Rene Paulo Group
Tropical Heat Wave






Have you solely clicked this review in order to gaze at a bigger version of the front artwork or are you by any chance interested in the following in-depth dissection of the Rene Paulo Group's Tropical Heat Wave LP, released in 1963 on Arthur Lyman's favorite house label Hi-Fi Records? Well…? Haha, I'm just kidding! Thankfully, here we have yet another case where the luring sleeve lives up to the music of pianist Rene Paulo (born 1930) and his men; in addition, the album has luckily been re-issued in 2010 by the Essential Media Group as a remastered digital download, so everything is well in Exotica land.


In contrast to his superb Exotica debut Black Coral (recorded in December 1959, released in January 1960) which he recorded with a trio, his group comprises four musicians on this sizzling album: guitarist Tomo Fukui, drummer Bruce Hamada and bassist Ed Shonk, with Rene Paulo at the helm. Tropical Heat Wave is recorded at Henry J. Kaiser's Aluminum Dome at the Hawaiian Village Hotel in Honolulu, a place known for its great acoustics and life-like aural panorama which served as a stage for many of Arthur Lyman's albums of the 50's and 60's. Having been sold to the Hilton Hotels Corporation in the early 60's, the new owner had not changed a thing in this modern Space-Age edifice which causes a pristine sound quality, regardless of whether you are listening to the original LP or the 2010 re-issue. 


Paulo's album has an interesting twist akin to both Morton Gould's Jungle Drums (1957) whose A-side presents eight songs from the feather of Ernesto Lecuona, and Don Ralke's But You've Never Heard Gershwin With Bongos (1960): each and every of the 12 featured compositions are (co-)written by Irving Berlin. Appreciators of the composer's work will therefore get the most out of Tropical Heat Wave. Not all of the tracks are exotic or tropical per se, but don't worry, Rene Paulo and his fellows exotify and Latinize the hell out of the many Jazz standards. Similar to pianist and former Gene Rains Group member Paul Conrad's Exotic Paradise (released in 1963 as well), Tropical Heat Wave is strongly focused on piano arrangements, even more so than Conrad's only album. Rene Paulo is always the nucleus of each track, but additional vibraphones, exotic percussion such as guiros and maracas as well as the occasional use of bongos augment the playful aura and stress the variety. It probably helps quite a bit that all musicians involved are of Filipino, Japanese or Polynesian origin. No birdcalls or field recordings are featured, and yet does this record somehow capture the vibe and esprit of the Space-Age tropics. And what a coincidence: the first string of tracks proves this assertion.


As is often the case with the album format, the opener is the semi-eponymous title track. Heat Wave is undoubtedly the most exotic offering, set up and arranged similar to Rex Kona & His Mandarins’s Wild Orchids of 1964. In fact, if I were not able to tell both bands apart, I could swear both albums were recorded by the same members! The piano tones oscillate between amicable warmth and mellow snugness, the added vibraphone droplets add glitz to the mirage, but the best inclusion to my mind is Bruce Hamada’s performance on the bongos which fuel the fire of this rendition without exaggerating the impetus and thus risking the balance of this tune. Heat Wave turns out to be a dreamy blast and harks back to the exotic adventures and soothing coves of Rene Paulo’s Black Coral. If you prefer an even hotter version, Hugo Montenegro delivers it in his Crime Jazz-influenced 1960 work Bongos And Brass and turns the lead melody upside down with a highly interesting steel pan-esque instrument that upstages everything on that album.


Anyway, back to the Rene Paulo Group: the following Love And The Weather depicts a different kind of tropical heat, namely the fatiguing one. In a proper reference to the front sleeve, a more hammock-friendly groove is established and kindled with fairy tale glockenspiels, Tomo Fukui’s sun-soaked guitar twangs and the jumpy glissando of Rene Paulo’s piano notes. The group ventures into jazzier upbeat realms, but it only takes a few seconds before the dreaminess returns. The lack of percussion augments the blazing brightness of the sun further and incidentally allow a closer glimpse at Ed Shonk’s double bass waves.


Up next is Reaching For The Moon which is presented in a Bossa Nova version, boosting the tempo for the first time on the album. Croaking guiros, fizzling maracas and hollow bongos are the big boons for this rustic lovelorn lamento full of eclectic staccato piano sequences and a matchless jumpiness. Despite the title, there is no nocturnal mystery revolving around the arrangement; this is a metropolitan dance fever escapade which shows Paulo’s prowess on the piano like no other tune. Rhapsody, on the other hand, is a non-exotic dedicated piano interlude full of solemnity and panache. Shuttling between sunset-colored grace and short bolts of tension, it is technically well-played, but far off the exotic paths and by its very nature too reduced for a tropical setting. Say It Isn’t So may be overly focused on the piano yet again, but invites the remaining band members to join and create a textural thicket. Silky cymbals and infinitesimal double bass breezes make this an enchanting piece which depicts humid climes. Of particular success are the playful piano vortices which cascade in higher tone regions and resemble the refreshing taste of pouring rain.


The tempo gets revved up again on There’s No Business Like Show Business, admittedly not the prototypical Exotica tune one has in mind when thinking about the genre, but the Rene Paulo Group ennobles Irving Berlin’s vaudeville number with a hyper-hectic bongo pattern in adjacency to the suspense-packed drum rolls. The main melody on the piano remains unaltered, but its vividness is extended due to the breakneck speed. The ensuing jocularity may be a tad too comical, but all in all it is the percussion framework that rescues this tune and provides a link to the tropics.


Side B opens with Alexander’s Ragtime Band, a rapid-firing piano arrangement of the wonky kind with dotted tercets, a whizzing aorta of cymbals, maracas and a galloping beat structure which cannot prevent the thunderous hubbub from losing the connection to the thematic arc in which the album is encapsulated. There is no exotic, tropical or Latin flavor to be found on this piece, and I have to admit that I am avoiding it whenever I can. Soft Lights And Sweet Music makes the situation better due to its interesting surfaces and rhythmical patterns. Not only does the cymbal-heavy structure change from jazzier to syncopated sections and back again, there is also a short harmonica intersection built in for fans of Tommy Morgan & Warren Barker’s Tropicale (1958). The piano is yet again jumpy, its tonality, however, is much more euphonious.


While the band returns to exotic form with the top-notch I Never Had A Chance which is turned into a guiro-laden Bossa Nova full of bongos, echoey maracas, spellbinding guitar strings and a vivacious piano that is torn between a mirthful majesty and a tropical aura, How Deep Is The Ocean is another purified piano arrangement with Rene Paulo’s instrument being the only source of luminescence. Moving from grandeur over Blues-tinged colors to whisper-quiet phases of yearning, this contemplative piece is nonetheless a tad lighter than Rhapsody off side A. Much better is Remember with its gentle acoustic guitar stream, glockenspiel glints and vibraphone mystery and wonderfully blissful waves of piano tercets. Remember is moony, laid-back and very mollifying. A great hit. The final Puttin’ On The Ritz destroys this mood and ends the album with the literal bang. The bongo beat remains its best feature, but the nerve-racking impetuosity of the piano is all too much for me. Again, there is nothing wrong with the skillful presentation. A true maestro sits on the piano. This convoluted and harsh arrangement is simply not my cup of tea.


While the final tune might be a lackluster one, this is no surprise in the realms of Exotica, for many of Arthur Lyman’s or Martin Denny’s worst takes were put to the outro dungeons, so to speak. Apart from this flaw, Rene Paulo’s Tropical Heat Wave is a gem of a piano-led album. The first three tracks cater to the needs of vintage Exotica fans due to their balmy, life-like transformation of tropical temperatures into music, be it in the form of lazy afternoon settings in one’s hammock as in Love And The Weather, the wraithlike Exotica glitz on Heat Wave or a more heated dance-driven Bossa Nova ground on Reaching For The Moon, it is crystal clear that this exotic triptych lures fans of the genre with catchy melodies, superb textures and a splendid interplay, the latter of which is often amiss once Paulo loses himself in one of the many elaborate, almost labyrinthine piano sequences. The inclusion of exotic instruments elevates this album into higher spheres, as does the lack of Latinisms which are so easily at hand.


Rene Paulo’s Black Coral remains his exotic masterpiece, but to me there is no doubt about the raison d’être of Tropical Heat Wave. Fans of Irving Berlin who know most or even all of his compositions will naturally have a home match and can both dissect the many improvisations the group hid in the material and bathe in the pool of knowledge. I am no accomplished expert in regard to Irving Berlin, not at all, but even if you are listening to this release from the Exotica angle, you will benefit from the arrangements, the sparkling vibraphones and melodious hooks. I would have wished Rene Paulo did not try to be overly in the limelight, but this is a personal taste which does not imply a specific fault with the album. He is the leader of the group after all. Since his work is available in a remastered re-issue since the summer of 2010, you can easily pre-listen to it via iTunes or Amazon. The first three tracks and Remember are my top picks for what it’s worth, but you cannot do too much wrong if you are willed to accept the focus and variety of the given material.


Exotica Review 174: Rene Paulo Group – Tropical Heat Wave (1963). Originally published on Jan. 26, 2013 at