Exotica 1970 is one of two albums by the Kokee Band and all it contains are versions of popular Latin and U.S. themes with not a single original track. I don‘t see this as a problem, I just want to stress that this album was a showcase for the band, a way to present spiced renditions of familiar themes. Since this album was released on jazz label Solid State Records, there are less exotic instruments and more typical Jazz instruments on here with a focus on saxophone and piano. The marimba is the most exotic instrument on here, every other instrument is pretty much well-known. Not much else is known about the band, the only given information on the back is the original writer or producer of each song plus an additional advertisment text that explains the goal set by Solid State Records: becoming a notable hi-fi label by providing 28 channels for each recording of a track on the one hand and by hand-picking talents whose performances contain "impeccable artistic values." The album was arranged by Arthur Baum, and as luck has it, his son Jeremy William Baum contacted me in October 2012 via email to connect the dots, giving me the opportunity to ask Arthur Baum himself about how Exotica 1970 came to be! Rest assured that I – deeply surprised and all the happier – used this opportunity. As Baum explains in a string of emails, arranger and music teacher Manny Albam approached him one day in 1965, asking if Baum had knowledge about a certain genre called Exotica. The training took place at Eastman School of Music, Exotica 1970 features the whopping amount of roundabout 15 musicians: conductor Manny Albam, pianists Arthur Baum himself and Bernie Leighton, four trombonists of which Arthur Baum remembers Wayne Andre, Buddy Morrow and Tony Studd, french horn players Jim Buffington, Ray Alonge, drummer Mel Lewis, guitarist Barry Galbraith & bassist Richard Davis, alto saxophonist Phil Woods as well as mallet instrumentalists Phil Kraus and George Devens, both of whom do not only play the classic instruments, but use such exotic devices such as the cuica and square-shaped metal pads. The album is quite, but not overly rare, as it only exists in the form of vinyl with no current plans for a digital release. Each song on clocks in just below the 3-minute mark, making the album a short but enjoyable 26-minute affair.
On Love for Sale, the listener is greeted by several bongos, timpanis and congas, followed by the main melody which is played by a brass section. Xylophones are added to the mix, bringing an elated Latin feel to this rendition. The version of Bahia, called Baia on here, relies heavily on the trumpet which plays the main melody on the forefront and is accompanied by a gentler brass ensemble and a piano. Baia works especially well each time the uproarious trumpet is tamed by the brass ensemble, causing the crescendo to decrease which is a nod to the suave, streamlined Easy Listening formula. Of course, this review wouldn‘t be complete without the mentioning of Misirlou, and the Kokee Band chooses the laid-back approach with audible rattles and polyphonous pianos. What makes this version so special is the interesting implementation of the melody which is first played by a piano in low, vibrant octaves, followed by higher counterparts. On high volume, this song can shake quite a few rooms due to the depth of the piano. At the end, however, the melody is played by a trumpeter, a hint at the Latin approach; a successful version and a favorite. Tico-Tico is another famous song and if there is one universal rule, it is the fact that this song has to be played in a very quick style (The Andrew Sisters broke this rule, but that‘s another story). Here, we can hear the band‘s fingeracrobatics on the piano, the marimba and the drums which works quite well. The follow-up Sand In My Shoes, my favorite version of all the versions I know, is all the more easy going with the rare addition of a ukulele, a gently played piano and a snugly brass section. Suddenly, there‘s a mood-related shift in the middle of the song and all hell breaks loose. As it is typical for the band, the percussion and trumpet go mad, and the mood changes from relaxed to excitingly jolly. The aforementioned square-shaped metal pads akin to a xylophone were specifically brought up by pianist Arthur Baum in one of his emails to me as being a key feature on this version. Poinciana is yet another fave, similarly unwinding, focussing on improvised piano sections and eased maracas, while The Moon Of Manakoora is musically presented by a vibraphone and wind chimes, as it is often the case with exotic music that contains the moon in its title. However, whereas other versions of this song try to create the mood of a quiet summer evening, the Kokee Band yet again plays with fire and transforms this soothing mood into a great brass fanfare with an intensely played piano, reversing the effect the song usually tries to build up and hence makes things interesting.
The sound quality of the album is splendid and that‘s exactly what Solid State Records promise on the back of most of their early, pre-70‘s releases. Anyway, somehow I just can‘t help but feel that the existence of this LP is not driven by the Kokee Band‘s musical prowess but the motivation to satisfy audiophile listeners who want to worship and present their tube amplifiers by driving them to their limits with the help of songs they already know from smoke-filled Jazz clubs. This is a perfectly legitimate approach and I am happy about exquisitly recorded and mastered music myself, it is just that most Exotica LP‘s were produced with state of the art techniques. This is oftentimes mentioned on stickers or labels on the front cover that state "In Stereo", "High Fidelity" and so on. While quite a few of these LP‘s contain an inner beauty, an aesthetically pleasing golden thread and build-up, Exotica 1970 is only a random collection of well-known world hits, not an original record. This is no bad thing, though. If you already know and own other versions by various artists of these performed songs, you are probably fond of the idea of collecting different renditions and play them consecutively, while being surprised about the spectrum of interpretations. If this is the case, the Kokee Band will certainly deliver the most jazzy and Brazilian versions of each song in your entire playlist. And for this reason, the LP has a place in my heart, although Exotica 1970 is less than the sum of its parts, for each part is pleasing to the ears, but not mandatory for the outcome of it, which could have been entirely diverging without making a great difference.
[Update Nov. 3, 2012]
I am very honored and equally pleased that pianist and arranger Arthur Baum himself has sent me various emails during October 2012 in which he carves out how the existence of the album came to be. He also lists the names of the majority of the players involved in creating Exotica 1970. The introductory and middle paragraphs of this review are thus updated, the final paragraph now lacks my request for help in finding out more about the musicians. Mr. Baum provided all the info, and so much more. My deepest thanks to Arthur Baum and his son Jeremy William Baum for connecting the dots and giving me the opportunity to ask away!
Exotica Review 008: Kokee Band – Exotica 1970 (1966). Originally published on Dec. 18, 2011 at AmbientExotica.com.