Martin Denny
Forbidden Island






Curiously enough, I haven't even written a review about Martin Denny yet, which is an audacious move because after all, Denny is the inventor – or at the very least the nucleus – of the Exotica genre. When his album Exotica was released as a mono LP in 1957, he catapulted himself and his quartet to stardom. Naturally, the ingredients of Exotica existed before, but its condensed atmosphere complete with lush vibraphones, bird cries and faux-Polynesian spirits can and must be attributed to Denny and his group. Forbidden Island from 1958 is his third album and close to my heart (but presumably not close enough, as I will tell you in a few seconds).


For one, this is the first of Denny's albums without Arthur Lyman on the vibraphones. Lyman remained a close friend, but departed anyway in order to launch a successful career with his own quartet. And secondly, while I know this album for years, there is one particular Denny composition on this album that was under my radar far too long: Exotica is the track I'm talking about, and since I've recently reviewed Don Tiki's 1997 debut The Forbidden Sounds Of Don Tiki and stumbled over the fact that their intro Exotica '97 harks back to Denny's track (instead of using fragments of Hugo Friedhofer's Vera Cruz, as Lloyd Kandell of Don Tiki himself clarified), I was ginomously surprised to find this very composition on an LP of which I thought that I knew it well.


There's still enough time for improvements, hence my review of Forbidden Island which consists of several unique compositions by Martin Denny as well as interpretations of two Les Baxter tracks plus various tropical blends of other classics. In 1958, the Martin Denny group consisted of percussionist August "Augie" Colón who was world-famous for his bird calls that became yet another inspiring peculiarity of the genre, mallet instrument afficionado Julius Wechter who replaced Arthur Lyman, bassist Harvey Ragsdale and naturally Denny himself as the song writer and pianist. Since the album artwork and the title already suggest an exhilarant jungle setting on a forlorn tropical island, let's see whether the 12 tracks maintain the lush aura of a mystical place in the Golden Age of Exotica.

A 3-minute long Denny original called Cobra is the surprisingly stern and serious entry point to the Forbidden Island. Exotic gongs, shaken maracas, flittering wind chimes and the curious and totally unexpected addition of orientally flavored bagpipes played by guest musician Will Brady exchange the primarily faux-Polynesian style of Denny's previous albums with a stark Middle Eastern feeling. The reduced usage of blurry bongos are further suggestions of a broader approach in regard to the Exotica topic. Both the mood and the bagpipes as the main instrument are hints of a complete change of style. The joyfulness is missing, the tropical flavor is imperceptible. This is one of Denny's most ambitious compositions and remains in everyone's head. It‘s Exotica music, but Easy Listening it is not.


If you are longing for Denny's paradisiacal themes, this LP will be worth your while nonetheless, for the following Port Au Prince, an interpretation of a Les Baxter composition, returns to lush, green territories. Sparkling xylophones are merged with galloping rattles, and the overall focus on percussion and interesting rhythmic devices such as an incessantly repeated whistle make this the most jazzy track on the whole album. Wechter is fully employed by this track, so to speak, coping easily with its quick pace.


The next track is called Exotica, and as I've mentioned in the first paragraph, it is an original Denny piece that inherits his trademark sound: a laid back piano melody is enhanced by Colón's realistic bird calls and his gentle bongos as well as by the glinting chimes and xylophone sprinkles. The refrain consists of polyphonous vibraphone sections that evoke that certain Exotica feeling. If you want a more piano-driven version of this song, listen to Don Tiki's Exotica '97 which they recorded with Denny himself a mere 39 years later! Even though both versions are glaringly similar when they're played back to back, I couldn't for my life figure out their similarities without Lloyd Kandell's pointer into the right direction.

A version of Dave Snell's Little China Doll adds a Far Eastern mystique and consists of a marimba-vibraphone-piano trio whose main melody contains several typical Chinese keys. The glowing xylophones and ubiquitous wind chimes bring fragility and a pristine clarity to the ears of the listener. A Chinese gong marks the end of this tune that is divided between mystique and deliberate childishness.


With the inclusion of Bali Ha'i off Richard Rodgers' and Oscar Hammerstein II's 1949 musical South Pacfific, Denny picks up a – then-recent – trend, for this signature tune was a highly sought after piece of relaxation for many contemporary listeners in Jazz clubs and Tiki restaurants. Will Brady plays the vibrant alto flute bursts, while the track reaches its highpoint quite soon with exuberantly euphonious piano chords and clanging hi hats. Afterwards, the song perfectly resembles the softer songs of Arthur Lyman with easy-going vibraphone tercets and quiet bird sounds. Narcissus Queen by Robert Alexander Anderson rounds off side A with boldly Japanese sounds and a jumpy performance full of hectic beats. A highlight is Bud Lee's shamisen, a banjo-like instrument that accompanies Wechter's staccato marimbas and remains in the background. Additional xylophones and the use of several temple gongs are the remaining instruments that swirl around the shamisen.

Julius Wechter comes up with his own song on this release. It's called Goony Birds, and the introductory dialogue between the bongos and a screeching bird marks the beginning of the most playful and ridiculous ditty with cascading marimbas, cheerful pianos and an overall cartoon-like atmosphere. The second half of the track adds a short intersection of mystery and tension before the track moves back to funny sprinkles. I'm no fan of staccato-driven music, and I consider this the weakest track of the album. They really did it for the kids, I believe, so I will shut up. Les Baxter's Sim Sim is all the better, though, especially in the version delivered by the group. A bossa nova groove with claves, gorgeous Polynesian flute tones and a great unison of piano melodies and vibraphone parts make this a successful track with a glimpse of a Latin feeling. The bongo groove is especially placid, and the second half of the track turns the tempo up for a short time and features hectical percussion and a flute melody in the background. This is a similarly playful track that reminds of Goony Birds, but it's not as childish, so I won't complain.


Martin Denny's classic Primitiva can be heard for the first time here, and the eclectic percussion is as important a part as the beautiful mallet instrument sections and the piano. Especially noteworthy is the sustain of the vibraphone – it fades out vibrantly and oscillates vividly between different keys. A gorgeous ditty! While Richard Rodgers' March Of The Siamese Children surprises with a long percussive intro and a military march rhythm, Dai Keong Lee's Sukara is a fantastic Far Eastern piece that is surprisingly dark, bringing to mind the gloomier undertones of Cobra. Here, however, the darkness is softer and more mysterious. The shamisen plays once again in the background, and after almost two minutes, the beat is completely overhauled, now consisting of jazzy double bass slaps marimba droplets. Pitch-perfect and another favorite of mine. The final title-giving track Forbidden Island, however, is the very best Denny original on this album. The alto flute mimics a ship horn, and the xylophones/vibraphones sparkle energetically. The tropical flavor is tremendously bold, the melody is laid back and the mallet instruments are cascading downwards, resembling the organic flow of a waterfall in the tropics. Highly addictive, and a perfect closer!

Martin Denny's third album delivers more tropical sounds and perfectly cozy melodies that remain always simple enough to be easily digested – his success continued without Arthur Lyman, as you can clearly see for yourself. However, as is the case with Paul Conrad's similarly themed album Exotic Paradise, Denny allows slightly darker tones to enter his music. As usual, this gloominess that is only perceptible in Cobra and Sukara doesn't make Forbidden Island an apocalyptic album! But it's always surprising how broad the mood-related range in Exotica music can be. After all, we're talking about an Easy Listening album here, right? Denny's album is tropical by nature, though not reduced to Polynesian flavors.


The Orient and especially the Far East are as important as the green vistas of the tropics that are aurally painted by the group and their collaborators. If you are looking for specific exotic instruments, Cobra's bagpipes are as huge a surprise as they are eerie, but the shamisen parts in Narcissus Queen and Sukara are reduced and remain in the background. Every other instrument has been heard on Exotica records before, but the artful integration of unique compositions with material by other composers is successful.


Although the style oscillates between dreamily Polynesian, mystical Japanese and childishly comical melodies, Martin Denny delivers good tunes on the album, especially his original tunes Primitiva, Exotica and Forbidden Island as well as his versions of Sukara and Bali Ha'i are favorites of mine – and now that I recognize his tune Exotica and can link it appropriately to Don Tiki's debut album, I like it even more! As an album, Forbidden Island is probably disappointing, for the style varies too much and isn't consistent enough for this coherent art form. But the songs themselves are worth it and fit perfectly in themed playlists of all kinds. Recommended to every Exotica listener, but especially to those who dig mallet instruments and gongs.


Exotica Review 052: Martin Denny – Forbidden Island (1958). Originally published on Mar. 31, 2012 at