First of all: trombonist and conductor Frank Hunter's White Goddess of 1959 is one of the most fascinating Exotica records ever released during the pinnacle phase of the genre. Secondly, it is also one of the rarest, most expensive items to possess. Sure enough do several LP's appear at once on eBay, but the price range is dizzying. Thirdly – and here's the good part – has this record finally been re-issued in 2008 as a digital download version on iTunes, Amazon and Co. in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary. It was a great opportunity for me to chime in, as I've never heard it before. I've never looked back since then either, as White Goddess, released on Kapp Records, sparkles and glows due to its verve, vivid aura and status as a rarity, but not in the physical sense, for I am referring to its aesthetic value, as Hunter never revisited the genre after the delivery of this sought-after piece and instead relied on lackluster Christmas singles, stale Mother's Day kitsch and lackluster Mr. Sandman renditions in the 60's and 70's. What a waste of talent! Anyway, I better stop my tirade, as I'm actually in a good mood when I get the chance to talk about White Goddess. What is so great about this album is that Hunter created it deliberately, a thing you don't hear often in the Exotica scene where record labels pressed many a conductor or producer to come up with some mix of renditions, and quickly so, in order to not miss the bandwagon. Having gained artistic independence ater his work with many vocalists and Jazz singers, among them Anita Darian and Pat Boone, Kapp Records allowed him total creative freedom, a thing only Robert Drasnin experienced during the concept phase of his Exotica classic Voodoo!, released in the same year. And like Drasnin, Hunter took this project seriously and came up with the usual 12 songs, a whopping eight of them unique compositions specifically written by Hunter for his album. The key instrument is without a doubt the so-called ondioline, an electric piano that can best be described as a hybrid between a shawm and a theremin. Thankfully, it is not used in each and every composition, thus keeping the variety intact. Without further ado, here comes the White Goddess.
Ritual Of The Torch is the auspiciously titled intro and the first of many original tracks. Launching with clinging tambourins, female chants that rise to sky-high regions later on and xylophone droplets that are glued to bamboo rods, the track morphs into a fanfare of brightness with alto flutes, a convivial trombone and a slightly increasing tempo. White Goddess as a whole is usually linked to jungle Exotica, but this song is brighter than expected, welcoming the listener to bathe in its blue-tinted aura of bliss. Even though the percussion is clearly audible, it is not convoluted at all, but almost streamlined to the point of mocking the Easy Listening scheme. The Latin classic Poinciana remains in these content territories too, but adds a wonderful scent of mystique due to the delicate sustain of the vibraphone chords, the xylophone accompaniment and the paradisiac bass flute. Gentle shakers waft around the nucleus of the main melody as if not to lessen the crystalline dreaminess of this rendition. To be honest, there is no surprise attached to Hunter's version, but since it is so perfectly focused on maintaining a balmy atmosphere of emerald colors, I won't complain at all and hail it as one of the most beautiful Exotica-related versions of Poinciana out there that underwhelm at first only to stab the listener in the back, injecting the reverie-laden atmosphere into the spine. A strange comparison I may have delivered, but I want to stress that Hunter's compositions are usually produced to the point and not overly glitzy thanks to a reduced set of instruments per song. Strange Echoes proves this point further, as Hunter's original merges the female voice with mysterious bass flutes, short clarinet bursts and xylophone drops that are connected via a thread of gently shaken maracas. It is only in the second half that these staccato sections – and all instruments but the flute are played in this way – are revved up occasionally, playing quicker than usual before calming down and reaching their original state. The signature instrument is the mosquito-esque shawm-like ondioline in the middle section that adds Space Age particles to an otherwise wonderfully enigmatic track. And it resembles the lead melody of Alfred Newman's Exotica classic The Moon Of Manakoora quite a bit, without ever fully admitting it.
Jungle Drums (Canto Karabali), originally written by Ernesto Lecuona inherits the Space Age mystery of Strange Echoes and places the ondioline in-between whitewashed alto flutes and lush xylophone accents that remind of Eden Ahbez's later work Eden's Island of 1960. The feeling is perfectly warm and cozy, the plasticity of the xylophones can't be beaten and depicts the aforementioned formula of jungle Exotica flawlessly. The weirdness of the theremin gets streamlined by "common exotic" instruments, to use an oxymoron. While Hunter's Pulse is another cozy track with the paradisiac alto flutes, blurry xylophone percussion and the return of the altered mosquito trumpet altogether playing a catchy, slightly Far Eastern eight-note melody, Lost Plateau ends side A with a great percussive interplay with lots of stops, eruptions and drops of bongos, mallet instruments and crunchy shakers. The flute melodies are much reduced, allowing a glimpse at the spectral, pre-Ghouls 'n Ghosts vibraphone sweeps in the background. This composition is absolutely stunning, as it encapsulates both a slight tension and the aural paths of a presumably isolated plateau. But something might be lurking in the thicket. Seldom did a composer depict lush gardens and entangled ivy plants so skillfully as Frank Hunter does on Lost Plateau. Believe it or not, but this is actually my favorite track of side A. It isn't dangerous or tense at all, everything is perfectly calm, and yet does the track display a certain sneakiness and enigma; something is definitely not right at this plateau, and these doubts and thoughts can all be found in this arrangement. Stunning!
White Goddess is the titular opener of side B. Bringing back the female chantress, it is a song that oscillates marvelously between the slightest glimpses of tones played in minor, but relies otherwise on snugness and shelter. Cascading xylophones, triangle sparks, melodramatic indecipherable vocals and arcane vibraphone glints make this a resplendent title track. After many listening sessions, it's still not clear to me how this song can be both mystical and joyful at the same time, but I enjoy these opposite moods very much. Since the arrangement isn't overly crowded, it feels lofty and clean, allowing a better glimpse at the interdependence of the entangled instruments. Temple Bells is the first track that mentions a sign of a higher civilization that is able to erect spiritual buildings. But instead of painting another panorama of hidden shades, Hunter delivers a gleeful, totally bright composition loaded with maracas, triangles and the most entrancing vibraphone-flute couple that I can think of. It's phantasmagoric, absolutely dreamy and enchanting, and since the melody is even hummable and polished, this is possibly the song with the most memorable hook of all the material on White Goddess. Whether it's also the best song is up to the listener. It's undoubtedly saccharine if seen in the context of the album. A fantastic composition it is regardless.
On Kurt Weil's Lost In The Stars, the joyful mood continues, although in a gentler way. Vibrating xylophone creeks and a slowly meandering but unsuspectedly complex flute melody are traversing by, all the while the maracas and bongos are carefully shaken or beaten. Despite the title, there aren't any twinkling instruments used, a curious omission that doesn't degrade the majestic grace of this tune in the slightest. Zimbah seems to shift the faux-Polynesian jungle aura to African territories with a ten-note melody played on the clarinet and xylophone and a stronger emphasis bamboo rods. The polyphony of the clarinet expands the duskiness of this tribal but laid back composition. To my mind, this is the weakest track Frank Hunter delivers, but this doesn't tell you anything, for it isn't bad at all. It's just that the formulaic scheme of the melody, the related echo and the ritualistic drums are too reduced and easy even for my liking. Mist Of Gorongoza, Hunter's final composition, is a much, much stronger track in technicolor, as the downspiraling bass flute melody, the almost inaudible shakers, the melodramatic but catchy female chants and the hollow percussion make up a potpourri of sweet melodies that seem to have bathed in sunlight, for I cannot spot any remains of mist on here. It is similarly syrupy as Temple Bells, but the better of the two tracks, so I think, because of the mellowness and less sugary tone sequences. The final song is a rendition of Esy Morales' Jungle Fantasy, and it is here that White Goddess winds things up, as it is the most jumpy tune with hectic, if smooth shakers, warbled flutes and xylophones and the atmosphere of a Latin lamento. The performance on the flute is the best ingredient, shuffling between sneakiness and a scent of madness. It's definitely not my favorite take and a weak closer overall, but what the heck, the whole album shines like a sun-lit marble anyway, nit-picking cannot destroy the atmosphere of this classic.
What a great album! And readily available, degrading its status as a hard-to-find item without killing off its collectibility entirely. Frank Hunter delivers an absolute gem of jungle Exotica where mystique and joy, downbeat and frantic sections, xylophones and flutes as well as exotic percussion and balmy shakers meet. The strangest of all instruments, the ondioline, isn't overused, thank the White Goddess, but only featured on three to four tracks. If it was included on virtually the whole material, my praise for it would have been lower, but Hunter chose wisely. Each and every composition is flawlessly arranged, and while I have my strong favorites and little duds, I have to acknowledge the focus which was put on the pool of instruments. No arrangement sounds overproduced, there are no surprising addendums or deus ex machina conclusions to be found. Everything is streamlined in a good way, and while I sometimes wish that the percussive section was more varied and a bit more savage, the maintenance of the dreaminess is actually closer to my heart than convoluted drum patterns which can be found in many other Exotica releases anyway. Frank Hunter's single trip to Exotica lands is a huge success, and I recommend it to everyone who is at least slightly interested in the Exotica genre. Neither is this a smashing orchestral record, nor an intimate quartet offering; White Goddess sits somewhere in-between both ends of the scale, its melodies are easy to grasp, the soothing mood electrifying and the compositions unpolluted and sprucely. A hammock-friendly release to dream the night or day away.
Exotica Review 113: Frank Hunter – White Goddess (1958). Originally published on Aug. 25, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.