Jasmine & Jade
After the success of Axel Stordahl's (1913–1963) bluetifully phantasmagoric album Lure Of The Blue Mediterranean that harks back on a – back then three year old – concept first brought to fruition by John Scott Trotter in his 1956 release Escape To The Magic Mediterranean, the good people at Dot Records reached an agreement with Stordahl whose albums under his own name were usually released on Decca Records. This time, the color green is all over the compositions, as they depict resplendent thickets of tropical jungles, palm beaches at moonlight and sunny mountainsides: Jasmine & Jade is released in 1960 and is another lush string-focused symphonic offering of twelve takes, the majority of them colorful standards of the Exotica genre, with two compositions co-written by Stordahl himself and a few rarities gently thrown in. Being a trumpeter himself, the American composer with Norse roots tries to mediate between the technicolored violins, gleaming horns, glinting vibraphones and mildly exotic percussion sections, the latter of which are definitely perceptible, but not the main attraction on this release. There are no birdcalls or other overly tropical ingredients to be found, and yet can the style of the album be denominated as exotic: a lot of the material comprises of Far Eastern tone sequences, and the emerald-green front artwork with the friendly toucan is mirrored in the music itself – without the birdcalls, alas – thanks to the lush greenery of rich strings which can be found in each and every composition. Jasmine & Jade is not without its flaws, so if you want to know more about them or whether you should even care about their existence, just read on.
Jasmine & Jade launches with Moonlight On The Ganges, a Far Eastern-flavored orchestra piece written by Chester Wallace and Sherman Myers. Stordahl's take begins with a wonderfully Oriental trumpet melody that mimics the tonal nature of a shawm, followed by pompously dark staccato brass sections and a distinctively Chinese seven-note motif played on flutes, horns and strings. Spiraling glockenspiel particles and temple gongs provide a vivid setting, but it is when the luxurious Hollywood strings appear that this rendition moves into languorous realms. Xylophone droplets, clinging tambourins, surprisingly jazzy double bass accompaniments as well as two rhythmic shifts cause a conviviality and playful grace that is absolutely mind-blowing in the given context. The Chinese kitsch may be all too wryly, but the string counterparts provide a balance that lets this take oscillate between East and West in great style. A superb track and one of Stordahl's very best interpretations. The following Baubles, Bangles And Beads off the 1953 musical Kismet by Robert Wright and George Forrest is next, and an often heard Exotica piece. The interpretation of Stordahl is much closer to its symphonic origin, with quavering strings of saccharine proportions and cascading harps creating a blurry reverie in tandem right from the start. Chimes and triangles add sparkles to the setting, and the almost spy theme-like double bass melody adds a lot of mystique in juxtaposition to the enigmatic alto flute washes and vibraphone glints. But once the trumpet-accompanied strings come back full force, the track morphs in a similar way as Moonlight On The Ganges did before it; shuttling between mystique and big band-influenced romance, Baubles, Bangles And Beads succeeds in delivering a rose-tinted aura that is not too sweet. Up next is The Moon Of Manakoora, and Stordahl manages to take a stand against the multitude of interpretations of this composition by Alfred Newman, for he decides to rev up the string prowess to the maximum! Starting with multicolored crescendoing string eruptions that return time and again in the chorus, the bridges and verses consist of less and quieter string layers, but provide glockenspiel glitz and mellow brass sections. The strings really hit in this version and are the signature ingredient. It's one of my favorite orchestral versions of The Moon Of Manakoora that retains the humble intimacy of the original despite the bursts and voluminousness in the chorus.
No room for interpretations is left in Richard A. Whiting's Japanese Sandman of 1920. It's a vivid piece with an expected Japanese tonality due to cleverly placed xylophone chords, bamboo rod clicks and vivacious flutes and brass interactions. However, Stordahl's take does nothing for me, although it is not his fault per se, as the jumpy nature of this tune is simply not my kind of obsession. I am by no means a grave or fierce Exotica listener, oh no, but the ridiculing jumpiness kills the aura of this tune for me. The following Neiani is a gem though, and was co-written by Stordahl and Melvin James Oliver in 1941 already. Performed by Frank Sinatra time and again, the orchestral instrumental presented on Jasmine & Jade relies on the silky brass streams and mellifluous flute polyphony which are already found in the Sinatra pieces, but adds sparkling wind chimes and traces of bamboo rods in the background. Still, Neiani is not known as an Exotica track, and the few scattered molecules d'exotique are not enough to morph this composition into something it never was in the first place. Things are different in case of the Exotica hallmark Caravan, though. Stordahl changes a few notes of the shawm-like trumpet melody and embeds it in-between violin strings that tower in higher regions and rounds them off with bongo-driven grooves. Sunset-evoking one-note brass bursts and equally short harp scents are nice accentuations of this otherwise string-heavy piece. The chorus merges big band brass textures with the strings, but it is the mysteriously floating flute streams and their jumpy brethren that function as elements of conviviality in this Oriental hit. Stordahl's version isn't particularly innovative to my mind, but the rhythmic changes and the lavish arrangement continue the green style of the album nicely, as the bongos do indeed add a glimpse of a jungle atmosphere to this desert-depicting track.
Side B starts with the titular Jasmine And Jade which is another composition by Stordahl that was co-written with Henry Beau. It is famous around Exotica circles for being the very last offering of the Gene Rains Group that place this tune in the last spot of their 1962 fan favorite Rains In The Tropics. Stordahl's original is based on a swinging rhythm with a multitude of horns, vibraphone sparkles, vibrant bamboo rods and smooth flutes. At times, the reverb of the vibraphone adds a dreaminess to the song that is absolutely stunning, but it can never fend off the blithesome power of the gleaming brass instruments. In my opinion, this composition could have worked better if the brass sections were reduced in order to make room for paradisiac flutes or percussive ornaments. That the title track is one of the weaker and less exotic compositions is admittedly a curious remark, but this assertion comes many decades late. However, I'm tucked in by the next classic: Bali Ha'i is statistically reviewed every other week at AmbientExotica, so I'm well used to its grandeur. And Stordahl delivers big time. The feeling is nocturnal due to the soothing flutes, the streamlined horns and the most beautiful downspiraling vibraphone cascades on the whole album! Additional wind chimes add an illuminating plasticity that is all the more important in the context of the great amount of strings. The final flute section shimmers especially vividly and leads to the playful On A Little Side Street In Singapore by Billy Hill and Peter DeRose with its Far Eastern four-note flute sparks, triangle glitters and warm brass textures. However, the song works best when the brass is mute, and fortunately, this is often the case, as the entanglement between the flutes, glockenspiels and gongs works better without any big band allusions in my opinion.
While one of my favorite Exotica skits of all time, Ted Grouya's Flamingo, is set in a paradisiacal jungle décor by Stordahl thanks to the rattling shakers, wonderful harp additions, exhilarative flute sprinkles plus the beautiful interdependence between the trumpet and a huge amount of strings on top of a jazzy double bass-driven rhythm, Arthur Freed's and Nacio Herb Brown's Pagan Love Song enhances the Far Eastern-flavored Exotica feeling further due to the prominent inclusion of claves, the meandering violins which play clichéd Chinese tone sequences and the sunset staccato of the brass instruments. The song presents a big band segue that floats into a jazzy vibraphone-heavy section and is rounded off by the pompousness of many harp and violin washes. A huge track and one of my favorites. The final track is also close to my heart, as it is a mighty fine rendition of Cyril Scott's magnificent hymn Lotus Land, a song which lures me several times a week and which is thankfully well established in the Exotica scene, so that it is easy for me to pick a version that suits my mood. The endeavor by Axel Stordahl is very good, especially in the context of Jasmine & Jade's intrinsic style: he paints a fantastic superstructure of a jungle vista that is utterly stupendous. Clinging tambourins accompany the silkened alto flute that plays the main melody. Violins then take over and are accompanied by glockenspiels, smooth brass accentuations and tremendously lush and dreamy harp rivers that gurgle, float and rinse through this section which is way too short. However, Stordahl takes his time to present a bridge of wafting whirrs of strings, flutes and harps that leads to the final phase of a cozy sound carpet which continues the balmy opulence of the string instruments. A wonderful orchestral version which is close to my heart. Jasmine & Jade ends on a fantastic note.
Axel Stordahl delivers a wonderful second Exotica album after his Mediterranean-exotic hybrid of 1959. The aura of the jungle is successfully established and maintained most of the time. If have my problems with the brass sections, of which there are one too many in my opinion, but since Stordahl was a trumpeter and due to the horns being embedded wonderfully in-between the string layers most of the time, my complaints aren't too hard-hitting. And I have to admit that my little quibbles might not be a problem to you at all if you're keen on the inclusion of brazen trumpets anyway. It's just that they destroy the jungle aura or lead too far away from the exotic coziness that is constructed by the flute tones, vibraphone glints and sumptuous violin washes – a problem which is incidentally also noticeable on Les Baxter's Jungle Jazz LP from 1959. The album has more strong sides than weak ones, that's for sure. Especially the string of nocturnal tracks at the beginning is a wonderful stylistic particularity: Moonlight On The Ganges, Baubles, Bangles And Beads as well as The Moon Of Manakoora altogether depict wonderful Far Eastern stereotypes that are tastefully integrated into string-heavy arrangements. The middle section of the album is a bit too diverse, jumpy and less exotic than necessary, so to speak, before the final interpretations are on the right path once again, providing another triplet of dreaminess: Flamingo, Pagan Love Song and Lotus Land merge the orchestral majesty with quieter intimate phases. Adding all these tracks up, I have already six supersongs out of twelve. And the remaining ones are worth it as well, though they stand in the shadows of these six giants, at least that's how I perceive it. Since Axel Stordahl's Jasmine & Jade reached the shores of most digital music stores during Summer 2011, I'm all the more glad that this gem isn't hidden from the public anymore. If you are fond of the orchestral spectrum of Exotica that still retains quieter sections with exotic percussion and mallet instruments, make this album yours. Even the original emerald-green artwork is still in place. So there, get it!
Exotica Review 127: Axel Stordahl – Jasmine & Jade (1960). Originally published on Sep. 29, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.