Martin Denny


(Mono Version)






This review of Martin Denny's mono version of Exotica, recorded in December 1956 in Hollywood and released in 1957 on Liberty Records, is the counterpart to my hundredth Ambient review. As I've stated there, I don't believe in numbers, but the hundredth review is, well, a great opportunity for something special. Even though everything has been written and analyzed about Exotica, I am nonetheless trying to express my feelings for this release. If you know it by heart, skip to the last paragraph, as there might be a surprising conclusion in terms of the album's attraction. Basically, I consider it both an important aesthetic and genre-establishing work of art, but it's not for everyone … not yet, not all the time (enter mystery chime here). The album comprises some of the material that was played live at the time by the Martin Denny Group.


Featuring of Denny on the piano, Arthur Lyman on the mallet instruments – but only on the monaural version of Exotica –, Augie Colón as percussionist and birdcaller par excellence, and John Kramer on the double bass, this is basically the archetypical quartet setup taken from the world of Jazz. A stereo version was recorded in 1958, with Julius Wechter replacing Arthur Lyman, but in general, fans seem to prefer the original mono release. The four musicians come up with twelve renditions of jazzy and orchestral classics as well as with some truly exotic cuts. I'm usually a bit wary about albums that are full of renditions, but I fully embrace them here, for they make up the most important ingredient of the band's formula: coming up with well-known material and blending it with exotic instruments, vivid animal noises and phantasmagoric sweeps and chords by traditional instruments known all over the world. And it is a joy to see classic material receiving the Denny treatment. In hindsight, the attraction of this album is crystal clear, for it really delivered new ideas and an elaborated way of creating exotic music.


Take the five Les Baxter compositions that are featured on Exotica: while the composer came up with pre-Exotica skits in 1950 already, he relied mainly on orchestra setups with strings, bells, pianos and the occasional field recording. This pompous scope is much reduced by Denny, and Baxter's arrangements become more intimate, lush and even vivid. And let's not forget compositions that are literally ancient in the history of Pop, Queen Liliʻuokalani's draft of Aloha Oe in the 1870's (!), or many a Latin song of the 1930's. So Denny clearly wasn't the first artist ever to create exotic music, but he and his band did so in an efficient way that was specifically marketed as Exotica. Read on for an in-depth analysis and the occasional flaws that are to be found, even in such an utterly important record as Exotica


Quiet Village is the gateway to both this album and the realms of the genre. Originally written and conducted by maestro Les Baxter in 1952, Denny and his men deliver a fantastic rendition. I wonder if the rank of Quiet Village as the Exotica hymn originated to great extent from its prominent placement as the opener on this album. Whatever the reasons may be, Denny’s take launches with field recordings of frogs, the very same animals that tended to croak along unceasingly to the band’s performances at the Shell Bar in the Hawaiian Village, as told many times by the band leader. Dark piano backings and the brightly-lit main melody on the same instrument are much more intimate and even silkier than Baxter’s original. The animal noises and bird calls by Colón are pitch-perfect and very vivid.


This very tune was the first time that many people from all over the world heard animal noises on a popular record, I always have to keep this in mind in order to do this version justice. The gentle maracas and dynamic cymbals as well as Kramer’s indiscernible double bass underline this version flawlessly, and it is after several minutes that Lyman joins with his glinting vibes and rounds his performance off with an outro on the xylophone. What can I say other than that the transformation from a pompous Hollywood string-laden grandiosity to a modestly enchanted tropical theme of snugness and coziness works marvelously. Many people still enjoy this masterful interpretation of Quiet Village, with many more to follow.


Return To Paradise follows next. Co-written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, their version is heavy on the string side – but then again, every composition was before the birth of the Exotica genre – and relies on romantic kitsch. Denny turns things around without making fun of the majestic motif; in fact, this might well be the least exotic skit on Exotica. His version starts with Lyman’s liquedous vibe washes that tuck the listener in, a grandiloquently played main melody on the piano retaining the solemnity of the original, and several wind chimes and cymbals to boost the liveliness. Ending Return To Paradise with a Chinese gong, an instrument on the brink of being clichéd, the band moves to Hoagy Carmichael’s Hong Kong Blues. The signature element on this song is the shamisen, a Japanese banjo, that is coupled with jumpy xylophones. The tonality is boldly Far Eastern, and the typical keys and chords float through the whole song. It’s a vivaciously upbeat arrangement that is embedded in an eerie intro and outro, namely the second use of a Chinese gong.


Busy Port by Les Baxter is next, and it is an especially smooth version with mellow piano melodies, a mellifluous sustain of the vibes and surprisingly soothing and mild maracas. While this is a bustling and rapid-firing piece as the band demonstrates in the second half with burning bongos and staccato piano stabs, Denny and band venture into short areas of mystique, but these shimmering alcoves aren’t carved out prominently enough to deny their version the attribute of being jaunty and sunny. Interestingly enough, Arthur Lyman returned to this song on his album Bahia in 1959 and turns things up a notch or two, delivering a vigorous version that outshines every delivery I’ve heard of Busy Port.


The following song is very close to my heart, as it is a take on Cyril Scott’s Lotus Land. Being one of my essential Exotica tunes that I keep coming back to time and again, regardless of the artist or mood, it is thanks to the Martin Denny Group that this solemn composition was reincarnated regularly. This version isn’t even in my Top 3 list of my favorite takes on Lotus Land, but it’s very good nonetheless, with lots of temple gongs, cymbals and sparkling instruments such as triangle and wind chimes. What I particularly like here are the blurry spirals of vibraphone and piano tone sequences that mesh with each other dreamily and thus create a sumptuous lushness that is seldom heard. Curiously enough, the main melody – played by Denny on the piano – isn’t even featured decisively. If I did only know Martin Denny’s version of Cyril Scott’s piece, I couldn’t pinpoint the melody exactly. But that’s the advantage of this version, as it creates an unfocused haze of dulcet Exotica.


Up next is Similau, a song written by Arden Clar and Harry Coleman, but made real famous in the two-minutes version of Denny. A screaming Colón, glaring-red dusky piano chords and a rhythmic shift with frantic shakers and ticking wood sticks accompany the ten-note piano theme which is strangely melancholic and yet mercurial. The same can be said about Baxter’s Stone God which is presented in a cheeky version here. It is also the quickest tune of the album with clinging mallet instruments, cow bells and a gorgeously golden aura of the piano chords. The rhythm is changing in the middle to 6/8 time, and the delicious vibraphone glitz of Arthur Lyman sounds unsuspectedly deep and vibrant. Stone God has established a tradition, for every exotic record of the 50’s by Martin Denny features exactly one highly eclectic, comical and quirky composition which is upbeat, funny and gleeful. These are the ones I usually tend to avoid, but the colorful piano chords let me come back to Stone God quite often. I consider it a successful entry of the above category.


Jungle Flower is another Baxter composition, and one of my strong favorites. The interpretation found on the mono release of Exotica is the best you can find, you have my word! The band does the solemnity of the original justice as the listener submerges into glittering chimes, a terrific vibraphone-piano coupling and an absolutely mind-blowing outro phase of 50 seconds where all instruments are intertwined in the most celestial way. No distinctive melodies are recognizable, all band members create a primeval soup of arcane noises that wash enigmatically over the listener. This comforting sound carpet of balmy ambience is absolutely languorous and makes Jungle Flower my favorite downbeat Baxter song on this album. I know that there are probably more listeners out there who favor the dynamic, thunderous flavors of the genre, but this little ditty has captured my heart.


While China Nights by Shino No Yoru is a wonderful Far Eastern take with – yep, you’ve guessed it – Chinese gongs, the return of the shamisen, the incessant backing glitters of chimes and a sufficient Chinese tonality of Denny’s piano that is coupled with Lyman’s vibraphone, Gil Baumgart’s Ah Me Furi keeps this flavor going when the band relaxes a bit in this downbeat song with less hectic melodies. A galloping beat, vibraphone droplets of mystique and the occasional eruption of a cymbal are used to depict the scenery of foreign lands. Waipio by Francis Brown, on the other hand, is in close vicinity to the Shell Bar and is yet again one of my very favorite dreamy Exotica pieces. Launching with a faux-field recording of ocean waves, it is Arthur Lyman who shines on this song. The long sustain of his gently played vibraphone notes quaver, vibrate and merge with coruscating cascades of glockenspiels. It is a superb version, and the name of this website really describes it best: it’s Ambient Exotica without detracting percussion – even Denny’s piano is mute; it's the only instance where this is the case on this album.


It is, however, boldly perceptible on the closing track called Love Dance, the last take on material of Les Baxter. It sounds rather intimidating and nasty due to its dark chords, but the iridescent vibraphone sparks and Colón’s true-to-life birdcalls make this a shimmering version of brightness that is glaringly similar to Busy Port and even shares more than a few note sequences with it. As the instruments are often times reduced and remain in the background for some time, this is also one of the songs where John Kramer’s double bass adds a great amount of plasticity and depth to the song. To be honest, I would have changed the running order of Waipio with Love Dance, as Waipio would have been the perfect closer, but this is a minor quibble which, sadly enough, is made several decades too late anyway.


Exotica lacks the coherence I so desire and worship in terms of the album format, but this time, I can fully embrace the stylistic variety, the shedloads of renditions and various ingredients; not because this is the exotic debut of the almighty Martin Denny, but because this album is the cornerstone and hallmark of the Exotica genre, and such being the case and due to its title, the band needs to embrace certain aesthetic and artistic values while negating others: the importance of presenting established material in an inventive way and letting it shine in new splendor on the one hand, and exotic instruments, birdcalls plus the interplay of the group on the other hand are most important. Unique compositions are only of secondary interest, and this is a phenomenon that is strongly adaptable on the vast majority of Exotica releases during the halcyon days. And thus, the highlights are scattered in-between a variety of nice, but non-essential material.


True gems include Quiet Village, Jungle Flower and Waipio, but thankfully there is no real dud on this album. Considering the scope that it has, the trends it has set and the followers it gained, Exotica can also be described as positively underwhelming! Whatever you expect from this release when you listen to it for the first time, the band's laid back approach and the usually blurry and less punchy melodies – Lotus Land being the prime example – create a fascinating flow. It's not that you're listening to a jam session or an improvised setting, no, the band really has a plan and plays the material that they're known for in Honolulu, but they do so in a welcome understatement, letting the sounds of the instruments impress the listener rather than the less clear-cut melodies.


Exotica is essential for every collector, but even people who are generally fond of the genre must check this out. In a somehow controversial twist of the above statement, I don't consider Exotica as a perfect point of departure for new listeners, though. That's because it is rather jazzy and quite a bit jumpy at times. There are many vintage releases out there that are way more melodious, or if you prefer a sarcastic snark, streamlined and whitewashed. However, once you got to know a few of the original versions or takes of other artists on them, Exotica suddenly unfolds its enchanting magic and becomes way more interesting if you connect it to other works rather than seeing it as just the first proper entry of the genre. The mono version with Arthur Lyman on the mallet instruments is a must-have anyway, while the stereo version, scheduled for a later review by me, is a nice bonus and interesting for contrastive reasons alone. If you wanted to own only one mono record in your collection, let it be Martin Denny's Exotica! Blow it up with a Pro Logic II decoder if you so desire, throw your audiophile rituals over board if you will, it stands the test of time anyway. 


Exotica Review 100: Martin Denny – Exotica (1957). Originally published on Aug. 4, 2012 at