Following their superb "chronotransduction," Escalator Over the Hill, composer Carla Bley and poet Paul Haines once again teamed up for Tropic Appetites, a somewhat different, but equally compelling effort. The instrumentation is scaled down to an octet and the lyrics revolve around trips to Southeast Asia, particularly Bali, made by Haines over the preceding years. Bley makes an inspired choice for lead vocalist by enlisting the extraordinary Julie Tippetts who had attained rock stardom in the late '60s (as Julie Driscoll) in Brian Auger's Trinity.
After a powerful introductory "overture" led by the still incendiary Gato Barbieri who, for contractual reasons, is referred to in the credits as "Unidentified Cat," the hothouse atmosphere of the recording is established by the next song, "In India," with its humid, surreal lyrics.Bley consistently provides rich, imaginative, and varied underpinnings for Tippett's crystalline vocal work. From the ferocious and angry "Enormous Tots" to the yearning "Caucasian Bird Riffles" to the delightful singsong "Funnybird Song" featuring priceless vocals from Howard Johnson and Bley's very young daughter Karen Mantler (who would go on to a career of her own), the music is strong and memorable throughout.
All of the musicians are in top form, but special mention should be made of the dream rhythm team of David Holland and Paul Motian. Their tonal colors and supple interplay is a major factor of the success of this album. Tropic Appetites is one of Carla Bley's greatest successes; one could only wish that she had continued in this vein rather than opting for the jazz-funk bands she led from 1980 forward.