Sonny Lester & His Orchestra - After Hours Spain [Time Records, 196?]

This LP was discovered during a lengthy Saturday afternoon spent in the upstairs of a large antique store. Nothing but records covered the entire room; some were stacked in piles on top of tables, while others were arranged on metal shelves or stacked in groups on the floor.

There’s nothing special to draw anyone to this particular album. Record enthusiasts just starting their forays into the world of second-hand record shopping might be aware of familiar band leaders such as Perez Prado, or simply rely on cool looking covers to help them make their decisions as to what they should take home. Sonny Lester probably isn’t a name that would jump out at the beginning collector, and the record itself isn’t exactly cool looking. The cover simply has the title “After Hours Spain” set against a black band across the top of a drab oil painting credited on the jacket to Pierre Lesieur. The liner notes do little to entice potential customers; reading more like your standard travel-log brochure, emphasizing the “reserved and intimate” climate of its night clubs, the “inhabitants innate good taste,” and coastal resorts situated near the Mediterranean Sea. Continual emphasis on a country ruled by a “slower more relaxed” type of atmosphere, where patrons of the popular night clubs are “rather quiet,” combined with uninspired artwork and anonymous liner notes, leads one to expect little more than your standard collection of indiscriminate, South-of-the-Border/Spanish/ Italian/”romantic other countries and their interchangeable music” compilations, with familiar and uninspiring melodies included in the repertoire, such as Malaguena, The Breeze and I, La Paloma, and Cielito Linda.

What was endearing about this particular album as it lay buried beneath piles of unwanted LP’s was the fact that it originally belonged to the library at Fr. Charles A. Hall Upper School located on the St. Francis Academy Campus in Baltimore, Maryland. A small manila card-holder glued to the back of the jacket had a card still tucked inside that indicated that the last person to check-out the album was “Sister Dinorah.”
One can only extrapolate on the personality of Sister Dinorah. Was she an unremarkable member of the teaching staff at St. Francis Academy with a penchant for jazz and popular music? Or was Sister Dinorah a young and very “hip” teacher who all the guys in class had a crush on (even if she was a nun), who sat alone in her room at the convent on a Friday night grooving to the tunes of Sonny Lester and dreaming of a night-on-the-town with a dashing young Romeo?

Whatever the case might be, I’m glad Sister Dinorah indirectly had a hand in getting this album noticed. A handful of the songs Sonny Lester chose for After Hours Spain are super-charged with a frantic pace and pounding rhythm section that’ll make you wonder just where in the world those rather quiet nightclubs mentioned on the albums liner notes got their reputations. After Hours Spain undoubtedly had Sister Dinorah swinging her habit to infectious beats backed by chattering organ (courtesy of prolific Moe Wechsler) and electric guitar.

The album starts off strongly and includes some great cuts on the first side. Malaguena kicks off side A with a drum-kit intro heavy on hi-hat and rim-shot to establish the beat. Electric guitar lead and punchy organ then jump in to take shots on the melody, while a quick-paced rhythm section heats up behind them with prominent conga drums. All of this adds up to a great version that contains a lot more “umph” than you might be used to hearing out of this often-covered standard. At points, the organ on this particular track creates the visual image of an old animated cartoon where the instrument is swooshing around in the background like a crop-dusting plane peppering an unseen enemy with bursts of chattering notes.

The pace on side A wavers between a finger snappin’ cool on tracks such as Granada and The Breeze and I, and a quick, refreshing “gallop” that pushes the tune on and on at a fast clip. Frenesi has vibes and trumpet backing-up leads by electric guitar and organ, which again, share the melody and break out with improvised solos while a swingin’ horn section backs them up. Granada slows things down with trombone and vibes backed by great washes of sweeping sound by the organ. Again, the organ creates quite an impression as it occasionally breaks into weird hi-pitched chattering like a deranged chipmunk popping his head between the musicians and contributing a little noise of its own.  

Habanera features upright bass, electric guitar and stuttering organ; along with horns, drum kit, and xylophone. Each track introduces new rhythms, new instruments, or inventive new uses for those instruments already introduced. The Breeze and I begins with a smooth and slow piano melody with backing organ “chirrups” and muted horns. This is one cool track with vibes taking over at points to either take hold of the melody for a few bars, or break out into improvised grooves.

Side B is a lot more predictable and lacks the wild freestyle and driving rhythms that made the first side so enjoyable. There’s a good jazzy version of Maria Elena with horns and vibe, but by the time the second side ends with the pedestrian Cielito Lindo, you’ll have lost interest because of the lackluster arrangements and uninspired performances.
It sounds as though all the enthusiasm and originality was exhausted during the first six cuts of the album.

This isn’t his best recording, but Sonny Lester is indeed a name to take notice of. Lester put out numerous LP’s. Aside from a run of “After Hours” titles for the Time Records label that included visits to Paris, Italy and the Middle East; Lester specialized in provocative “strip for your husband” records for the Roulette label and cut some incredible “strip” LP’s. Some of the best of this music ended up in a double-album boxed set titled “Music to Keep Your Husband Happy.” As it turns out, part of keeping your husband happy is to lay down cut after cut of jazzy, exotic, and enticing arrangements to compliment the gyrations of provocative housewives with earrings dangling from their brassieres and jewels stuck to their navels with double-sided tape (as suggested in the helpful booklet included with Music to Keep Your Husband Happy).

Although After Hours Middle East (the best in the series) was cut for the Time Records label, you can tell that this was the very same recording session that provided the music for the LP “How to Strip for Your Husband.” Intricacies of what he recorded and for whom aside, the simple equation to remember is: Sonny Lester=strip=some very fun music.

Thank you Sister Dinorah, for your recommendation.

Nathan Miner

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