The Beatles. Metallica. Lady Gaga. Nope, this is no clickbait name-dropping in order to gain the attention of an obscure audience for this website. Naturally these acts aren‘t usually mentioned on AmbientExotica.com due to their style being incompatible with the endemic genres. The same would have happened to conductor Ted Auletta (1923–1979) if he hadn‘t come up with two Exotica albums, one of them released in 1962 which is called, well, Exotica. Despite its title being stripped to the bones and its reason of existence being motivated by the Cameo Label bosses‘ hunt for money, this is a mighty fine album and definitely no lackadaisical effort! In fact, Ted Auletta not only perfectly imitated and expanded the commonly loved Exotica themes and motifs of faux-Polynesian islands and aural eyewitness testimonies of encounters with savages in his music, no, he also adapted these deliberate fake superstructures in his curriculum vitae, at least for a short moment: the liner notes of the LP mention that due to the fun he had in creating Exotica, he was about to move to Hawaii and experience the wild jungle life himself. It turns out that he didn‘t, but it sounds good on paper and was hence added to the liner notes. The album features the usual 12 tracks, all of them renditions of great Exotica pieces. And still, there is one interesting artistic quality that lets me sit up and take notice – Auletta recorded this album with a septet instead of a more usual trio or quartet, thus allowing for richer textures and more diversified sounds. Speaking of sound: this is another quadrophonic record that tried to cater the growing audience of audiophiles, again imitating the successful tactics of the time, in this case Enoch Light‘s. Unfortunately, the album is only available on vinyl and there is no digital version in sight, but since it consists solely of classics, you may possibly relate to my descriptions below.
Quiet Village is without a doubt a very successful copy of Les Baxter‘s original of 1952, with lively bird noises, echoey tambourins, cascading harps, paradisiac flutes and soothing marimbas. You need quite a few people to play all these instruments, and as I‘ve written above, this prevents Auletta‘s version from becoming just another insignificant one in the huge pile. Especially the inclusion of the harp is a huge plus in my book. Flamingo is another song filled with birds, dark pianos and tremoling marimbas. The contrast between dark piano notes and high flutes works well, and the gentle tambourins add a permanent stream of relaxing percussion to the mix – after all, Flamingo can be played quite differently if you consider the 1966 version by Herb Alpert, for instance. Adventures In Paradise is one of my favorite Exotica standards, and it is flawlessly presented on the album with a heavy reliance on the piano, but the addition of short harp riffs is a bonus. Next is The Breeze And I, which is otherwise known in Exotica circles as Andalucia. This is a marvelous version for the same old reason I‘m raving about all the time in this review, the harp. The spaces and quieter sceneries are spiced by exotic percussion and short wind chimes.
The Cuban classic Taboo is always used by me as a benchmark for Jazz bands – which instruments are used for the main melody and how is the accompaniment structured? While this question can be raised in regard to virtually every classic, it is more difficult to answer in the context of Taboo because it is up to the interpretation of the conductor whether he wants to expose a certain melancholy or rather soften the lugubriousness by changing the tempo or adding playful bits in the accompanying sections. Auletta chose the latter option and presents delicious harp twangs and polyphonous marimba bits in the background while the main melody is first played on the flute, then on vibes and finally on piano. In comparison to my favorite version of Taboo by Les Baxter, Auletta tries to balance the contrasting moods by concentrating on the accompaniment, whereas Baxter is keen to virtually blast everything away with a clear focus on the main melody that is loaded with a felt group of one hundred violins. While this pompous approach is more satisfying for me, I can totally dig the viewpoint of Auletta as well; he delivers a good interpretation of Taboo and tries to take advantage of his septet. Baia is next and is clearly inspired by Arthur Lyman‘s version on his album Bahia. Auletta‘s band delivers gorgeous bird sounds, positively tangy flute tones, but instead of a focus on vibraphone, the piano is used for most of the melodies in rotation with the flute. The final 4 songs off Exotica are delightfully soothing and fragile: Makaha is a remarkably beautiful rendition with its slow groove, a more serious approach and a consistent presentation. Every instrument is laid back, only the added xylophon bits and an occasionally rising flute bring dynamic to an otherwise perfect Exotica song. This might well be my favorite song off the album! Jungle Drums brings back the cheekiness plus the birds, but is otherwise a similarly quiescent version and perfectly fitting for a lazy afternoon in glimmering heat. Pool Of Love is loaded with echoey percussion and euphonious harps. The main melody is played on a bass flute which exemplifies the smooth approach that is adopted in the final and brutally short song Return To Paradise which is keen on beautiful piano chords, wind chimes and harmonic flutes. The drums are totally inert and only a few bass notes add a counterpoint to the high mallet instruments and chimes. A beautiful final song.
I admit that I have had cynical thoughts when I gazed at the tracklist, but the vibrant bird calls and especially the last quartet of songs taught me to shut up and reconsider my opinion. Indeed, this isn‘t a classic Exotica release that changes everything, but it shows that albums that were primarily produced to not miss the jump on the trend bandwagon can offer an unexpected beauty or dedication – if the sound quality is crystal clear, I am all the more excited. Auletta is able to deliver in both regards: the last four songs are consistent in style, yet distinct enough and transport a strong feeling of shelter and exotic locations even if only one of the last four songs features bird cries. Auletta is also appreciably dedicated to the project, as all compositions are flawless, the sounds are vivid and the choice of instruments can successfully distract from the budgetary limits of the Cameo Label. I don‘t deem this release essential due to the sole focus on renditions. There are dozens of other Exotica albums that present the same bunch of songs time and again. If you, however, are actively searching for these different versions, then you will be happy with Auletta‘s septet. As I‘ve stated before, the album also has a certain artistic value, as it features a consitent approach, despite the wide variety of instruments and songs. This is great faux-Polynesian music without even a hint of Latin Jazz. Definitely charming and both exuberant and mollifying.
SpaceAgePop.com has an interesting entry for Ted Auletta that concentrates on his life and the musicians he has worked with.
Ambient Review 031: Ted Auletta – Exotica (1962). Originally published on Feb. 4, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.