Les Baxter
Jewels Of The Sea






Is Jewels Of The Sea by conductor, mastermind and legendary songwriter Les Baxter (1922–1996) a late reaction to Nelson Riddle's Sea Of Dreams and Love Tide? All of these three records have been released on Capitol Records, Riddle's ones in 1958 and 1961, Baxter's LP in 1961. According to the liner notes, prospects and style-related cues, these albums were specifically recorded to either lure the listener to an unspecified destination far across the sea or letting enjoy him- or herself on a dreamy beach with that special person nearby. Kitsch and schmaltz have to be expected, the records themselves do not exclusively cater to the Exotica crowd, but as I am pointing out time and again, Nelson Riddle both accidentally and purposefully targets the specific needs of the crowd with the help of languorous strings, glinting vibraphones and harp susurrations. And what a coincidence, Les Baxter does exactly the same, but whereas the vast majority of Riddle's material is based on renditions and interpretation of romantic ballads and rose-tinted anthems, Les Baxter's Jewels Of The Sea truly lives up to the title's promise, since a whopping ten out of the 12 compositions are written and concocted by Baxter himself.


And there is another important fact: what Nelson Riddle’s vision lacked in aquatic colors, Les Baxter’s LP delivers in bold doses. Everything feels bluish, turquoise, green. This is an Exotica album with a gargantuan Space-Age twang, taken way below sea level in order to aurally visit underwater utopias! Mallet instruments and harps gleam like dancing rays of sunshine or moonbeams on the sound waves that lead right into an ocean of blissful orchestra strings and genteel brass infusions. Yikes, now my writing style resembles the prosaic liner notes, but in this rare case, they are astute. Even the uplifting tunes Les Baxter comes up with evoke a strong dreaminess and a place of shelter. Read on to know more about one of coxswain Les Baxter's greatest symphonic and most stringent LP's of all times.


And away the listener floats right from the get-go, without any narrative arc, almost immediately reaching an interesting destination that would have been the proud endpoint of anyone’s journey. Here, it is just the beginning: Sunken City is indeed a terrifically glitzy jewel of the enchanting kind, its timbre being soothing and encapsulating. Launching with distantly droning timpani that accentuate an enormously mellow two-note horn motif without any traces of attack or bile, Baxter includes snugly vibraphones in front of the backdrop of diffuse string washes. A theremin-resembling ondioline is then prominently placed in the center, a forerunner of the synthesizer that was heretofore used in Frank Hunter’s Exotica opus White Goddess (1959), its vibrato sounding like a warped fiddle, adding a mysterious scent to the arrangement. Spiraling harps resemble the underwater undulation, a choir of mermaids rises in juxtaposition to paradisiac flutes and orchestra bells. This climax is then ennobled by a final mélange of hazily droning brass instruments. A superb start and one of Baxter’s best unique cuts.


Stars In The Sand then boosts the melodrama in its prelude when the threnodic fugue of the lead violins cuts through the aqueous atmosphere. Glistening harpsichords, sparkling mallet instruments, silky harp riffs and legato washes of the remaining string instruments then diminish the lamento and turn the mood around into a cozy state of indifference. Of particular success are the mentioned string washes which are supercharged with Space-Age traits, warped in their euphony, bolstered in their polyphony and successfully accompanied by a turquoise-tinted piano segue. The following Sea Nymph is a rather upbeat anthem of wondrousness that is arranged in the veins of Nelson Riddle’s award-winning arrangement of Witchcraft off his eponymous album from 1958. Amicable four-note brass vertebrae and a liquedous moiré of mallet instruments lead into the main melody played on a tenor saxophone. The second lead instrument is an alto flute which is played in a particularly lofty and gaseous way, the mood is carefree and benign, but most of all truly catchy.


Singing Sea Shells then decelerates the tempo a bit in favor of an augmentation of the wideness. Spacey strings, their pizzicato brethren and harp tittles meander through the flute-underlined bay, rising and falling during their permanent entanglement. This composition works so well due to its dreaminess, a description that is not of much help, for you can apply it to the whole material presented on Jewels Of The Sea, but in the case of Singing Sea Shells, this assertion receives a new notion. The aurally depicted events seem to take place in front of the listener, mimicking a diorama, but their mood range cannot be pinpointed in a definitive fashion. It is a mellifluous, warmhearted offering, but not entirely harmonious let alone ultimately interpretable. Like light refractions in the water, it escapes from each approach of explanation.


Whereas Dolphin is loaded with exhilarative exuberance in the forms of bubbling flutes, scintillating mallets and a legato string melody whose redolence of freedom is interpolated by many blebs and vesicles of string glissandos, frizzling maracas, timpani and circumambient flute, it is the final song of side A, Dawn Under The Sea, that provides the strangest timbre Les Baxter has ever unchained in his Exotica material: a quirky dissonance of synthetic chimes and glockenspiels is put in front of perfectly soothing harp waves, and their catchy cacophony is not of the enchanting kind; it is downright bewitching! The unfolding soundscape is then occasionally struck with these coruscating glitters and pushing string injections, everything feels execrated and forlorn, a slight flow of madness twirls through the waterscape. This is Space-Age par excellence, much closer to the Moon than the focused theme of the LP. This diversified composition is the only hit-or-miss affair of the album. It is so out of this world that Les Baxter fans either love it or loathe it. I am torn.


The Enchanted Sea is the so-called combo breaker since it is not a composition from the feather of Les Baxter but originally written by Claude Debussy. Kicking off side B and based on his three symphonic delineations of La Mer from 1905, its impressionistic aura provides a balmy navigable water once Mr. Baxter is involved. It comprises of a fascinating pastiche: the lead melody on various strings is wadded and extended by iridescent pizzicato harps, transfiguring flutes and saccharine moonlit mallet instruments plus pianos. This is one of the more streamlined arrangements, no spitefulness intended. The actual vignettes shift their shapes, motifs are reintroduced and then loom in the background afterwards; in this regard, La Mer is rather complex for a supposed Easy Listening album. Its esprit and voluminosity, however, largely remain the same and make the potentially most complex offering one of the easiest to access. A synergetic success! 


While Girl From Nassau shares many characteristics with Les Baxter’s other femme- or girl-related tunes, for instance the pizzicato strings, the maidenly mellowness of the flutes and the gorgeous poeticizing beauty of the string washes, it is The Ancient Galleon that takes the buoyancy of the endemic aquascape to a new height, making the jingle-like panache of its first five seconds almost advertisement-worthy: floating strings, a catchy flute and golden shimmering pianos flow into a kettle drum- and cymbal-covered phantasmagoria of emerald-green strings which whirl in the background, only growing stronger ever so slightly in order to support the pinnacle that is boosted by mixed choirs, enigmatic vibraphone cascades, blurred trombones and tubas. This tune is specifically progressive and cinematic and can be considered another hallmark of Baxter’s vivacious oeuvre. 


Coral Castle is equally captivating with its many mallet instruments acting as the diffractive flamboyancy of the titular corals, the flutes emphasize the dreaminess further, but it is the crescendo of the strings in the latter phase that elevates the majesty of the castle. Dave Dexter Jr.’s Dancing Diamonds, on the other hand, relies on the same ingredients but pieces them together in a different way. A double bass-backed mercurial rhythm serves as the base frame for music box-resembling fairy tale tone sequences of utter glee and joy, with the final tune being the eponymous Jewels Of The Sea, a breathtaking piece of gentle piano aortas, otherworldly strings and a surprising rhythm shift with a dense percussion thicket of bongos, congas and claves. Is this the best tune of the album? Questions like these are always up for debate, but if you are fond of Les Baxter’s ever-changing maelstroms of affability, this tune is be the driftwood to hold on.


Nothing tops Les Baxter's Caribbean Moonlight from 1955. While he did not feature any unique song on this album, it is his gorgeous Space-Age incarnations built on the classic book of songwriters that outshine the originals and induce a fascinating night in paradise. Now that this is out of the way, I can say similar things about Jewels Of The Sea: to me, it is Baxter's greatest album of the 60's. From the first fir-green flecks of Sunken City over the advertisement jingle-compatible notes of The Ancient Galleon to the shapeshifting finale that is the title track, this album bleeds water, moisture and mystique. No field recordings of waves or gaseous bubbles are ever used, but these are not needed anyway, for the orchestra strings, horns, reeds and mallet instruments are capable enough of evoking a dreamscape par excellence that lives up to the wildest imaginations. Add a few curious but highly successful Space-Age ingredients to the instrumental pool such as the exotic ondioline and a harpsichord, and you get yourself a real treat. Les Baxter's waterworld is blazingly fluorescent without becoming all too disney-fied. The melodies are strong and catchy, especially so on Dave Dexter Jr.'s Dancing Diamonds, but not overly harmonious or Pop-like. 


I would still go so far as to deny Jewels Of The Sea the status of an Easy Listening album. Yes, you can listen to it on the go, it is neither convoluted nor labyrinthine, but then again, its catchiness is not served on a silver platter; it is caused by the entanglement of the various textures. The color range or timbre is decidedly focused, and that is a good thing. No other Exotica-related work is that moist, blue-tinged, aquatic and delightfully diluted. There is no questionable inclusion on here. The next best thing to a peculiar inclusion would be Dawn Under The Sea with its hyper-strange tone sequences and surfaces, but even this tune does not break the smoothness of the record, as it resides in the same color range. Jewels Of The Sea is not the most-typical of Les Baxter's albums to own as an Exotica fan, but its maritime magic is positively adamant from the first note already. A true classic that proves why there is much to rave about this artist, arranger and writer. The album is easily available on vinyl and CD as well as in a download version in digital music stores.


Exotica Review 228: Les Baxter – Jewels Of The Sea (1961). Originally published on Jun. 15, 2013 at AmbientExotica.com.