Mike Simpson and Orchestra - Discussion In Percussion [Mercury, 1961]


Mercury Records’ “Discussion in percussion” is a wonderful gatefold presentation featuring bold, full-color graphics with wrap-around photos of a colorfully outfitted blonde posing with various instruments while talking on a sea-foam green telephone (the titular discussion in percussion no doubt). This LP was part of the Mercury line of “Perfect Presence Sound Series” recordings which gave the same slick gatefold treatment to artists such as David Carroll, Hal Mooney and Xavier Cugat.

Opening the gatefold reveals an avalanche of information explaining everything from the types of instruments used on each and every song, a biography of composer Mike Simpson (early Dixie-band jazz musician, WWII soldier and Indiana farmer!) to technical details concerning the studio and recording equipment used to record the LP.

Such stellar presentation unfortunately does not translate to the actual music. Cliché driven arrangements give the majority of songs like Say Si Si and Too Marvelous for Words predictable arrangements featuring the expected left/right channel separation and simplistic cadence often associated with percussion LP’s. Simpson worked with other Mercury composers such as David Carroll and Dick Schory who, with much more success, presented the experimental percussion heavy arrangements associated with this percussion mini-genre in a fun and much more articulated style.

In dramatic contrast to the glowing liner notes citing Simpson’s aim to “present sensible interplay between instruments – interplay that would be musically interesting in terms of both specific patterns and overall continuity,” what he records is the same maddeningly dull series of percussive beats to which the other instruments follow closely in a type of pied-piper copy-cat “call and respond” arrangement heard on a great deal of percussion albums from the period such as those prepared by Enoch Light. Amazingly, such dry and predictable approaches to musical presentation must have been very popular, given the amount of percussion LP’s that followed closely to the same lack-luster combination of rat-a-tat-tat percussion followed by a chorus of strings or brass in pa-a-tat-tat-tat imitation, ad nauseam until the song’s conclusion. Percussion LP’s deviating from the standard presentation seem to be the exception, forged by maestros like Carroll and Cugat, who prove their merit as composers by creating engaging arrangements built around an established percussive genre.

Say Si Si starts the record off with conga drums and snare following the melody established by a rattling horn section, chattered forwards by castanets. Every few measures the melody stops, letting the rhythm section in for a few whacks, chopping the entire presentation up into what could be described as the audible equivalent of a cha-cha-cha visual step guide; graceful flowing movement replaced by tentative step-by-step direction.

Too Marvelous for Words, Takes Two to Tango and the other three songs from side A are not very memorable. It’s almost as though this first side was played for studio executives wanting that by-the-numbers percussive sound. Once they heard this, composer Mike Simpson was free to do a little bit more musically with Side B.

Flute mimicking the trill of a bird, conga drums, various percussion instruments like the quiro, and triangle strike along with a horn section creating the cha-cha inspired composition Listen to the Mockingbird. Finally, side B reveals a cha-cha treatment that doesn’t break mid-stride to let the percussion instruments take center stage – ba-ding-ding-ding. Piccolo and flute flutter in imitation of mockingbirds while upright bass and percussion carry this mediocre tune to its conclusion.

She Didn’t Say Yes echoes a Mancini song treatment, jazzing it up a bit to bestow this arrangement with more flow and musical layering. A drum kit slides the beat along while horns spike the piano and flute driven melody, which is in turn supported by upright bass and vibraphone.

Mike Simpson arranged Open Discussion (In Percussion), letting his more experimental side hang out as woodwinds and xylophones create an off-kilter melody backed by predominant conga drums and brass. Electric guitar and piano kick in to slide the arrangement into a sort of beatnik crime jazz vein while the percussion is still allowed its instances of chicanery as it slides from left to right channel.

A Rhythm-heavy percussion section accentuated by a “ba-ba-boom” after seemingly every measure chops After I Say I’m Sorry into a forgettable mix of trumpets, drum kit and horns - ba-ba-boom.

So it’s a real mixed bag of heard-it-all-before percussion tricks mixed-in with a few enjoyable tracks courtesy of the B side. Not a stellar effort, and one of the weaker links in the Mercury Perfect Presence Sound Series.

Nathan Miner

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Mike Simpson & Orchestra - Discussion in Percussion