Henry Mancini
The Versatile
Henry Mancini





In-joke alert: I will never review Henry Mancini's Driftwood And Dreams of 1957! In fact, I prefer his debut The Versatile Henry Mancini of the same year. Got the joke? No? Well, it was incredibly lame anyway. I'll let you in on the profane secret: both albums are identical, only their titles and sleeves differ. What was a common ploy of Crown Records at the time, was done for entirely different reasons by the good people of Liberty Records, the label which released this classic. Henry Mancini (1924–1994) became well-known over a surprisingly short timespan thanks to his vast soundtrack-related works for films. In order to boost sales of his debut, his household name was consequently embossed in the title as well. Regardless of which title you prefer, both albums contain all of the 12 tracks in an identical running order.


And what a debut this album is! Henry Mancini selects ten Exotica gold standards and soon-to-be classics and admixes two unique compositions from his own feather. The main ingredients comprise of a bass guitar, an organ, an accordion (played by Dominic Frontiere of Pagan Festival fame!) and a non-kitschy choir, but vibraphones, triangles and harmonicas are injected as well in this decisively moon-focused work. Regardless of the respective composition that may be running at a certain moment, the relatively intimate character and the lack of violins and brass instruments make this a tremendously dreamy, but also decidedly thin and at times hollow album. The mysterious but warm-hearted aura is maintained throughout the album, and it is hard to pinpoint a certain song even if a ten-second snippet was hypothetically being played, as the main melodies of the classic material are admittedly all there, but greatly altered and ennobled by the various improvisational segues which are at least as important.


That Henry Mancini's first album is actually a clear-cut Exotica album is a highly intriguing fact for fans of the genre, especially so since Mancini himself moved on to spy themes and Latin-based material in his later career. Seeing that his work is so overly exotic, it has a special place in many people's hearts, and I can sure relate to that emotion. What it lacks in variety, it provides in harmony: rarely has a conductor or quartet released a record with such a greatly intact overarching style. Its great strengths and minor flaws are mentioned below, as I invite you to check out this gemstone. Please note that I have reviewed the original mono pressing, but there is a CD reissue that is also available in a download version which reunites the mono and the stereo pressings with the above artwork on the front cover.


The album launches with a great luminosity, as Buddy Bernier's and Nat Simon's classic Poinciana is almost transfigured into a Far Eastern anthem by Mancini thanks to the pristine gleams of the Hammond organ played by Lou Maury, the dreamy steel guitar twangs and an ooh-ooh mixed choir who is all up for the moon-lit dreamscape. The harmonica, the careful bass guitar accents by Robert Bain as well as the distantly spiraling pianos illuminate the otherwise lacunar structure of this splendid opener. It is decidedly less orchestral than Mancini's later works, showing the melodious morphogenesis of his skills much better, I believe. Richard Rodgers' and Oscar Hammerstein II.'s reverie Bali Ha'i is next, and is not in the slightest way inferior to Poinciana: the golden-shimmering piano chords and steel guitar twangs are put much to the foreground, are spiced with a splendid ukulele and an otherwise overly droning trombone whose texture sounds all too dark. The Waltz-like segue in the middle marks a proper surprise, and the gently wafting organ boosts the languorous side of things.


A larger-than-life rendition and a first peak on the album, however, is reached on Mancini's version of Ted Grouya's super-mellow Flamingo: the meandering downbeat structure of it allows the instruments to shine all the better, be it the warmly trembling organ, the plinking triangles and tambourins or the steel guitar addendums. The female lead singer exemplifies everything that is right with the Exotica genre, as her Space-Age performance boosts the thermal heat and mystique of this harmonica-heavy treat. The many fissures in its structure allow the instruments to unfold their magic and splendidly bridge the occasional thinness of the non-existing orchestra.


Coming up next is a unique composition by Henry Mancini called The Whispering Sea. Its glacial triangles conflate with a high-pitched and a bit too piercing harmonica aorta and gently whirring organs in the background. Best of all, however, are the interspersed aqueous harp licks full of mellifluousness. The soft bass guitar backings round off the humble dreamscape. While you cannot hum to the main melody, you can nonetheless enjoy their texture. Dimitri Tiomkin's and Ned Washington's Return To Paradise brings back the mixed ooh-ooh choir and brightens up the nocturnal jungle diorama with particularly euphonious organ washes. The silky wave-like structure lets the voluminousness of the choir rise and fall and make this yet another superbly blissful piece of trance.


It is on Mancini's last take on side A, Laurindo Ameida's and George Fields' The Naked Sea, where the instrumental pool is softly widened by adding iridescent vibraphone cascades to the otherwise unchanged roster. The steel guitar plays the motif, with Dominic Frontiere's accordion as an accenting device. Some of the darker organ tones unfortunately evoke the tonality of cheap horror movies, but apart from this short audacity, The Naked Sea remains in territories in close proximity to The Three Suns. The main melody could have been carved out a bit better since it comprises of guitar twangs, but again, these are really only minor quibbles!


Side B continues the instrument-related widening angle that was launched with The Naked Sea, as Mancini's presentation of Ernesto Lecuona's Exotica classic The Breeze And I (aka Andalucía) opens with coruscating wind chimes, an almost flute-like harmonica and utterly charming organ streams. The soothing choir is used to the greatest effect here, as it is much more in the foreground. Steel guitar notes and uplifting accordion bursts enhance the enchanted atmosphere. Best of all: the melodrama which is so typical for Latin compositions is totally lacking, and if the main melody was not in the spotlight, I could not even recognize this as The Breeze And I.


A superb interpretation that is followed by Henry Mancini's short second but unique Space-Age contribution called Driftwood And Dreams. A fairground organ flows in adjacency to triangles, revved up bass guitar melodies and a Three Suns-evoking accordion. Even though the same instruments are largely used throughout the album, Driftwood And Dreams is less exotic than it is a mild-mannered Lounge take. The accordion and the organ are particularly responsible for this, and if the Ames Brothers would suddenly start singing from behind, I would not even raise a brow. A good, but non-essential composition, a surprising remark given the fact that this album was also known under the name Driftwood And Dreams.


After this short-lived Space-Age segue, we are reaching exotic, moon-lit shores: Frank Loesser's The Moon Of Manakoora is tested, a song of which I am especially fond of, as it always provides a sumptuous vista across the bank, no matter which conductor is arranging or which quartet is performing it. Mancini's try is very successful, intertwining vibraphone glints with warm guitar licks and the main melody being sung by the beautiful voice of the same lead singer who already elevated Flamingo on side A. The ensuing flow of the organ is on the edge of being ridiculous, as it yet again evokes the feeling of a filthy fairground; in the end, the sparkling mallet instruments and the amicable accordion infusion can silken this slight mistake out. The last 15 seconds are the most euphoric, polyphonous ones on the whole album. No major complaints here!


While Eric Cates' Sleepy Lagoon is first transfigured into an Asian landscape due to the placid guitar at the opening phase and then morphs into France-resembling shores thanks to the focus on the harmonica, accordion and an interestingly theremin-like organ, Robert Maxwell's and Carl Sigman's Ebb Tide lures the listener with its many vibraphone droplets, enthralling organscape and main melody on the harmonica. But seriously, it is largely the vibraphones that transport the picture of a moony Polynesian bay, with a well set up organ that lives up to – or better still: nurtures – the balmy atmosphere. The final piece is the fitting Off Shore by Leo Diamond and Michael H. Goldsen. For one last time, Mancini unchains the humming choir and places it in exquisitely golden-glittering steel guitar plucks that are incredibly enchanting and encapsulate a slightly Mexican spirit, or so it seems. The most glaring piano chords are then coupled with the organ; both instruments reprise the main melody, after which the album fades out for good.


Since The Versatile Henry Mancini resides in Easy Listening territories, a sarcastic comment is naturally close at hand: "Versatile? No way! The same instruments and moods are featured time and again!" He who might state a similar sentence like this would be an erudite and correct man. It is indeed true that the 12 tracks are anything but utterly relaxing and dreamy, Mancini really created one of the pinnacles of a cozy 50's Exotica album with Driftwood And Dreams aka The Versatile Henry Mancini, with Arthur Lyman's Hawaiian Sunset of 1959 whirling in similar realms. The soundscape may be surprisingly thin, but the many alcoves and fissures provide a resplendent opportunity for the unravelling of an instrument's aftertaste or decay. Since all of the 12 songs are built in the very same way, with only the slightest alterations and differing instruments, the cohesiveness is as beneficial as the showcased compositions, for you cannot deny that the material is wisely chosen.


Ten Exotica classics and the first official inclusion of Mancini's unique material form the base for his later success. Mancini's love for the organ is a golden thread that runs throughout – or at least permeates – his complete works, and this album is the setting stone for this particularity. Despite the densely moon-lit dreamscape and the maintained mood, I have my strong favorites: Flamingo and The Moon Of Manakoora are essential pieces of music in almost all versions and interpretations due to their magnificent melodies, and Mancini does them justice. The Breeze And I, on the other hand, is similarly successful and even slightly more interesting due to the improvised hooks and segues that move into territories that are far away from the main melody. If you'd like a consistently tranquilizing Exotica album of the 50's, Arthur Lyman's Hawaiian Sunset of 1959 is still your best bet, with Martin Denny's The Enchanted Sea of the same year being a close contender. But right after these albums, The Versatile Henry Mancini is in front of the line. If you do not mind the occasional visits to fairground lands rather than fairy tale realms, Henry Mancini's debut is still enjoyable after 55+ years.  


Exotica Review 154: Henry Mancini – The Versatile Henry Mancini (1958). Originally published on Dec. 8, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.