Les Baxter

Ports Of Pleasure






This is before Exotica. The prequel. This is exotic music that wasn‘t called Exotica until one year later when the stereo version of Martin Denny‘s Exotica LP was released in 1958 and praised as a genre-establishing milestone nowadays (the original mono LP was released in 1957). Naturally, faux-exotic music existed long before the 50‘s; think of all the Road To… movie series of the 40‘s with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour that took place in such exotic places – or, to be more precise, exotic studio settings – as Zanzibar and Morocco, among others.


Or consider Les Baxter‘s own Quiet Village tune from 1952 and his albums Tamboo! and Caribbean Moonlight from 1956 and 1957 respectively. Ports Of Pleasure contains the common number of 12 songs, the overarching theme is of Eastern and Asian flavor, and as usual, Baxter and his orchestra depict the glistening, rose-tinted Hollywood version of locations like Ceylon and Tahiti. Each track is named after an exotic location of the Far East, causing a wistful longing. The tracks are chock-full of positively energetic naïveté and affairs of the heart, but Baxter never falls into the cliché trap (which is the primary domain of The Three Suns anyway), and if he partially does, the following tracks are always more light-hearted and exciting than his intimate ones. There is, however, also a darker side to this album, and it‘s an unexpected but welcome one considering the issued credo. Honestly, there are real winners on this LP that activate either the happiness hormones or the goosebumps even decades after its release. 


Tahiti: A Summer Night At Sea marks the beginning of Baxter‘s journey through exotic places and the Far East. This song is heavy on the polyphonous strings, gently played Eastern bells, crystalline glockenspiels and euphoric harps. Not a pompous start, but a rather placid one. The strings are overly romantic at the beginning, but Baxter gets his act together and delivers an upward change of focus by putting the other instruments into the limelight as well. This is especially true for Hong Kong Cable Car with its pitch-perfect cliché of Chinese popular culture that is aurally displayed with Eastern flutes, ostentatious brass sections and piano bits, inducing a rather exciting and tense non-Easy Listening ride.


The Gates Of Annam evokes a dream-like atmosphere in dolce with its careful setup of a sole violin plus a quiet string ensemble with an occasional appearance of a flügelhorn. Shanghai Rickshaw, the shortest track on the album, returns to Chinese clichés but is otherwise keen on flute sections and cascading harps, leading the way to the best track of the album, Tramp Steamer To Singapore, that starts with pompous bass violins and brass bursts but all of a sudden changes the tone and morphs into enormously soothing strings that are among the best string sections Baxter ever came up with! These purified strings are accompanied by beautiful harps, subtle timpani and Chinese gongs; everything but the drums is reduced, making this another string-heavy, euphonious composition and one of Baxter‘s very best in my book. 


City Of Veils marks another exciting track with rhythmical shifts between daunting sections of brass and bass violins on the one hand, and much quieter Middle Eastern counterfoils with fuzzy maracas and colorful string melodies on the other hand, realizing a feeling of aloofness as if the veil of the city cannot be lifted in its entirety. Harem Silks From Bombay is a surprisingly bearing and eerie track from the feather of Les Baxter. The focus lies on melancholic yet lugubrious strings and features a cinematic quality.


Since Les Baxter has always been a prolific and hard-working film scorer, this shouldn‘t come as a surprise, but it is in the end a surprise nonetheless, for this piece is a curious mixture of three M‘s: mystery, majesty and melancholy. And these three M‘s aren‘t usually included altogether in Space-Age music, let alone on Easy Listening albums. Baxter returns in top form on Sidewalk Cafes Of Saigon with its cheerful glockenspiels, high strings, a bassoon and gorgeous string sections that evoke a bustling scenery, while The Pearls Of Ceylon adds a mysterious calmness and musical elements of devotion: the string sections adjure sadness and deepness, and a discernible piano adds another serious undertone to this piece. The final track is Bangkok Cockfight and is – by the laws of its track title – more playful and an exciting closer with effective and previously unhears chimes and staccato string and flute sections. 


Why is this release valuable in this day and age? Because this is no typical Easy Listening record, let alone a Les Baxter record by the numbers, because it features a surprising amount of darkness, tension and – gasp! – sadness. Such being the case, the record undermines the expectations of Baxter‘s audience who long for that certain presentation of a brightly colored exotic paradise. Apart from Tahiti: A Summer Night At Sea, Tramp Steamer To Singapore and the various Chinese tracks, the colors are reduced and more toned down in their playfulness. As such, this Baxter record stands out of his huge catalog of Space-Age and Exotica records. If you like listening to slightly darker, more mysterious exotic sounds, then this might be Baxter‘s album that is most appropriate for your taste as long as you don‘t mind minor music-related clichés about China; in the end, this shouldn‘t be a problem as Exotica listeners usually cope with these clichés or actively seek them. Recommended with minor quibbles in terms of  the more serious approach – I guess I skip Baxter‘s soundtrack of House Of Usher then. 


Exotica Review 029: Les Baxter – Ports Of Pleasure (1957). Originally published on Jan. 28, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.