Arthur Lyman
Hawaiian Sunset






Vibraphonist Arthur Lyman’s (1932–2002) dreamiest album of all times is undoubtedly Hawaiian Sunset, released in 1959 on Hi-Fi Records. If you are not fond of the encapsulating, soothing and mellifluous aura the Exotica genre is able to provide, then by all means, do not invest your time, as only the opener might be of interest to you. Everyone else who loves Exotica for all its multifaceted styles, but is most enchanted by the Ambient pieces of the exotic realms can rightfully denominate Hawaiian Sunset as the holy grail of, err, Ambient Exotica (the genre of course, not this website). It is one of the rare albums with the adjective "Hawaiian" in its title that does not encompass the sun-dried Hapa Haole style, shedloads of steel guitars and an all too overt use of ukuleles. No, Hawaiian Sunset turns out to be a superbly languorous LP, so much so that it is undoubtedly Arthur Lyman’s dreamiest and most coherent album of the 50’s, heck, of all times! It is a dream come true for fans of the mellow Exotica style. It is certainly whitewashed and silkened, true, but by no means bland or overly formulaic.


Arthur Lyman and band – Alan Soares on the piano and glockenspiel, John Kramer as the bassist and ukulele player as well as percussionist Harold Chang – gather a whopping 13 songs, almost all of them essential pieces that are statistically found on every second Hawaiian album. Even if one only has a vanishingly low interest in the Exotica genre, an encounter with varying interpretations of the presented material is inescapable. So where is the key difference? Naturally, it is Lyman’s performance on the vibes; whereas it is played in a vivid martelato style on Bahia (1959), it is the boost of both the decay and sustain of this instrument which, in tandem with the legato tone sequences and Alan Soares’ solemn piano, create an enchantment and carefree aura that is second to none. Since Arthur Lyman depicts a Hawaiian Sunset, there are barely any bird calls on the album. Likewise, the pool of instruments is rapidly thinned, and deliberately so, as the link to the humble Hapa Haole genre has to be maintained. It is thus Lyman’s quietest, most sumptuous and least vivid album. And that is a good thing for a change!


Johnny Noble’s Hawaiian War Chant opens the album, but Arthur Lyman’s version is decidedly different from many others in that he tries to truly mediate between an enchanted cove-like setting and a wilder but still only mildly frantic drum section. The prologue already unchains the vivid concoction of sizzling maracas, snare drums and bongos and merges it with Lyman’s mellifluous-doleful dichotomy on the vibes; they are almost spectral and moon-evoking in their timbre, and while the nocturnal mystique of Moon Over A Ruined Castle off his 1958 album Bwana Ā is never reached, Hawaiian War Chant comes pretty close. Alan Soares’ piano underpins the main melody together with John Kramer’s double bass accents and Harold Chang’s staggering drums. The ensuing percussion section is so successful due to the natural reverb and decay. The Henry Kaiser geodesic aluminum dome offers the best stage for this prolific take.


Hawaiian War Chant is splendidly layered, the many different drums are not used in a gimmicky way, but really add verve and plasticity to a tune which can sound awfully false and pale in the wrong hands. But here, it works really well, and from this point on, the actual dreamscape of Hawaiian Sunset begins, namely with Harry Owens’ classic Sweet Leilani. Of great interest are the many twinkling wind chimes and glockenspiels which scintillate around the solemn piano chords and soothing polyphony of the vibes. Alan Soares even plays a plain old acoustic guitar on this unexpectedly upbeat tune. However, since every element sparkles gently, the vividness is deeply opaque and well-camouflaged.


Charles E. King’s Imi Au La ‘Oe (Queen Serenade) follows with Kramer’s ship horn-resembling alto flute and a slowly meandering ukulele-backed vibraphonescape that gleams and trembles dreamily, absorbing the listener and taking him or her into a beguiled island. The sunset marker of the album title is once again carefully interwoven into the arrangement, with the sparkling chimes resembling the glinting light of the moon on the waves near the beach. A cliché in itself, true, but Lyman and band transfigure it into a gorgeous dreamlike state. An Ambient Exotica track if there ever was one!


While Johnny Noble’s My Tane puts Alan Soares’ aqueous piano droplets and cascades into the limelight which are then prominently supported by vibe bursts and Kramer’s double bass blebs, Arthur Lyman’s own Whispering Reef Lullaby offers a fantastically wondrous synergy of faux-seagull cries, golden-shimmering ukulele twangs of silk and hyper-gentle vibe waves with lucent glockenspiels. The moony melody is tremendously mollifying, and even though an intimate arrangement like this is featured time and again on Hawaiian Sunset, it never gets boring to me. Song Of The Islands (Na Lei O Hawaii), originally written by Charles E. King, closes side A with the expected dreamy vibraphone chords, but soon surprises with an uplifting bongo groove which only distracts ever so slightly from the reverie and stops soon enough anyway in order to let the rhythm ukuleles and lead glockenspiels shine all the more. Side A succeeds with a string of 6 magnificent tracks, with only the opener Hawaiian War Chant living up to the adventurous expectations of Lyman's fans.


Side B launches with the teensy 68-seconds-vista of the traditional Hawaiian ditty Hi’lawe. The soundscape changes dramatically, the band plans a single stop at this sunny territory which is based on handclap-like woodblocks, an acoustic guitar plus a ukulele and an iridescent glockenspiel in the background. Well, this shanty is too short and an all too distinctive break, so I tend to ignore its bonfire concept. It really is non-essential for Hawaiian Sunset and can be seen as the bonus track to branch off.


The next compositions move back to balmy territories: whereas Walter Blaufuss’ and Gus Kahn’s Isle Of Golden Dreams realizes the same old but truly enchanting formula of backing ukulele twangs, vibrating vibraphone gusts and glitzy glockenspiel blebs, it is the rendition of Lani Muk Sang’s Mapuana (meaning wind-blown fragrance) which boosts the tempo a bit as the band unleashes a hummable melody on the vibes. Alan Soares’ majestically liquedous piano waves and the softly insinuated Jazz segues work really well in this almost Pop-related surrounding, but the greatest achievement is the fact that the band sails around the dangerous Jazz cliffs; no convoluted rhythm is included, it is really only hinted at over the course of Mapuana. It is hard for me to describe, but rest assured that this wonderful song fits perfectly into the endemic sphere. The same can be said for the divine traditional majesty of Waipio. It turns to a lacunar masterpiece in Lyman’s hands. The soundscape is highly familiar: ukuleles, vibes, double bass melodies and blurry kettle drums in the far distance. Nothing more, nothing less, even the glockenspiels are missing. What makes Lyman’s Waipio so fantastically great is the room for every instrument to breeze. The black nothingness – for there is no hall – is filled with translucency and brightness, the reverb of the softly quavering vibes conflates with the distance. Absolutely essential and one of my most favorite Lyman lullabies!


The remaining three offerings cannot beat the grace of Waipio, but are thankfully based on the same coherence that is so seldom broken on this record. And a treat is coming right up: Arthur Lyman’s own tongue twister called Kawohikukapulani picks up where Waipio left and literally offers more of the same, only changing nuances in the arrangement. One of them is the oxymoronic punchier dreaminess of the vibes. The tones burst powerfully, only to vaporize in a rapturous mirage of tranquility. If I did not love Arthur Lyman’s soothing pieces so much, I would by now shake my head in disdain due to the overly glaring similarity and repetition of the formula, but as I have stated before, I am completely lured and sedated and will not complain when Ambient oozes out of every fissure of the provided tracklist.


Ke Kali Nei Au is the third and final take on a song by Charles E. King. Launching with another ship horn flute akin to Imi Au La ‘Oe (Queen Serenade), the spiraling piano aorta of the prologue is the actual signature element of this song which then changes back to the mellowness of ukuleles, droning bass melodies and vibes, with only scattered appearances of the piano. The final Harbor Lights, written by Gordon Kennedy and Hugh Williams, is the famous thirteenth track of Hawaiian Sunset, and a superb closing track. Although the idea wears thin, the band uses it for the obviously last time: an instrumental ship horn appears several times, but now in the form of a mighty string bass, totally blown out of the proportion the track provides. Wonderfully whirring vibes float through the air, it is a quiet harbor in the end, even though the ship horn appears in another four instances.


All right, Hawaiian Sunset might be denominated the most boring of Arthur Lyman’s albums due to the seemingly eternal stream of blissful dreamscapes. One magic arrangement follows the other, with only slight breezes of vividness and voluminousness carefully intertwined. And indeed, in contrast to Lyman’s vivacious Bahia (1959) or the innovative hodgepodge of his exotic debut Taboo (1958), Hawaiian Sunset can be seen as dull, lulling and a one-trick pony that comprises of the same vibraphone placenta and the circumambient plinking triangles time and again. But I don’t mind, not at all, especially so when I compare it to the humongous amount of other Exotica-related albums that have the terms Hawaii or Hawaiian in their title. Instead of coming up with the 800th sun-laden blue sky panorama, Arthur Lyman poeticizes the classic as well as the ephemeral Hapa Haole material and transcodes the colors of the sunset and the blue-tinged night scenes of forlorn beaches into each and every note.


This is Ambient Exotica, this is what I had in mind when I searched for a comprehensible name for this humble website. To me, Hawaiian Sunset turns out to be the utmost perfect album that could lure listeners of electro-acoustic Ambient music into the Exotica realms. Only the powerful opener Hawaiian War Chant and the sudden sunburst of the whimsical Hi'lawe alter the intrinsic soundscape a bit, but even these two examples remain in Ambient realms. And don't get me started on Mapuana, Whispering Reef Lullaby and Waipio (the latter of which Lyman already played on Martin Denny's 1957 release of Exotica)… they are masterpieces of the humblest kind!


While I tremendously love Hawaiian Sunset and the wonderful transformations of the same old material that is found on every second vintage Exotica record, its shortcomings are fully transparent: the sparse use of exotic percussion, the lack of many instruments, the single-time appearance of Lyman's bird calls and the neverending stream of likeminded tracks with a similarly intimate scope might turn off many a listener who otherwise speaks in glowing terms of the band's ever-changing stylistic range. I'm sorry to say that you do not find variety here. Only consistency and coherence are on board. While Arthur Lyman's actual non-exotic debut Leis Of Jazz (1957) was all too jazzy and less exotic to my ears, it turns out that Hawaiian Sunset offers the same cohesion. But this time, I fall prey to its magic. Maybe it is vice versa in your case? 


Exotica Review 156: Arthur Lyman – Hawaiian Sunset (1959). Originally published on Dec. 8, 2012 at