Martin Denny & Si Zentner
Exotica Suite






In honor of the flavor of Exotica Review 100, the 200th work I'm reviewing involves Martin Denny (1911–2005) again, at least partially so – or shock: maybe not at all –, but more about this as the review progresses. There are three particular Exotica works that are enormously large in their presented scope and faithfully exotic value, although each of them for different reasons: there is for one The Surfmen's multifaceted LP The Sounds Of Exotic Island (1960) which is pleasing due to its variety of original cuts and classic Exotica material, but even more so because it has been recorded by a super group of the best Latin and exotic musicians out there, ranging from legend Jack Costanzo to drummer Irv Cottler.


Second choices would be Alfred Newman's and Ken Darby's often-cited gigantic Ports Of Paradise (1961) as well as Dominic Frontiere's Pagan Festival (1959) and Stanley Wilson's Pagan Love (1961) due to their huge choirs and orchestral scopes. There are even larger works, for instance by the 101 Strings, but the aurally painted wideness and the melodramatic panoramas of these three records are overwhelming and eclectic which is both good and bad, depending on whether one favors the jazzier side of the genre or tends to the prospects of Hollywoodization. And thirdly, there is the work which I dedicate this review to: Exotica Suite, released in 1962 on Liberty Records in costly editions with a hessian embroidery in silver, gold or blue on the left side.


Every aspect about this work's existence is large and important. A blurb in one sentence: Exotica kickstarter Martin Denny meets renowned trombonist Simon "Si" Zentner (1917–2000) and big band arranger Bob Florence (1932–2008) in order to play a suite of 12 vivacious compositions from the feather of symphonic Exotica heavyweight Les Baxter (1922–1996). A dream come true? Mmmmostly! No clash of egos takes place, everyone of these luminaries knows what to do. Baxter might be the man behind the songs, but there is not one single instance where the wraithlike Space-Age dreaminess of Baxter's Hollywood strings appears.


The reason has already been implied: Bob Florence arranges the orchestra. He is known for his big band setups for many producers and works of his own such as Bongos / Reeds / Brass (1960), and is not overly keen on featuring violins. And why should he? The chosen material of Martin Denny and trombonist Si Zentner does seldom rely on these instruments anyway. The soundscape can thus be best described with the dualistic term Polynesian Latin. Hot-blooded brass eruptions mesh with aqueous percussion schemes. I am taking a closer look at the incessant vivacity in the following paragraphs and try to answer the question whether Les Baxter's handwriting is still in place despite his absence during the recording session and the lack of strings.


The album kicks off with the rapid-firing flamboyant fanfare that is Temple Pageant. Staccato brass blebs, their legato next of kin as well as marimba droplets and piano spirals mesh with frantic bamboo rods, bongo sections and classic drum smashes. The mood is scintillating, the air vibrates due to the amicable catchiness of the horn melodies. A mysterious aura of an arcane temple is neglected in favor of a hectic technicolor presentation. A great opener! The iconic Tiki follows, and it is here that an enigmatic tension is already unleashed. Dark piano accents coalesce with chinking tambourins, the main melody is played by Zentner on a very silky alto flute-mimicking trombone and underpinned by marimbas. The true highlight to me, however, is the impressive piano segue which glows in sunset colors and boasts with euphony.


Tiki becomes a bit more sinister when acidic brass stabs hit the listener all the while the cowbell-laden and windchime-traversed percussion thicket becomes very dense, but it remains in decidedly good-natured tone regions. Even quartets are able to bring this tiki god to life, as a demo tape of vibraphonist Jerry Sun recently showed, itself better known in its transformation to an LP called The Exotic Sounds Of Jerry Sun (2011).


Up next is the dreamy The Enchanted Reef with its saccharine brass breezes, field recordings of birds, cascading piano spirals and Si Zentner's trombone altogether being placed in a location whose wondrousness is rounded off by with wind chimes. I would have loved to hear this song with a proper orchestra, for the mellow horns sound a tad too kitschy, but this is nit-picking, especially so when I consider the becalming ambiance that flows through the whole arrangement.


The next track may be called Demons And Dragons, but is a slight disappointment in terms of its exotic flavor. It is a clear cut Saturday night show tune with clanging hi-hats and drums, wave-like double bass aortas, sizzling maracas and positively huge brass melodies. It is close to my heart nonetheless because of its bedazzling glee, ever-changing patterns and verve. I even consider it one of my top picks. While Legend Of The Island Gods brings the sun-soaked Copa Cabana into anyone's room thanks to the sandy maracas, the luminescent orchestra bells, the Latin piano motif and the stereotypical but delicate horn infusions, the closer of side A is called Bali Monkey Dance and turns out to be the second metropolitan concrete jungle track with Latin piano sparks, bongos and smashing cymbals as well as one gorgeous moment of gleaming piano notes. Despite its title, it is luckily no quirky or comical track rather than a genuinely uplifting one.


Side B continues in the same successful fashion. Pagan Ritual mixes exotic shakers and bongos with an African horn flavor and Steppe-inducing piano melodies, whereas Jungle Train provides the formulaic but entirely welcome railway depiction via double bass jots and shakers. Zentner plays his signature instrument a bit too mildly, I would have liked more pizzazz and esprit, but I have to admit that it fits greatly into the greater scheme of warm marimba aortas and glittering vesicles. The eight-note motif is catchy, but becomes lamer as it is stressed for too long in the middle section.


The Stolen Idol appears next and is a song for slow dancers at some enchanted evening. The brass sections whir balmily in the distance, the glittering flecks of the triangles and glockenspiels boost the nocturnal take in a splendid fashion. A short change in rhythm makes things exciting for a moment, though the tempo itself does not change rather than the voluminosity of the percussion layer. Stolen Idol oscillates between Manhattan memories and elysian exoticism, but tends to the former category. Lotus Pool targets the yearning of the crowd much better, starting with a field recording of chirping birds of paradise, moving over to Far Eastern piano sequences and then placing deliciously hollow bongos in tandem with croaking guiros next to Zentner's Western trombone melodies. The penultimate Tribe Of The Moon is a definite gem and comprises of lofty piano tercets that iridesce in all colors of the rainbow, bone-dry deep tubas and effervescent space horns. This galactic tune is Space-Age Lounge music par excellence and is the catchiest tune of the whole album by a wide margin. Very great! The outro Calabash Annie shuttles between Singaporian piano-marimba couples and Occidental show tune flourishes, therefore displaying the implicit dichotomy of the whole album in the clearest fashion and could be considered a final nod to Les Baxter's fondness of naming many of his tracks after women.


Exotica Suite is the best brass-focused album for Exotica fans ever created. If one pre-listens to certain sections, one might doubt this bold assertion, as there are horn sections in each song that are completely rooted in North American styles. All other essential ingredients are of Latin origin. The pianos, trumpets and trombones do not necessarily mimic the lamenting love themes that are so commonplace, but the textures and characteristics of the respective instruments induce Latin manners no matter how hard I try to rule them out.


Highlights include the shady Tiki, the galactosamine-laden Tribe Of The Moon and the Brazilian beach vista called Legend Of The Island Gods. If I had to break down the album's style, I'd say it is mostly Latin, boldly Occidental, a bit Polynesian and contains a few traces of Asia. There is the sinister legend that Martin Denny was not involved in the studio session and just lent his name in order for it to appear on the artwork. I cannot falsify such claims, but it certainly fits with his household name and would be a foreshadowing time tunnel to Denny's Moog album which was created with his name on the front cover, but did not feature one single note played by him.


These shady things aside, if you are searching for similar albums that place the illusion of an Exotica quartet in front of an orchestral or big band-accompanied backdrop, there are many choices: Ferrante & Teicher's Pianos In Paradise (1962) finds both pianists and orchestra leader Nick Perito in a lush green jungle with the occasional exotified Jazz classic thrown in for reasons of variety. Likewise, pianist Stanley Black takes the paradisiac aura of his 1957 work Tropical Moonlight and meshes the stylistic traits of his trio with a resplendent orchestra loaded with exotic percussion instruments on, well, Exotic Percussion (1962). Milt Raskin's singular trip into exotic climes, Kapu of 1959, is a unique accordion-accentuated piece of Hawaiiana, whereas both Voodoo! (1959) and Voodoo II (2007) by Robert Drasnin feature female solo chants in front of gorgeously soothing dreamscapes.


And let me not forget Les Baxter's African Jazz and Jungle Jazz (both 1959), two of his rare 50's works that exchange dreamy strings for ebullient horns. Regardless of the few given choices I have just mentioned, Martin Denny's and Si Zentner's Exotica Suite is much more Latinized, but definitely uplifting and good-natured. Thankfully, it has recently been re-issued in a remastered digital form and is available on iTunes and Amazon MP3 among other stores. Vinyl collectors do not need to worry either. It is available at a fair price at the usual destinations. Just pick the hessian embroidery of your choice and watch your cats!


Exotica Review 200: Martin Denny & Si Zentner – Exotica Suite (1962). Originally published on Apr. 6, 2013 at