Martin Denny
Exotica Volume II






Roman numerals in album titles always leave a stale aftertaste, there's no doubt about that. It's a clear sign of the bad kind of clever marketing, thought out by shady record label buffs who want to build on the success of an artist and keep on targeting the same group of people who bought a specific release, but weren't all too interested in a certain artist in the first place. These people must know that there's something new that builds on the well-known fundament.


It so happens that Martin Denny's second Exotica LP, released in July 1957 on Liberty Records literally a few weeks after Exotica, is thus named Exotica Volume II. I can actually relate to its title, for the Exotica craze was running smoothly, with millions of North American people buying tiki torches, related mugs, pink plastic flamingos and bamboo curtains, the latter of which replaced those impractical things we call doors. And sure enough did these people want the proper aural ambience for this neo-primitive lifestyle, and so they bought all things tiki and Exotica.


The Martin Denny Group, consisting of pianist, marimba player and arranger Martin Denny himself, drummer Harold Chang, birdcalling percussionist August "Augie" Colón, mallet instrumentalist Julius Wechter and temporary bassist Bernard Miller, was on the rise, and so was the general interest in Far Eastern countries. The band therefore injects high doses of Asian tone sequences, gongs and clichés to a lot of their songs, but remains in faux-Polynesian waters and Hapa Haole territories otherwise. Despite the naming convention – which was even "topped" with an installment called Exotica Volume III in 1959 –, the album is actually another great return to the formula, and since this very formula wasn't fully carved out yet, Exotica Volume II paints 12 exciting panoramas of lushness and dreaminess, with the occasional interwoven unique track written by Denny and Wechter (the latter being unmentioned in the writing credits). 

A rendition of Gil Baumgart's Soshu Night Serenade launches the album, and it's one of the greatest openers Denny and his band mates have ever delivered. The nocturnal mystique is apparent from the get-go, with rhythmically clicking claves being juxtaposed to croaking frogs, wind gusts, clinging sea shells and alto flutes that play in deeper regions. Vibraphone sprinkles mesh with Augie Colón's birdcalls as an abyssal contrabass accentuates the piano-celesta mélange of the main melody. Once the temple gong marks the end of this tune, the ambience continues for a few seconds, quite a contrast to the material on Exotica where such birdcalls are only occasionally interwoven. But on Soshu Night Serenade, an incessant background noise is maintained, boosting the Exotica level to new heights, meshing the – then non-existent – Ambient genre with the newly built Exotica scheme. A flawless piece of dreaminess.


The following Island Of Dreams is a song that Denny co-wrote with Bob Laine. Spiraling piano chords waft in-between chirping birds and mystical vibraphone droplets, bamboo rods add resplendent hollowness to the structure, and the wave-like nature of a hazy breeze created via tremendously gently played cymbals adds another soothing soundscape that underlines the solemnity of this piece. It's a surprisingly melody-focused song, and these are indeed regularly among Denny's best tunes. Exotic percussion is neglected in favor of the depiction of an ultra-mellow reverie.


Things are revved up by the Japanese Farewell Song aka Sayonara that is closely based on Freddy Morgan's take of it. Glittering Far Eastern marimba stabs, an upbeat double bass-fueled rhumba rhythm with shattering cymbals and warm backing guitars build a lively momentum of joy, and thankfully enough does Denny keep things smooth and doesn't succumb to an overly humorous or comical spectrum. The third song in a row that succeeds with the mood it tries to achieve. You can even work out to it! While the take on Madeline Lamb's Singing Bamboo sparkles and blooms iridescently due to the glinting mallet instruments, the warm-hearted piano polyphony, the deliberately sparse percussion and Colón's theremin-like birdcalls, John Kaladana's Hapa Haole ditty The Queen Chant (E Lili Ua E) starts with melodramatic cymbal streams and morphs into a maracas-laden vibraphone friendliness that is topped by rapid-firing bongo and conga sections plus frantic double bass spirals. Charles E. King's Wedding Song (Ke Kali Ne Au) rounds off side A in a phantasmagoric fashion with owl cries, a cozy concoction of quiescent piano breezes, glockenspiel and vibraphone shards and shimmering wind chimes as well as a deliciously trembling sustain of the vibes. 

Side B opens with Jacque Ibert's Escales which glistens all the more due to its exotic transformation. The wonky cacophony of the pianos is taking over, but the alto flute melody sounds more Oriental than ever, with the ship signals and chinking tambourins adding crystalline scents of yearning to this strangely warped, yet enigmatic and quite dark offering. Denny's performance on the piano is especially noteworthy, for he really counteracts to the potentially soothing mood. This could well be the strongest song on here for many listeners who grow tired of the magnanimous lushness and jungle flavor. This is a dreamy song as well, but with the implication of a dangerous threat that lurks in the bushes. In this regard, it's a standout track, even though Martin Denny's own When I First Love relies on a similar mood. Wechter's enigmatic vibraphone notes and Denny's piano base frame in tandem with the focus on icy shakers and triangles make this a hybrid of Les Bater's Quiet Village and the Exotica classic Misirlou/Miserlou. Fans of both tracks – and you can't love either one of them without the other – rejoice for decades, and I join them.


Another Denny track, co-written with Baumgart, follows: August Bells meshes two distinctive styles, namely icy vibraphones and sizzling hot piano chords, with orchestra bells and Honky Tonk jumpiness. A rhythmic shift in the middle puts Harold Chang's beaten bongos in the spotlight, but apart from the bongos and bells, this is a lackluster track with no focus or progression; it feels rushed and indecisive. It's up to a Les Baxter composition, the wonderful Bacoa, to let the band return to form. Sunset-red saxophone melodies meet high-plasticity bongo beats whose punchiness is second to none. A multicolored vibraphone euphony finishes off a strong jungle-evoking composition that is curiously laid-back despite the golden thread of the bongos. While Robert Maxwell's Ebb Tide makes up the last dreamy arrangement with an awesome upwards flowing vibraphone mist and a majestic piano melody that is almost a pinch too melodramatic, but since it's luckily elevated by the triumvirate of marimbas, xylophones and triangles, it is exotic enough to rightfully claim the title as the last transfiguring dreamy injection of the album.


The closer Rush Hour In Hong Kong is the often-feared final track where Martin Denny and his crew tend to experiment and, dare I say it, go nuts. Originally written by Abram Chasino, this exotic interpretation is expectedly Far Eastern, with the archetypical Chinese tone sequence on the marimba, temple gongs and a nerve-racking, if also highly skillful mixture of staccato xylophone waves and cacophonous piano bursts. It's comical to the max and suitable for underlining cartoon chases or the various videos of hidden cameras that film human errors, stumbling people and the likes. Since such a downer is expected and almost traditional – Denny's The Enchanted Sea of 1959 is a noteworthy exception –, I won't be overly critical. Luckily, it's the last track and can thus be easily avoided.

Exotica Volume II is a successful addendum to the original LP that started it all back in 1957 (or even '56 when significant parts of it had been already recorded). Despite the large variety of moods and tempos – from dreamy jungles over melodramatic piano performances to Far Eastern lands –, the album is cohesive. Two things are especially noteworthy: the constant ambience and background noise in a few tracks that boost the balmy aura of the composition but never distract from the actual instrumentation, and the lessened concentration on delivering overly exotic instruments. No koto is found, nor is an especially clever percussion instrument used in the process of creation. Such being the case, Denny's second installment focuses on the euphonious interplay rather than on awe-inspiring but ultimately all too intensive Exotica effects à la Michel Magne.


Fans of the genre's dreamy spectrum are specifically targeted, as are the worshippers of Far Eastern kitsch, but it is the darker undertones allotted in many passages which offer delight to a third audience. The Exotica genre, while still in its infancy stage, got permeated by gloomier shades and therefore freed itself from the omnipresent danger of being linked to saccharine but tendentially ephemeral Easy Listening tunes. Exotica Volume II is inventive and delivers polished compositions that are vivid and compelling to this day, showing for the first time the true talent of Julius Wechter who was seldom mentioned in the credits of Martin Denny's LP's, but a more than capable replacement of Arthur Lyman. Forget about the Roman numeral skepticism, this is a must-have and readily available in various audio formats.


Exotica Review 131: Martin Denny – Exotica Volume II (1957). Originally published on Oct. 13, 2012 at