Werner Müller
Holiday In Japan






The release history of conductor Werner Müller’s (1920–1998) Holiday In Japan is actually quite messy. Originally released in 1958 under the moniker of Ricardo Santos as part of his Holiday In… series which took listeners to such cities and countries as Rio de Janeiro, New York, France and Italy, the Japanese edition resurfaced every so often, with ever-changing artworks, titles, compositions and running orders. Cherry Blossom Time In Japan is one of the alternative titles on the agenda, but everything is not lost: once you know about Müller’s short-lived alias of Ricardo Santos which he reserved for international audiences due to marketing reasons, you can follow back the traces of the different releases and re-issues. This time, I have decided to present the digital version of the LP which is sold on iTunes, Amazon and other download stores. It is available at a fair price, features Müller’s twelve compositions – altogether based on traditional songs and the signature anthems of various Japanese prefectures – and presents them in an original running order, which does not really say a lot, for the running orders definitely changed several times. And by buying this release, you’re missing six till seven takes which are scattered in various forms on the other issues of Müller’s Japanese album. See, it’s a mess!


The music itself is nothing short of enchanting, mediating between a decisively Japanese aura full of related exotic instruments and Occidental big band sections which mesh (and occasionally clash) with the Far Eastern soundscape; it is the same artifice which Tak Shindo used in some of his works, probably most famously on Brass And Bamboo (1959). As Ricardo Santos, Müller enjoyed quite a success with this album in Japan, as each of the compositions is well-known to Japanese ears, yet accessible enough to not place this album in the overly obscure realms of the Exotica genre. The strings are glowing, the horns gleaming, and the scope of the production alternates between grand show tunes full of mystery, convivial chase-and-escape motifs, cheeky takes full of blitheness as well as the calm look onto worshipped natural or architectural phenomena. Müller’s famous formula, clumsily pinpointable as "swing with one too many strings," is still maintained throughout the release, as he used the same Berlin-based orchestra for this release as he did on many other records: four trumpets, four trombones and five saxophones face a whopping 18 string players. Add Japanese instruments such as the koto, shamisen, clave and various drums and woodblocks to the symphonic setting, and you are in for an admittedly syrupy-mellifluous, but nonetheless catchy and at times even excitingly intimidating journey through Japan.


The download-only incarnation of Holiday In Japan launches with Haru Ga Kita, which is a traditonal Japanese song played in spring, hence its title which translates to spring has come. The brass stabs immediately hit the listener as Müller’s interpretation spends no time with legato ornaments, but hits the melting pot right from the get-go. After ten seconds, the dark dynamism wanes and makes room for vivifying flutes plus glockenspiels which play Far Eastern tone sequences that intermix with traditionally swinging big band sequences, at least to Western ears. The final sequence of this song is so laid-back that the listener is able to spot the mellow double bass-backings that have presumably been there all the time, but remained unnoticed due to the brazen superiority of the ensemble.


The appeal of this opener is its setting tone which remains discernible throughout the release. The shattering brass eruptions and the tipsily dulcet melody form well-working counterpoints to each other, and this won’t be the last time their synergetic effects are perceptible, for the following tune revs this particular style up to the maximum: Sakura refers to the ubiquitous cherry blossom, but if you expect a transfiguring ode to its flowering scent, you will be surprised, for this tune meshes a rapid-firing two-note jazzy bass groove with clinging cymbals, a warped surf guitar (!) and resplendently mysterious Far Eastern tonalities deriving from the staccato notes of a marimba. Soon enough, the brass sections are unleashed, sounding almost Latinized in the given context, while the downwards spiraling strings boost the excitement further. This is a superb rendition, and one of the few songs where the high attack rate of the horns does add that certain something, and even though the sheer energy and bile of these adamant instruments cannot possibly mix all to well with the silky flute melodies and marimba tones, Müller accomplishes just that. It is a huge stomper and a hit I’m coming back to very often. It is even compatible with running or workout playlists.


Oedo Nipponbashi is a well-known traditional Folk song in Japan and is dedicated to the famous bridge in Tokyo. Right at the beginning, a cascading four-note koto motif is repeated in-between a xylophone-interspersed, string-infused brass burst concoction, with a female opera singer deeply embedded into the mix at one point, humming along to the gorgeously enigmatic and rather serious flow. This is the first entry that depicts a strongly cliché-driven diorama, but at the same time is absolutely free of any sugar-sweet kitsch. Another great tune and highly suitable for people literally on the run. The next composition is called Nanatsu No Ko, a traditional song translating to the seven children. Pond-like harp twangs of the liquid kind lead to the koto base frame which is accentuated by celestial strings, glinting vibraphones and a brass fanfare that boosts the effervescence with every note. Despite the presence of these orchestral devices, this tune is actually very intimate at times, Müller remains close to the cheerful darkness of the sheet music, proving the counterbalancing powers of this humble release yet another time.


It is Akatombo (Japanese for dragonfly) which is the first ballad on the digital download version and a worthy contender for the string-heavy gemstone throne, as a medium-sweet lead trombone is playing in the middle of the wafting, high-flying and dragon fly-mimicking strings. Majestic flute tones interchange with the eighteen string players, and I cannot help myself but bathe in these warm and iridescent sound waves. The traditional aspect of this tune alone keeps this mellow piece from being linked to the Easy Listening genre. Fans of Les Baxter should definitely pre-listen. It is the least Japanese sounding offering. This situation is rectified with Müller’s interpretation of Rentaro Taki’s famous composition Hana, originally written in 1923 and presented as Nana, Flowers Song on the digital edition. But this is unmistakably Taki’s tune, no doubt about that. It is a comical flute-and-trombone piece to stroll along to, only interrupted by string washes and a pizzicato koto in the second half. Fans of Franck Barcellini’s and Alain Romans’ soundtrack to Mon Oncle (1958) will surely relate to the painted atmosphere, although Hana is not as clumsy, let alone French.


It is getting dark and nocturnal with Kojo No Tsuki, as this blend of a Tango and a Bolero relies as much on the dusky string side as on Japanese tambourins, illuminating mallet instruments and doleful alto flutes. This is not a sad song per se rather than a properly mystified gaze into a Japanese night. The tambourins, vibraphones and wind chimes swirl like fireflies in front of the strings, resembling a spectral fragility despite the red-tinted violins. I am not too fond of this crestfallen piece, but it broadens the stylistic range of an album that is filed away under Easy Listening, so it is a welcome and essential inclusion in the end! The following Furusato is all the brighter and saccharine, as if to make up for the dark take before it; meaning hometown or old house in Japanese, this children’s song of 1914 comprises of similarly heavenly strings as Akatombo does, but adds little curlicues that make it more interesting for children. The trombone-flute-couple, for example, plays a jocular staccato melody which is rounded off by a shamisen accompaniment.


A real treat is next: Tamezo Narita’s Hamabe No Uta, the song of the seashore, is launched with absolutely enchanting harp washes, all the while a muted trombone is accompanied by a distinctly Japanese two-to-three-note flute backing and gently meandering violins. Once the vibraphones are added and the strings are playing in higher regions, the ecstatic pride and beauty of the gaze are wonderfully transformed into music. It is a spectacular tune, very humble and blissful, and it is the large role of the harps that expands the dreaminess of Holiday In Japan even further. While the all too serious Yoimachi Gusa, the weeping willow, seems terribly out of place on Müller’s release as he returns to lugubrious tides with the help of a gypsy-esque lead fiddle and warm harp glitters, Itsuki No Komoriuta is not much brighter; this lullaby of a village called Itsuki was rediscovered in 1935, its composer remains unknown to this day. Presenting a sunset-tinted Tango complete with accordion bursts, plinking tambourins and glockenspiels plus koto licks, the strings are once again in the limelight and cannot be fended off by the luminescence of the coruscating instruments.


The final composition is Müller’s take on Shin Kusakawa’s Yuyake, Koyake, meaning sunrise and sunset, thus closing the album in a poignant way by stressing the superimposition of opposite moods and styles. It is the bonfire song of the album with a bagpipe-like harmonica that is accompanied by polyphonous flutes, clicking claves and rising horns which suddenly shift the focus away from the intimate setting by presenting a glaring show tune before the song ends the way it began: humble, gleeful and uplifting.


Holiday In Japan is a superb album. I really mean it. Sure, despite its irritatingly darker flecks, it is usually linked to the Easy Listening genre, but this time, I beg to differ, and strongly so. The idea of meshing the East with the West is neither new today nor was it a novelty back in 1958, but Werner Müller – under the moniker of Ricardo Santos – creates a journey through Japan that is as wonderful as it is wondrous. Powerful, energetic but good-natured brass eruptions clash with Japanese string instruments. Dark-colored string mélanges are illuminated by glowing mallet instruments and tambourins. Utterly phantasmagoric harp washes float over mellifluous alto flutes. Not all of these examples illustrate the concept of balance and anticlimax, but most of the time, it is verified by the music. It happens occasionally that the horn sections drift into big band territories, but whenever this is the case, the listener can be assured of a subsequent infusion of Far Eastern tonalities and ornaments.


The melodies are great, strongly Japanese, and yet familiar to Western listeners in their timbre once they are played on the trumpets and trombones. It is hard to pick favorites, as there are no clear winners or duds on here; even the few doleful tunes I have criticized can mean the world to people who favor solemn symphonies over frantic fanfares. The former category is served by Hamabe No Uta with its beach-evoking wave-like harp washes and glittering sunlight particles in the form of vibraphones, as well as Akatombo whose strings flap and flicker like the wings of the titular dragonfly. The latter category, however, is in the focus of Werner Müller and happens to be a bit more present on the album: Sakura and Oedo Nipponbashi are convivial or even precarious hare-and-tortoise themes that have aged well due to their Japanese flavor flowing through every pore and alcove of the respective arrangement. You cannot do anything wrong by picking this album up, regardless of the format or the artwork.


If you are fond of brass-fueled Far Eastern Exotica records, take Tak Shindo’s aforementioned Brass And Bamboo (1959) or Cal Tjader's humbler Breeze From The East (1964) into account… or what about Werner Müller’s own East Of India (1963) which presents twelve unique compositions that cover a similar range? Anyway, Holiday In Japan is an Exotica artifact that is not often considered by fans of the genre, possibly due to the bewildering release tactics, re-release issues and Müller's less known stature. Since it is now available in digital download stores, there is no reason to check it out or pre-listen to the material.


Exotica Review 151: Werner Muller – Holiday In Japan (1958). Originally published on Dec. 1, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.