike Simpson, Dick Schory, Earl Backus, and Johnny Frigo--and more than the usual amount of personnel credits can be found in the liner notes. In this case, however, all we get is "Arrangements by David Carroll" and "Engineer: Phil Ramone," and the fact that it was recorded at A&R Studios in New York City on 15 and 17 April 1964. "Middle East Mambo" and another strong number, "On Q," which is dedicated to Quincy Jones, the producer, who was vice president of A&R for Mercury Records (as was Carroll, by the way), are both credited to Jay Cee Allen. This turns out to be the pseudonym of one Carole Ann Allen, whose only other songwriting credit is for "Our Milwaukee Braves."

The lack of personnel credits is not unusual for the time, but given that it's something of an exception in Carroll's case, raises some suspicions and leads me to do a bit of speculating. A&R Studios was probably the hottest recording location in New York City at the time. In his autobiography, Jones calls it "the little engine that could. The music that came out of the little shitbox was incredible--hits by the dozen." Jones had recorded the first gold record he produced, Lesley Gore's "It's My Party," there the year before. Within few weeks of the sessions for this album, Lalo Schifrin came in to cut The Cat with organist Jimmy Smith; Kai Winding came in to record a few tracks with Claus Ogerman; and the night before the first session, Ramone had one the first Grammy Award given for Best Engineering.

A&R had two major assets: one was Ramone, who went on to become a legendary producer and was a fanatic for adopting cutting-edge recording technology. The other was its location just above Jim & Andy's, which was the favorite Manhattan hang out of many jazz musicians. Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims, Gary McFarland, Clark Terry, Jim Hall, Jerome Richardson, Phil Woods, and others could be found there anytime between 10AM and 4AM the next day. Jim Koulouvaris, the owner, was bartender, bank, message service, and spiritual advisor. There was no Andy; Koulouvaris having bought the bar just after World War Two and kept the name.

Ramone installed a hotline from his studio down to the bar, and it wasn't uncommon for the squawk box in the bar to blare out suddenly, "I need a third trombone up here." In 1964, the jazz business had shriveled up and plenty of musicians with terrific chops were making a living as session men and in bands like Skitch Henderson's on the "Tonight" Show, and Jim & Andy's was a refuge from the tedium of commercial work. It was such a focus of the New York jazz scene that the great jazz writer Gene Lees wrote a memoir of it that became the title piece of his 1988 collection, Meet Me at Jim and Andy's.

Which brings me to the speculation. As I said, there are no personnel credits. But there are certainly three superb soloists to be heard on this track. The organist is almost certainly the great Paul Griffin, who played on hundreds of great pop hits and who's familiar to Space Age Pop fans for his album on Somerset (the 101 Strings label) under the pseudonym of "The Mustang." The harmonica player could be Buddy Lucas or Charlie McCoy, but I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess Toots Thielemans, whom Jones used on other Mercury albums during that time. The guitar is most likely one of three guys who frequented sessions at A&R around the time: Barry Galbraith, Jim Hall, or Kenny Burrell. Hall is my pick based on the descending chords near the end of his solo, but they could just as easily be Burrell's. The strong trombone section backing things up probably had Billy Byers and Jimmy Cleveland as a minimum and might well have included Winding and Urbie Green.

And here I'll make my wildest speculation, which is that, with all due respect to David Carroll, who had perfectly fine arranging skills, the credit in this case goes to Billy Byers. Carroll didn't work in New York that much, while Jones was limited by his contract from being able to release too many albums under his name. Carroll has several composer credits on the album, so he at least contributed material, but this album doesn't really sound like any other David Carroll album except Happy Feet, and that one almost screams out "This is a Quincy Jones album!" So it wouldn't be unbelievable for Carroll and Jones to work some kind of deal over the cover credit.

As for Byers, well, he was a legend among his peers for spending much of his career bailing out people like Quincy Jones, writing arrangements they received credit for. Jones himself acknowledges that he "leaned on" Byers and others to write when his hectic schedule prevented him from getting jobs done. Other musicians have used harsher terms, like "unethical," "criminal," and "abuse." Whatever the case, Byers was a superb orchestrator and arranger, and the somewhat unusual sequence of solos and treatment of the melody is not unlike some of his arrangements for his album, Impressions of Duke Ellington. Besides, it has strings, and Jones tended to shy away from writing for strings.

I could be way off base in all this, and if I am, my apologies to those who truly deserve the credit. Still, it's no speculation to say that there were some superb musicians involved in this recording. But what exactly were they playing?

Here is perhaps the final reason I particularly like this track. What do you call it? It's not rock, certainly. But it's not jazz, either. It's too lively to be easy listening. It might qualify as pop jazz, the sort of thing Cal Tjader did with Claus Ogerman on Several Shades of Jade, the sort of thing that got lambasted in Downbeat magazine's blindfold tests. But it wasn't marketed as such. If it had been released on Capitol, it probably would have included the helpful instruction "File Under Pop Music: Instrumental" as was their custom in those days. But you'll never see this album or hundreds of others like it mentioned in a standard pop music reference book. And so it floated off into oblivion, forgotten mostly because it lacked a simple label.

But Duke Ellington would say there's only one music label that matters: Good. And this is a good piece of music. You can take the rest of the labels and stuff 'em. I'll be busy listening to "Middle East Mambo."

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