Martin Denny






Martin Denny's Primitiva, one of his many albums that are released in 1958 on Liberty Records, is a remarkably special album despite – or because of – the upcoming neverending stream of Exotica records that surfaced in this year. Firstly, Denny and his men try to cater to everyone's taste: joyful Mambos, a mystical Polynesian ambience and nocturnal takes mesh on this 12-track LP. Whereas Denny kickstarted his album-related career at the end of December 1956 in an already highly diverse fashion when the original recording sessions of his debut Exotica took place in Hollywood, Primitiva outshines the variety, and possibly maybe even the quality of this release with ease. Secondly, as on Primitiva's preceding album Forbidden Island, the instrumental pool is huge, the bongos are almost permanently embedded and the band offers several different flavors as the album progresses.


The initial quartet of pianist Martin Denny comprises of the well-known musicians: August "Augie" Colón is the birdcaller and percussionist, Julius Wechter is the (co-)writer of many songs and the mallet instrumentalist, and Harvey Ragsdale is the bassist. There are other important stars featured on this gemstone though, most importantly Exotica maestro Takeshi "Tak" Shindo who plays the koto on one song as well as second percussionists Jerry Williams and Roy Hart whose talents allow thicker, more eclectic patterns. And let’s not forget the admiring liner notes of one talented writer called Les Baxter! Three compositions are written by Martin Denny, another one is cited to be created by Julius Wechter. As Martin Denny disclosed in the late 90's, Wechter's compositional input has been far more important than he ever admitted, so I tend to believe that he had his hand in all of these songs nonetheless. Despite the omission of the actual song called Primitiva which was included beforehand on Forbidden Island the album presents a vivacious journey through well-lit jungles and places all around the world. It is not the most compelling album in regard of the stylistic arc, but there is one sparkling tune being presented after the other! Read more about them all below.


Burma Train marks the beginning of Primitiva with its train-evoking shrieking flutes and Harvey Ragsdale’s similarly mimicking double bass accents. Being the first of three compositions specifically co-written by Martin Denny and Hal Johnson for this album, Augie Colón’s croaking bird calls and magnificent percussive sea shells as well as Julius Wechter’s warm marimba-vibraphone couplets make this track a delicately tropical journey through a jungle panorama full of filthy beasts and creepy critters. The jumpy marimba aorta in the middle of the arrangement is specifically noteworthy, oscillating between African schemes and jazzy realms. Burma Train is an upbeat, great opener with a decidedly less hummable melody, but a well-texturized interplay.


The railroads lead to Ken Darby’s Kalua, and the opening section severely beats the original: hollow bongos, glittering triangles and sun-soaked marimbas altogether create a laid back groove that reciprocates between starlight glitz and hammock afternoons. This tune is once again strongly about the ambience and the ensuing liveliness of the sparkling entanglement. Best of all: the band plays it safe and does not succumb to rhythmic changes or convoluted bridges, no, this is – dare I write it? – Ambient Exotica at its best. Utterly cozy, plus the gentle bongo beat grafts the dreaminess further. The next stop is Jerry D. Williams’ wild M’Gambo Mambo. Cólon’s maracas and bongos, Denny’s liquedous celesta and Wechter’s spiraling marimbas create a lacunar staccato setting, with many micro stops and pauses filled with purified cowbell-esque percussion layers. The marimba motif is probably a tad too jumpy, but this is still not one of those comically frantic nerve-racking renditions Denny is also known for, as the percussion prevents this song from becoming lackluster.


Up next are the remaining two unique cuts by Martin Denny and Hal Johnson. The magnificent Buddhist Bells features the clear, erudite reverb of the eponymous instruments, hence boosting the Far Eastern flavor to sky-high levels; the New Age genre is not even invented back then, and Denny is already a forerunner in 1958! Admixed wind chimes, temple gongs and Asian cymbals complete the crystalline percussion-based diorama. It is here where Tak Shindo adds punchy koto twangs in-between the many glinting sparkles and coruscating drops. The mood is astonishingly truthful to real Japanese temple music, not the least bit clichéd, and rather serious and concentrated. Only the second part is a bit of a disappointment, as Wechter’s Far Eastern tone sequences move into Jazz territory, and as if that was not enough, Ragsdale joins with wave-like private eye-evoking double bass underpinnings that continue to nurture the jazziness. However, this is still a totally great composition. The plinking, clinging chimes and bells are omnipresent, the ensuing plasticity a standout feature. This is a mind-blowing track even for the Denny’s wide range of style. Only Arthur Lyman’s take on the Japanese nocturnal song Moon Over A Ruined Castle off Bwana Ā (1958) is potentially on par.


The next tune M’Bira remains in Japanese climes; Colón’s jungle bongos might suggest otherwise, but Wechter’s two intertwined melodies, one featured on a marimba, the other played on a vibraphone, make this another jumpy, but strictly entrancing track. The second half comprises of a few mosquito-like jaw harps and a gorgeous increase in complexity on the bongo groove. This is another Exotica masterpiece that surprises the listener with its different patterns and textures which are injected in exchange for hummable melodies, as there are none to be found. The final track of side A is – gasp! – the cream of the crop: Ted Grouya’s stunning piece for eternity called Flamingo is transfigured into a jungle ballad. Augie Colón chirps and screeches, Martin Denny uses his piano for the first time on this record, playing irresistibly phantasmagoric-euphonious tercets while being joined on the marimba and later the vibraphone by Julius Wechter. The bongo groove is again the wild driving force of this piece. The pompous majesty of the original is definitely lessened and jazzed up, but it is done in great style, as the band goes all-in and delivers a truly exotic version.


Side B opens with Charles Wolcott’s Llama Serenade (Peruvian Llama Song), the mandatory comical song that is on almost every of Denny’s 50’s albums. Colón’s ritualistic rapid-firing bongo beat is in close juxtaposition to Wechter’s similarly fast-paced marimba springs and Denny’s infinitesimal piano accents. It is by no means a bad song, as the melody is firstly not particularly bugging and the later bongo and conga solo secondly delightfully vivid. Right after this comic relief waits the majesty of Helen Parker’s spellbound Akaka Falls. No one can beat Arthur Lyman’s version he delivers on his exotic debut Taboo (1958), but Denny and his crew come close, as they use the same trick as on Buddhist Bells: an enthralling rainfall of glittering wind chimes damps Colón’s beautiful fauna, Denny’s solemn piano notes and Wechter’s wafting mallet instruments. In fact, Denny’s take is so gorgeously dreamy that it is simply a matter of taste in regard of the better version of this song. I especially dig the final twenty seconds which feature Colón’s owl impressions and the gentlest vibraphone gusts. Another prime example of Ambient Exotica.


While Les Baxter’s upbeat Bangkok Cockfight is featured here in a bamboo rod-laden, tambourin-fueled and cowbell-accentuated bongo version with additional sprinkler-like maracas and the main melody on the piano and mallet instruments, Julius Wechter’s own Mau Mau consists of the utmost beautiful vibraphone polyphony which evokes rose-tinted sunlight and a supreme dreaminess which is then strictly lessened by an – otherwise welcome – bongo and percussion frenzy, dusky piano chords and sizzling shakers. A sophisticatedly good-natured track. The penultimate Dites Moi by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II is a slightly disappointing second comical tune with one too many glinting devices and an all to whimsical main melody. There is something positive to say about the many bells and textures, though, but the lullaby-esque setting is simply not my kind of tea. After listening to this tune, my ears are literally ringing.


The outro Jamaica Farewell, originally created by Irving "Lord Burgess" Burgie features a similar dreamland-evoking fairy tale melody, but the sun-dried, slightly off cowbells, Caribbean marimba tone sequences and the admixed guiros create a positively saccharine island vista in the head of the listener. I believe that Martin Denny never went thematically closer to the Caribbean island than on this take. A great outro and highly suitable for a polonaise at the pool of your favorite holiday resort.


Primitiva is a magnificent Exotica album that cannot possibly perceived as "yet another" also-ran of Denny’s exotic racing stable, for it is simply too great an album to dismiss. Its flaws are much smaller than usual, its strength all the more carved out. Augie Colón fulfills the most important role on this album, I believe, as his birdcalls are pitch-perfect – as well as magnanimously featured – and his skills as a percussionist boldly used. There is hardly a song where the bongos and congas are mute, and if there is, for example on Denny’s and Hal Johnson’s co-written Far Eastern material, Colón then unleashes gazillions of chimes, cowbells and temple gongs, spawning a scintillating rainfall that is even perfectly spacious in the mono version of the album! So many great tunes are on here. If I listed them all, I would repeat myself, but my strong, essential favorites are the two unique Asian cuts M’Bira and Buddhist Bells, followed by Denny’s take on Helen Parker’s Akaka Falls, Ted Grouya’s Flamingo and Ken Darby’s Kalua. But even the Caribbean rum overdose in the form of Jamaica Farewell moves the tendentially Far East-oriented Exotica into much warmer climes, completing the range of otherwise tropical, Polynesian and Asian material. And as you may see from this short list, I have already listed six of the twelve tracks as essentials.


Primitiva is simply that fantastic. I deem Denny’s general lack of boldly featured piano arrangements very refreshing; this instrument is still noticeable, but either much more in the background or usually coupled with one of Julius Wechter’s mallet instruments. Tak Shindo’s inclusion on Buddhist Bells is another boon on this rich, vibrant and most importantly essential Exotica album. It lacks the cohesive style that Denny later delivered with The Enchanted Sea (1959), but comprises of several gold standards and many textures. If you want an Exotica release that is all about the textures and different instruments, mostly about the birdcalls and the accruing ambience and less about sing-along melody hooks, Martin Denny’s Primitiva is a top choice that is only outshone by Hypnotique (1959), but that is a story for another review.


Exotica Review 165: Martin Denny – Primitiva (1958). Originally published on Jan. 5, 2013 at