Tommy Morgan & Warren Barker
What makes a music-related synergy particularly great? Is it the intertwining of like-minded individuals or rather the entanglement of two talented artists of two highly different genres? I don't know the definite eternal answer to these questions, but I do know that the successful one-time experiment of conductor Warren Barker (1923–2006) and harmonica mastermind Tommy Morgan (still actively playing when this review was published) provides an interesting soundscape. The harmonica is seldom used in the realms of Exotica, and if it is, it remains in the background or injects a deliberate dose of French savoir vivre in order to boost the yearning of the devoted listener who wants to bathe in memories of that recent voyage to Old Europe. But on Tropicale, released in 1958 on the Warner Bros. label, the harmonica is in the spotlight and functions as the nucleus on most of the twelve renditions of well-known material, with Warren Barker's orchestra whirling around it. Naturally, the listener is asked to show at least a small glimpse of affection for this particular instrument which is usually linked to the Prairies of cowboy movies or lonely nights on a porch somewhere in Arizona. But in an Exotica-related context, the characteristic traits of the instrument are pushed into new directions – with the help of symphonic instruments and exotic percussion. Right at this moment, I gave away the not-so-secret formula on which the success of Tropicale is built: orchestra and harmonica are equipollent devices! It so happens that there is no minute where Morgan's harmonica isn't featured, and yet do the shimmering vibraphones, hollow bongos and liquid harps play an equally important part. Another welcome particularity consists of the introductory phases of each track. They are among the best of the whole genre, either utterly dreamy and shiny or at times even spacey and gelid; as it is common with such lead-ins, they're way too short. But luckily, the actual compositions are altogether great as well.
The LP launches with Ary Barroso's Baía (or Bahia, as it is otherwise known). Since it is a true Exotica classic of which I'm generally very fond, I can think of – and differentiate between – dozens of renditions, and I firmly place Morgan's and Barker's take in the upper regions. The polyphonous marimba stabs work really well, as do the gently wafting trombones and clarinets in the background. The main melody is naturally played on the harmonica by Morgan, and though both the permanent jaw harp-resembling wah-wah effect and the rise and fall of its legato can be considered nerve-racking by some listeners, its deeper, theremin-resembling trait is second to none, making this a standout rendition just for this case alone. And besides, if you don't like Tommy Morgan's signature instrument, his style of playing or him being at the front of the mix, you've got yourself the wrong album anyway, even if you are a truthful Warren Barker fan. Topping Baía off with spiraling harps, reverberated bongo beats and snazzy guiros, Richard Rodgers' and Oscar Hammerstein II's similarly titled Bali Ha'i launches with a sunset-red aura thanks to the flute-brass concoction, an acoustic guitar backing as well as the piercing harmonica. This very concoction is especially worth mentioning, as it is almost spectral in nature, very silky and streamlined. But after around two minutes, the duo ventures into stormy regions for a few seconds, with a warbled tremoling harmonica tone, followed by orchestra cymbals and timpani that let this phase fade out; Tommy Morgan plays sizzling-hot tones before the sunset turns into night at The Beach, an absolutely stunning Far Eastern ballad with spiraling flute sections, accentuating violin strings, harp drops, vibraphone glints and, as usual, Morgan's harmonica upfront. What makes this piece so great is the quiescent tranquility, the perfectly calm approach. No percussion is apparent, the mood is entirely dreamy. Since the orchestra shares the spotlight with the harmonica, the arrangement succeeds big time and is only a little bit syrupy due to its romantic approach. But anyway, it's a strong tune.
The next song I know all the better, as it is another grand Exotica theme: Beyond The Reef by Jack Pitman was written in Hawaii in 1948, and as such has the clichéd but equally wondrous aura all over it. Warren Barker captures it flawlessly with ever-spiraling harp-mimicking pianos, warped ukulele twangs and a much reduced piercing factor of the harmonica. Real harp veils and soft brass accompaniments further improve the arrangement which is topped off by a typical Hawaiian ukulele lick. Arthur Lyman's rendition is still dreamier, but seriously, Barker & Morgan aren't too far off! Moving forward to 1953 when Ebb Tide was written by Carl Sigman and Robert Maxwell, the launch phase is again unbelievably dreamy with a fresh sun-lit breeze of harps, vibes and orchestra strings, and all in all highly gentle again. The main melody is this time played by both the harmonica and rose-tinted, literally phantasmagoric Hollywood strings which Barker is able to unleash on most of his releases; thankfully he finally injects them here for the first time on Tropicale. A take on Ned Washington's and Dimitri Tiomkin's The High And The Mighty finishes side A in an almost hybrid way, oscillating between the rural, rustic imagery of the harmonica which is used to great intimate effect, followed by string-focused sections where the harmonica is muted. It is the density and mellowness of these sections that form resplendent counterparts of the evoked lonesomeness of the quieter passages. It's the least exotic piece off side A and resides more in the tonal regions of France, but that's no big deal and a welcome contribution indeed, harking back to the album title which can be read aloud in a French accent anyway.
Side B starts with a blast, as it is time for one of those obvious inclusions on every fourth Exotica record, at least statistically. The Greek folk dance-inspired Misirlou is running, with a guitar-fueled bongo groove reminiscent of the Herb Alpert Group, but much more intimidating and faux-serious thanks to the trembling harmonica legato, the delicately deep alto flute and the Oriental mirage created by the violin strings. Despite the majestic panorama, Barker never arranges this piece in an overly luxurious way; the percussive skeleton of the composition with its bongos and tambourins is incessantly visible and never swallowed by the other instruments. Plus the harmonica makes it a memorable take. Alfred Newman's The Moon Of Manakoora is the next huge hit on the agenda, and yes, the nocturnal setting and the harmonica fit well together. It's a less orchestral piece, with only a few languorous harp twangs, icy alto flutes and warmer bass flutes attached, but otherwise, the song is full of alcoves of emptiness and shadows through which the reverb of the instruments resonates.
While Offshore continues in the dreamy veins of Manakoora which are spiced with jumpy paradisiac flutes, mystically glinting vibes, the boldest injection of horns and a positively weird Space-Age performance on the harmonica, the rendition of Nat Simon's world hit Poinciana of 1936 revs up the exotic percussion à la Misirlou and meshes it with sky-high harmonica tunes, utterly warm acoustic guitar backings and a tad too kitschy-effervescent flutes. The penultimate Ruby is actually the theme of the movie Ruby Gentry from 1952 and pushes the string orchestra to the maximum, with the added Balearic guitar, the moon-lit vibraphone twinkles and Morgan's quavering harmonica being in harmonious unison, but it is the final Taboo, originally written by Margarita Lecuona, that begins with an alien invasion-insinuating outburst of cacophony: dissonant harmonica tones clash with the most gentle vibraphone glints, an awe-inspiring punchy bongo, short acoustic guitar interjections and a rather upbeat, quickly paced rhythm, with an accentuating clarinet thrown in for good measure. It's a noteworthy rendition of this classic that shuttles between the red-colored evening scenery as found in Portuguese Tangos, the nightly mist as created by the vibraphones and a Brazilian jungle landscape full of bongos. It's the strangest version on the album. Or let's change one letter: it's the strongest!
Although my following remark might seem quirky in regard to the Exotica genre, Tropicale doesn't make any hostages: you either love the interplay between Warren Barker's orchestra and Tommy Morgan's performance on the harmonica, or else! Since the harmonica is the clear-cut signature instrument and is thus found on every song, you cannot escape it. And you probably don't want to: fans of Milt Raskin's Kapu (1959) as well as listeners accustomed to clichéd French tone sequences will get the most out of this classic, and those who don't will receive my consolation and deep understanding, for I am myself not overly fond of the harmonica. This one-time experiment does work however, as Morgan's harmonica might be in the spotlight on ten out of twelve compositions, but neither carries nor perturbs a whole arrangement. The orchestral parts are as important, and Warren Barker is indeed no stranger to Exotica fans, although his subsequent genre-related albums, among them the almighty A Musical Touch Of Far Away Places (1959) which he co-created with Hollywood star and true Exotica devotee William Holden, as well as the original soundtrack to the famous crime series Hawaiian Eye (1960), are even more exotic and symphonic. There's no real dud to be found on Tropicale, which has actually a lot of winners: Misirlou and the unexpectedly baneful Taboo come to mind immediately, but even the nighttime dreaminess of both The Moon Of Manakoora and The Beach are second contenders. I have to stress it once more: believe me, I am no fan of the harmonica/mouth organ, but here its inclusion simply works, and while Morgan sometimes delivers an overly melodramatic performance, this is pretty much expected in a genre that's based on and enriched by technicolor, faux-jungles and neo-primitive uses of the bongos. Warren Barker couldn't do anything wrong, and Tropicale is no exception to the rule. The digital download version of this album is available for a very fair price and even includes two bonus tracks taken off the two albums I have just mentioned, my favorite version and über-strong interpretation of Lotus Land and the Hawaiian Eye Theme, both highly-regarded essentials and worthwhile addendums to an already great album.
Exotica Review 132: Tommy Morgan & Warren Barker – Tropicale (1958). Originally published on Oct. 13, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.