101 Strings
A Night In The Tropics






Aren’t I the cheeky guy? Dedicating Exotica Review 101 to the 101 Strings can only be the work of a genius. And there I neglected the power of numbers. But enough of the number-related co-occurrence, as it is time to review a symphonic piece by a world-famous orchestra that became a brand of its own over the years. The 101 Strings were a longterm project with an ever-changing roster of musicians and conductors.


The symphonic orchestra was directed by David L. Miller and its records were regularly released on his Somerset label. There were years when three new LP's by the 101 Strings were released in one single month, and their name soon became a well-known label that promised swinging-syrupy Easy Listening music that mostly consisted of takes on classic material, but also of unique compositions specifically written with the large orchestra in mind. Despite their name, the early recordings presented the skills of a gargantuan number of 124 string instrumentalists, all of them male with the exception of one female harpist! Since Miller couldn’t cram them into a studio, large music halls were booked. Their debut release of 1957 called A Night In The Tropics was recorded at the Musikhalle in Hamburg, Germany in October.


Conducted by Wilhelm Stephan, the orchestra plays the tiny amount of eight compositions, two of them written by Joseph Kuhn for the 101 Strings, while the remaining six consist of international hits. Even though the title promises an entertaining stream of exotic material in a nightly setting somewhere in the Tropics, the focus is clearly on the string side. Considering the name of the orchestra, this shouldn’t be seen as an audacious move. I just want to stress that you shouldn’t expect a vivaciously exotic release. However, in a welcome circumvention of the label, there is indeed a variety of instruments included on the album, some of them even featured prominently, for example pianos, flutes and horns. Since the 101 Strings released dozens over dozens of albums in a rapid fashion, there are better exotic releases among them. However, I always planned to review A Night In The Tropics anyway, for it is the debut and marks the beginning of the successful franchise. So here’s what you can expect:


La Paloma is the lush gateway to the symphonic realms of the 101 Strings. It’s an ancient piece by Pop standards, originally written by Sebastián Yradier in the 1860’s. This isn’t the very first piece the ever-changing orchestra has ever played, but it is the first track on their first album, making this a very important interpretation if you believe in music-related statistics and related side scenes. The orchestra creates an expected string-heavy rendition with auroral violin washes and darker cellos that underline the blithesome atmosphere and add plasticity to it. However, another trademark of this project becomes apparent that was especially elevated when Les Baxter was the conductor of this orchestra for a short time in 1969 when the joint release Que Mango! was prepared for a 1970 release date: even from the get-go, Wilhelm Stephan leaves room for additional instruments to shine, and sure enough does he fish out instruments that serve Latin clichés, for instance boldly clicking castanets, galloping timpani and sizzling-hot horn sections. Convivial flutes round off a take that is as fulminant as it is quaint.


Served next is a version of Frank Foster’s Lady In Lace, a somewhat curious choice as this song isn’t usually linked to the Tropics. I’m just saying this for the record, as the 101 Strings attach some tropical ornaments to this classic. Silkened maracas and mollifying harps add loftiness to the mellifluous string sweeps, and both the crescendo and the many climaxes throughout the song add a melodramatic pompousness to this formerly intimate song that works quite well. It is at times glaringly saccharine, but I do have to admit that the high points work very well due to the smashing cymbals and whirring strings. Avalita follows, and here the strings are literally towering over the other instruments as they are played in higher regions. Dusky brass sections meander in-between the staccato strings. This song misses the tropical context completely. A Latin flavor is definitely perceptible, but the huge amount of strings and their rapid-firing eruptions make this a thunderous maelstrom.


Side A closes with Samba For Sophia, a unique composition specifically written by Joseph Kuhn with a large string ensemble in mind. It is a very strong orchestral piece with cascading and spiraling violins, Latin piano sprinkles, phantasmagoric harp motifs and a gleeful aura overall. The strings are yet again bursting at the seams, but due to the golden-shimmering atmosphere, this is without a doubt the most melodious track of side A – and unique it is too.


As if conductor Wilhelm Stephan and label boss David L. Miller weren’t all too satisfied with the majority of the selected aural potpourri of side A, things really change for the better on side B, and the auspicious track titles alone make various references to the titular Night In The Tropics. The first contender of this shift is Exotic Night, again an original composition by Kuhn. The high strings are perfectly underlined by the darker cellos, and even though there are glimpses of melancholy, these are immediately crushed by enormously stupendous violin-and-brass fanfares with quavering fiddles, orchestra cymbals and mellowly floating harp strings. This song evokes an energetic happiness that hasn’t lost anything of its power over the years. If you are the least bit fond of string-heavy Exotica music – and you probably are if you’ve read until this point – and the friendlier, easier side of this spectrum, Exotic Night is a blast.


The most melodramatic song follows: Edgar Leslie’s and Fred E. Ahlert’s The Moon Was Yellow expresses both a melodramatic solemnity and an intense yearning. Its instrumental pool is furthermore strictly reduced to the use of almost spectral string instruments and cautious percussive drops. The ghostly pizazz of the strings augments the illumination of the moon in this nocturnal setting. If you’re interested in a rendition that is mediating between the dreamy part and a swinging foil, take Tak Shindo’s Far Eastern-flavored koto version into account. Fans of Frank Sinatra will rejoice due to the next track. You, My Love is next, written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Mack Gordon for the movie Young At Heart. And the 101 Strings deliver a magnificent take with the usual superstructure in form of the string washes, but it’s the curlicues that are in-between them that make this a worthwile rendition: the nine-note motif on the piano is interspersed with exhilarative and joyful flutes, and both form a rose-tinted stream of contentment and happiness with the vividly whirling strings.


The final composition is The Magic Island, actually a prelude written by William Alwyn in 1952. As such, the mood moves to majestic territories one last time, and the various rapturous waves of strings merge and mesh incessantly and create a blissful state of happiness. It’s not a strictly exotic outro, true, but it closes the first official symphonic entry of the 101 Strings in an appropriate and felicitous way.


A Night In The Tropics is first and foremost a symphonic album. Alternatively, once this impression is settled, it is an Easy Listening record with mostly happy and positively pompous renditions. And then, possibly maybe could this record be connected to the Exotica genre as a last choice of the three categorizations, and yet, there are five obvious reasons which justify just that: firstly, it was released in late 1957 when the first small wave of true Exotica records was already released. In addition to this, the topos, as depicted on the front artwork and the title, suggests a fruitful integration to the string-heavy Exotica canon. Thirdly, the album offers material that was about to be resurrected by the many trios and quartets of the time, The Moon Was Yellow being the best known example. Fourthly, Les Baxter and his Hollywood string-laden albums were already well known at the time, and the genre Exotica was only later readjusted to include them. And lastly, the scattered non-string instruments are either inheriting Latin spirits or are exotic and unusual enough to inject paradisiac creeks into the ears of the listener.


In the end, A Night In The Tropics is a symphonic record that relies much more on the strings than Les Baxter ever did. If this isn’t a problem for you, the first proper release by the 101 Strings is an interesting addition to your collection. Highlights are both of Joseph Kuhn’s compositions, Samba For Sophia and Exotic Night. If these meet your taste, the rest of side B is equally interesting. Luckily, you can cherry-pick your way through the album, as it is occasionally available on iTunes and Amazon (I’m not kidding – the album comes and goes on a regular basis) as a digital download which even includes a ninth track called The Lady And The Matador. Recommended for fans of symphonic music with glimpses of Exotica added. Normally, this includes the worshippers of the early Les Baxter, Nelson Riddle and Jackie Gleason. You won’t be disappointed, but to be honest, there isn’t much on there that will cause you to shout ecstatically either. 


Exotica Review 101: 101 Strings – A Night In The Tropics (1957). Originally published on Aug. 4, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.