Arthur Lyman
Taboo 2

1960

 

 

 

 

Shudder! Time and again, Roman numerals or related "volume markers" that are attached to works of art cause goosebumps and rolling eyes. While this is especially true in terms of Hollywood's movie industry, it is surprisingly regularly applied to music-related artifacts as well. The vivacious Exotica genre has spawned many of these abominations throughout the decades, which itself is much more than a merely alienating side-issue given the fact that it is comparably easy to come up with imaginative titles within the genre's boundaries. Once this does not apply, it happens in most cases due to the reason of pointing a desultory listener to the continuation of a certain sound or formula, as seen on Martin Denny's Exotica Volume II (1957) and Exotica Volume III (1959), Terry Snyder's additional three volumes of Persuasive Percussion (1959) or in the possibly most impressive and awe-inspiring case of them all, Robert Drasnin's Voodoo II (2006) which was released a whopping 46 years after the original Voodoo! (1959), to just give a few examples. Even vibraphonist Arthur Lyman (1932–2002) fell prey to this lackluster naming convention, curiously enough at a time when he was already considered a real star.

 

Taboo 2 (also known as Taboo Vol. 2) marks the first entry of his 60's oeuvre, is released in 1960 on his house label Hi-Fi Records and serves as the stylistic node to his Exotica debut Taboo from 1958. Not only is Taboo 2 infamously feared for its horrible front artwork as pictured above, it is thankfully a contrapuntally strong work! I can only imagine that either the record label or Arthur Lyman and his men themselves decided to include the numeral in this reused title in order to showcase the beginning of a new era – the 60's – in which they wanted to continue the interweaving of preciously exotic realms in their music. And indeed: they succeed. The band setup has not changed, Arthur Lyman is still the mallet instrumentalist and leader, John Kramer is the bassist, Alan Soares the pianist and Harold Chang the dedicated percussionist, although each member is able to support Chang in his role on the fly, and frequently so. Eleven flamboyant renditions and one unique track by Lyman are gathered, all of them truly exotic, and without giving too much away as of yet, Taboo 2 harks back to the shape-shifting form of the original Taboo, with magnificent percussion sections, frantic tempos and the soothing susurrations of Pacific ambiences keeping the listeners on their toes. Read more about a work whose number at the end of its title gives no cause for alarm.

 

A first hint that the title of this album comes indeed from the shared mind of the band and not from an oppressive label directive is already given in the opener called Taboo Tu, written by the bandleader himself. It is a fantastic reprise of Margarita Lecuona's original Taboo incarnation, but changes the tone sequences boldly enough to not feel like a blatant copy. The feling is murky but moonlit, a setting it shares with Lecuona's original. John Kramer's double bass is delicately punchy, plinking triangles boost the ashen moonlight, croaking guiros, bongos and even djembes point to jungle thickets, the vibraphone layers draped in mystery. Alan Soares even injects a heterodyn of bold chords off Les Baxter's Quiet Village into the scenery, and though this addition sounds strange on paper or your reading device, it adds depth to the arrangement and puts smiles on the faces of people in the know. Taboo Tu orbits around moony shades and translucent scintillae and make it one of Arthur Lyman's best unique tunes – or possibly even the greatest – he has ever unchained on any of his albums.

 

Robert Maxwell's and Carl Sigman's Exotica standard Ebb Tide follows and launches in a promising way: field recordings of Hawaiian beaches and a mild alto flute are in a dialog with Soares' partially yearning and melancholic piano glissando. The field recording is audible all the time, even on the track's apex when frizzling cymbals introduce the short high point with energetically swirling pianos before the interpretation ends with mellow double bass blebs and crying seagulls.

 

Two traditional instrumentals follow, as these folkloristic remainders have always been the pet peeves of Arthur Lyman and band. They form splendid bases for truthfully exotic compositions that are mostly unknown to Western ears, even if they appeared in the forms of perfectly common piano arrangements. Babalik Ka Rin surprises with its Tango allusions à la castanets, typically besotted rhythm pianos and clinging tambourins. Only a few xylophones boost the Polynesian feel of this otherwise adamantly dusky first half, but the second half opens up with vivid bongos, more amicable pianos and the titular Babalik Ka Rin chants in Cuban style. It is this second portion that rescues the song from an all too dark obscurity.

 

The traditional Sakura is much more genteel and solemn on the other hand, harking back to Arthur Lyman's grand take on Moon Over A Ruined Castle off his LP Bwana Ā (1958) as well as Martin Denny's own Buddhist Bells off Primitiva (1958), a tune where he was flacked by koto player and Exotica hero Tak Shindo. Lyman launches Sakura with a Chinese gong and unites its sustain with wonderfully warped koto twangs, a galloping beat and a magnificently Japanese flute melody. The short rhythm marimbas and the threnodic piano work of Soares ennoble this beautiful concoction further. If you want a rather acidic brass-laden but nonetheless fantastic version of Sakura, check out Ricardo Santos' (aka Werner Müller) Holiday In Japan (1958) where it is included as well. However, if you want a take which unites the truthful Japanese proportions with sanguine organ bubbles, consider Paul Mark's interpretation from his album East To West (1961). 

 

Fans of Far Eastern Exotica will applaud either version and remain in this state even when the song is over, for Frank Loesser's and Alfred Newman's The Moon Of Manakoora is rising here, slightly renamed to The Moon Over Manakoora as it occasionally happens on other bands' albums too. The rendition is equally enchanting thanks to the firefly-like vibraphone sparkles, the upfront ukulele licks as well as the rare inclusion of an ethereal Hammond organ in the background, a clear marker of the 60's. In this soothing beachscape, Kramer's double bass slaps are working even better. If you do not mind the glaring ukulele-based nod to Hapa Haole, this version brings much joy. Side A closes with Esy Morales' fulminant Jungle Fantasy. Torn between Rapid-firing congas, Latin chants, frantic cowbells, birdcalls en masse and downwards spiraling piano tones of the lamenting kind, Jungle Fantasy reminds of Lyman's experiments of comic relief, but is a dedicated percussion beast with a specifically great second half sans any trace of melodies. An impressively fast-paced Exotica anthem thanks to Arthur Lyman.

 

What better way to start side B than with Les Baxter's Love Dance off his genre-inventing opus Ritual Of The Savage (1954)? Honky Tonk piano chords, luminescent glockenspiels, vibes plus tambourins in adjacency to emerald-green marimbas, various congas, djembes and bamboo rods altogether create a formidable cocktail. What Love Dance lacks in melodies, it delivers with various textures and surfaces. Dimitri Tiomkin's and Ned Washington's Return To Paradise is pure gold though: gigantic timpani, enigmatic wind chimes, wonderfully echoey bongos and one of Lyman's specialties, namely ship signal-like flutes, induce a mélange of paradisal dimensions. Distant vibes, growing cymbals and warmhearted piano chords make this an almost unrecognizable but splendidly transfiguring version of this classic and thus one of my absolute favorites. It is full of bliss and an interesting arrangement overall. Listeners who know the melody of this classic by heart will get the most out of Lyman's take, as he designedly silkens and lessens the recognizability of the main melody.

 

It is Helen Deutsch's and Bronisław Kaper's cute Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo which at first returns to the Lyman's dreamiest album ever, Hawaiian Sunset (1959). If this tune would have appeared on this album, I would not have raised a brow, at least not during its prelude form full of mellifluous, completely encapsulating vibraphone washes whose magic is all too soon diminished by a 3/4 time oompa-like rhythm piano, bongo droplets and the frizzles of maracas. Additional glockenspiels add flashing shimmers and white-tinted vesicles to the scenery. Not my kind of tune really, although all the right ingredients are prominently in place.

 

The traditional Hawaiian song Manhwani M'Pulele is all the more successful and impressive with its muffled bongos, Latin chants, sun-soaked vibes and constantly glitzy tambourin-bongo rhythm. At times, the tune even ventures into Yiddish traditions, though with clearly exotified complexions. Beautiful Kahana by Charles E. King is the fitting foil to Helen Lindsey Parker's Akaka Falls which Lyman already considered on Taboo. The majestic carefreeness continues here as well. The main melody is played on Lyman's vibes in a mild-mannered staccato way, all the while waves of birdcalls, glockenspiel glints and an accompanying ukulele finish off the lush diorama, with the outro Koni Au Ika Wai being one of the famous experiment Arthur Lyman is known for. Originally written by Charles E. King and King David Kalakaua, this tune is a military march-like parade tune with cheerful flute tones, orchestra bells, Honky Tonk pianos and pulsating double bass placentas. The ceremonial aspect is both grandiloquent and jocular, the vibes add traces of mystique to the otherwise most cheerful track; its blasting percussion schemes make it a strange hybrid and the proof that there is almost no album by Arthur Lyman whose final track truly impresses.

 

Taboo 2 is a vivid and truthful Exotica album. This remark may sound superfluous in terms of Arthur Lyman's career, but the 60's proved to be a different field for the vibraphonist and his band as they tried to loosen the formula by drawing from diverse material reminiscent to their non-exotic debut Leis Of Jazz (1957). Percussion Spectacular! aka Yellow Bird (1960) showed the first signs of this development. However, Taboo 2 lives up to its name and is full of esprit, wondrousness and colorful Exotica material. The addition of traditional takes proves once more to be a boon, especially Sakura succeeds big time with its huge doses of Far Eastern glitz. Exotica has always been about deception and the copying of certain traits, so dedicated-adamant musicologists might dislike Lyman's Polynesian and Asian renditions, but Taboo 2 works so well most of the time that it is both delighting and enlightening. Taboo Tu sails around the famous tone sequences of Señorita Lecuona's Taboo and at the same time integrates Quiet Village fragments while being chock-full of birdcalls, the lively Jungle Fantasy is all about percussion prowess, and Return To Paradise lures the listener with its strange but soothing arrangement where the vibes swirl far away in the background all the while the usual backing instruments are upfront. 

 

Taboo 2 shows Arthur Lyman entering the 60's in which he fondly remembers the album that started his Exotica-related solo career. In this regard, the calamitous number two is for once no soulless marker of a thoughtless addition that is attached out of necessity, but a hidden explanation of what to expect material-wise and future-related: "This is Arthur Lyman, bringing you the same joy in the 60's as he did in the 50's." Naturally, if one ignores these dates and just concentrates on the music – an approach which I encourage all the time at AmbientExotica –, one can innocently bathe in the shimmering beauty of the eleven tracks (plus the quirky closer). The amount and consistency of the birdcalls rounds the album off.

 

Seven out of 12 songs feature these human-made noises. Without painting a too dark picture, let me compare these seven chirping arrangements to Arthur Lyman's Percussion Spectacular! of the same year, where only one out of 12 songs comprises birds! While these fake animal sounds are by no means absolutely essential, they are beautiful markers nonetheless. Taboo 2 maintains this innocence and playfulness. It is a precious gem that should not be neglected due to the bitter aftertaste its numeral causes. This time, things are fortunately different. Taboo 2 is easily available on LP, CD and digitally on iTunes, Amazon and Co.

 

Exotica Review 227: Arthur Lyman – Taboo 2 (1960). Originally published on Jun. 15, 2013 at AmbientExotica.com.