The Graham Weekly Album Review #1004
Rob Mounsey & the Flying Monkey Orchestra: Mango Theory
by George Graham

(Monkeyville Records 60102 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/4/95)

Some rock fans tend to look down upon studio musicians, the hired guns who add the musical parts that other people ask them to play. But the fact is, they wouldn't get to be in demand in the if they weren't first class players who are often better musicians than those big-name pop artists on whose records they perform. Perhaps the most important trait for studio players is versatility. So when studio musicians decide to put out their own albums, the result is usually stylistically unpredictable, and often sufficiently eclectic that people have difficulty in categorizing it.

This week's album is a fine example. It's by a group called the Flying Monkey Orchestra, which is actually an ever-changing gathering of musicians headed by and often principally comprised of keyboard man and composer Rob Mounsey. The new third album under that rubric is called Mango Theory.

Mounsey grew up in Seattle with a classical music background, then came East where he studied at the Berklee College of Music, He settled into New York in 1976, where he has been an active part of the studio scene. He performed on some of the significant albums of the 1980s including Steely Dan's Gaucho and Donald Fagen's The Nightfly, along with Paul Simon's Graceland and records by Phil Collins, Michael Franks, Sinead O'Connor and Eric Clapton. He also created the theme to the commercial television soap opera "The Guiding Light."

Mounsey and another New York studio denizen, guitarist Steve Khan have had a long association and in 1987 released an outstanding collaborative album called Local Color, which helped to define the sound of the Flying Monkey Orchestra to follow. It was an interesting blend of jazz-rock fusion with world music beats, creative use of synthesizers and lots of acoustic guitar. Often the instrumental compositions had a whimsical quality.

The first Flying Monkey Orchestra album called Dig was released in 1990 and consisted almost entirely of Mounsey and his synthesizers and sampled percussion, but unlike dozens of similarly instrumented recordings especially in the New Age realm, The Flying Monkey Orchestra's music was fascinating and constantly evolving. There was an attractive and airy World Music beat, something people with synthesizers and drum machines have rarely been able successfully to do, and again Mounsey brought an element of what I could best describe as musical wit in his mostly instrumental compositions.

This time around, the Flying Monkey Orchestra grows to considerable size with the addition of a rotating cast of similarly respected studio players who grace the CD with everything from Brazilian percussion to funky horns to Caribbean steel drums. With a title like Mango Theory one would expect tropical quality to the record, and that's just what one gets. The album is not without its more mellow side as well. In abundance throughout is a kind of joyful eclecticism, mixing influences and sounding as if everyone is having a good time in doing so.

Mounsey again shows himself to be a formidable composer, creating music that sounds breezy but has lots of interesting and often original musical ideas. He again shows his mastery at getting human-sounding music from his synthesizers and electronic rhythms. However, this time, some genuine percussionists are brought in, and two tracks enlist the services of a regular drummer, Christopher Parker.

The list of guest musicians reads like a who's who of top New York studio players. They include guitarists Steve Khan and Jeff Mironov, both the gentlemen who have served as bassist in the Pat Metheny Group, electric player Mark Egan and acoustic bassist Steve Rodby, along with another prominent bassman Will Lee, steel drum player Othello Molineaux, and a blue-chip horn section including the Poconos' own George Young on flute and sax, Lew Soloff on trumpet and Michael Brecker on electronic wind instrument. As a result, this new album has a bigger sound than its predecessor. Also quite prominent are the vocals on many of the tracks. Most of the time the singing is by a loose-sounding chorus that's influenced by the styles of the tropics or Africa. Usually the singing is fun, but sometimes it provides the album's main weakness. Mounsey himself attempts to do some lead vocals over the chorus, and he really isn't a singer. He seems to realize it and puts electronic effects on his voice, which only goes so far. Nevertheless, there is such an appealing combination of rhythmically seductive music and compositional cleverness that the vocals are not really a problem. And, having singing certainly increases the likelihood of the music reaching wider audiences.

The album begins with a track illustrating the blend of interesting writing with a whimsical spirit. Take Off the Yellow Tie has a vaguely salsa feel. And with the vocals with the electronic effects added, the sound seems like psychedelic Caribbean. The invited jazz musicians get a chance to do their thing, including George Young, who puts in an impressive flute solo.

Things get more mellifluous on the following piece, Blue Hibiscus, which puts Mounsey back in the company of his old friend guitarist Steve Khan, who plays an acoustic instrument. The percussionist named Café provides a nice Brazilian ambience in this composition that echoes similarly laid-back pieces on the first Flying Monkey Orchestra album.

Also with a playful quality is Tongasat, a reference to a communications satellite situated in orbit above the South Pacific Island nation of Tonga. It's a combination of lyrics that are a takeoff of the children's nursery rhyme with music that combines a funky quality with the Caribbean instrumentation. Once again George Young is one of the principal soloists on piccolo.;

The closest thing to a pop song on the album is We Believe. However, its optimistic lyrics about believing "we are one people" seem rather out of sync with the cynicism of the era, as portrayed by the commercial media.

One my favorite tracks on Mango Theory is called Zero Zero Two, and is a kind of musical setting of a bad dream with a telephone. This sort of thing, weaving telephone sounds and pre-recorded announcements into a tune has certainly been done before, but Mounsey and company, including the horn players and Othello Molineaux on the steel drums, give the theme a breath of fresh air. A bit of the influence of the pioneering fusion band Weather Report can also be heard. Interestingly, for this funky track, acoustic bassist Steve Rodby was brought in and adds a nice touch.;

For sheer tropical appeal, the highlight of the CD is Ya Brada-O Mimani. I'm not sure the lyrics mean anything, but the music, with its combination of African rhythms, R&B horn arrangements, plus bluesy slide acoustic guitar played by Jeff Miranov, make for a wonderfully eclectic combination.

Mounsey does the lead vocal on a tune called My Drum and Me, and the combination of that and the near heavy-metal guitar of Miranov makes this a far less successful stylistic blend than other pieces on the album.

One of the biggest surprises on Mango Theory is A Love Supreme, a John Coltrane jazz composition that has also been covered by Carlos Santana. Mounsey's electronically processed vocals with the otherwise tropical sounds makes for an unusual blend conjuring up a images of high-tech island sounds.

The album ends with another of its comtemplative pieces, Amnesty, with bassist Mark Egan making a worthwhile contribution on his fretless instrument.

Rob Mounsey's Flying Monkey Orchestra, on the new album Mango Theory has come up with an intriguing blend of tropical influence, jazziness, horn arrangements reminiscent of R&B, and a generally upbeat and often playful mood. And interestingly, he does it with synthesizers and drum machines providing much of the sound. Mounsey, one of the blue-chip studio musicians in New York, enlists similarly pedigreed players to join him in this very uncategorizable stylistic amalgam. Underneath it all, there is a lot of not only great musicianship, but some sophisticated musical and compositional ideas that people don't have to listen carefully to in order to appreciate, if you just want to dance a little.

Sonically the album is nicely done. Much of it was recorded in Mounsey's own Flying Monkey studio by Richard Alderson, who sometimes adds his share of sonic whimsy to the musical fun and games.

Those familiar with the previous Flying Monkey Orchestra recordings will hear similarities in the styles of several of this album's tracks to Mounsey's previous work, but this album with its bigger sound and great guest musicians will provide lots of interesting surprises. And for those who have only heard Mounsey playing more or less anonymously on other people's records or soap operas, Mango Theory is a great way to get to know a remarkably talented and original musician.

This is George Graham.

(c) Copyright 1995 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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