Martin Denny






Hypnotique by pianist and composer Martin Denny (1911–2005) is a vivacious eleven-track album of Far Eastern and Japanized aural gems. Released in 1959 on Liberty Records, it is a dream come true for Exotica fans who prefer pentatonic sequences and glistening sparks in their otherwise birdcall-accentuated Jazz works. Martin Denny has always been keen on delivering a great wealth of instruments whose textures were, at least on some of his unique songs or renditions, admittedly more important than the euphony of the melodious structures.


On Hypnotique, Denny tries something different and potentially audacious: not only is his quartet accompanied by a choir called the Jack Halloran Singers on a few songs, there are many string players on board as well, and while their number is not as huge as the amount of instrumentalists involved in David L. Miller's 101 Strings orchestra, they bolster and enlarge the soundscape noticeably, and decidedly so. Some listeners might see this as a kind of desperate move: after dozens of albums in the 50's, Denny and his fellow musicians – Julius Wechter on the mallet instruments, August "Augie" Colón as the dedicated percussionist and animal imitator as well as bassist Harvey Ragsdale – seemingly decide to wind up their enchanting thicket with even more vocals, chants and strings, among them many Japanese instruments such as the koto and shamisen, just so they can fight the impression of a repetitive formula. This perception is definitely correct, but the reasons are not worrisome at all. Denny simply tries to rev up the scope of production, and I would not even dare to state that the singers or strings are the sole reason for this album's huge success concept-wise; the truth of the matter is found in the coherence, the residency in Asian climes, the enthralling polyphony and stunning melodies.


Three tracks are created by Martin Denny, with the remaining eight building a gallimaufry of Western compositions which are then spiced with Asian ingredients. If you love the Asian songs that are found on almost each and every one of Denny's albums – Buddhist Bells and M'Bira off Primitiva (1958) come to mind –, you won't simply fall in love with Hypnotique… you'll feel the urge to be it.


The hypnotic session starts with what I perceive as one of Martin Denny's very best Exotica tracks ever created. Co-written with longterm collaborator Hal Johnson, Jungle Madness is coated in an enormously claustrophobic-weird aura that merges tropical exoticism with spacey tone sequences. Kicking off with Augie Colón's birdcalls and frog imitations, followed by Julius Wechter portentous vibraphone glints and the highly mysterious seven-note scheme by the Jack Halloran Singers, Jungle Madness may be much more downbeat than its vivifying title suggests, but bursts at the seams when it comes to shadiness and that certain Space-Age tonality. Despite the short sunburst in the middle of the song that is loaded with sun-dried xylophones and more jocular vibes, the eeriness continues in tandem with the bongo beat and sweeping maracas. This very eeriness, however, is a delightful one. As I tend to repeat every so often, this tune has to be heard to be believed, the singers give much depth and weight to a stellar synergy of a jungle setting with Lounge-alluding tones. An absolute highlight!


While Billy Hill's and Peter De Rose's On A Little Street In Singapore is a contrastive hyper-mellow Far Eastern phantasmagoria come true with galloping drums, a mesmerizing moiré of Asian strings, shimmering strings with a few admixed koto twangs as well as downwards spiraling vibraphone cascades in adjacency to Martin Denny's wind chime-accentuated piano play, Les Baxter's Voodoo Dreams is stripped off its string-heavy bones and tribalized by the means of male savage chants and divine female vocals as well as an eminently punchy high-plasticity conga-maraca underbrush. And this is already the whole trick. It is a percussion song par excellence, the only melodies being unleashed by the mélange of vocals.


The first string of tracks has been magnanimous, and Martin Denny's band makes sure to continue this successful path. Robert Hood Bowers's Chinese Lullaby draws from huge doses of Asian pentatonicism with effervescent xylophone tones, wind chimes, Chinese gongs and many enormously dreamy sections with John Mechigashari on the shakuhashi flute and Barbara Smith on the koto. The oscillation between sun-dappled vistas and crepuscular caverns of contemplation is usually problematic, but works very well here. In fact, I would go so far as to state that the placid phases are early instances of pre-New Age music, with the uplifting phases clearly rooted in Exotica lands.


Up next is the title-lending Hypnotique, a song Martin Denny co-wrote with Mack David. Supercharged with unsuspectedly threnodic-melodramatic strings covered in a dusky hue, it is only the aqueous drum droplets plus the xylophones that inject traces of jocular behavior. Even the scintillating glockenspiels cannot diminish the perceived heaviness or gravity of this tune. Hypnotique is a good one after all, but if I did not know it already, I would never believe this to be a track written and played by Martin Denny and his men. Side A is closed with William Christopher Handy's St. Louis Blues, a tune which foreshadows Tak Shindo's Far East Goes Western (1962) in which he tries to mediate between the Occidental, purely Western-based and the Oriental styles. My comparison might be forced but poignant, I hope. Denny's interpretation is great due to the prominent shakuhachi flute, the Honky Tonk atmosphere of the piano and the archetypically Eastern xylophone sprinkles. Add Chinese gongs and Harvey Ragsdale's droning double bass runlets, and you get yourself a hit.


Side B connects without any problem to the quality level. Denny's interpretation of We Kiss In A Shadow by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. has two signature ingredients that elevate its auroral structures: firstly the wonky-hollow marimbula played by Harvey Ragsdale, and secondly the members of the Jack Halloran Singers whose performance – divided into an all-female and an all-male choir –seems to be curiously de trop, but in a good way! It is as if Martin Denny distilled their chintzy-saccharine lyrics off another record and wove them into the coruscating chime-charged glitter world. George Gershwin's classic Summertime experiences the Asian treatment as well. Brazilian guiros are merged with the moist glissando of Denny's piano and Julius Wechter's superb vibe dreaminess. Augie Colón reprises his role as the birdcaller. The best thing about this version is the gorgeous interplay of mystical scents and genuinely warm-hearted airflows of thermal heat. Summertime has been cited and arranged so many times, even in Space-Age, Lounge and Exotica settings, but Denny's version has that second layer of birdcalls and sea shell percussion which may destract from Gershwin's eternal melody, but I worship this take nonetheless.


Les Baxter's Scimitar then merges a Spanish pride and prowess via its strings akin to Isaac Albéniz's Granada with shedloads of glockenspiels, vibes and xylophones, making this an almost exclusively mallet instrument-and string-based minimal take, whereas Martin Denny's own American In Bali is a rather complex tune, with Harvey Ragsdale reprising his role on the translucent marimbula while featuring a clear cut Manhattan-style Jazz rhythm which of course embodies the role as the American in this tune. Despite Denny weaving in a few tones of Yankee Doodle Dandy, this tune glows and gleams thanks to the crystalline sparks and bright sprinkles, with the outro, Raymond Egan's and Richard Whiting's Japanese Sandman, being a magnificently enchanting restructuring complete with rose-tinted Hollywood strings, harp licks and pointillized vibraphone aortas. Just crossing the mark of 100 seconds by a hair's breadth, Japanese Sandman is a wonderful closer bathing in string washes sans any comic relief.


Thank the tiki gods that Hypnotique is released in 1959, at both Martin Denny's creative peak and at the height of the Exotica craze. Imagine what would have happened if it was released in the 60's when the impact of Exotica slowly declined. Everyone would have thought that Martin Denny's quartet wants to camouflage the waning success with choirs and strings. Thankfully, Hypnotique is clearly released in the late 50's, but merges two distinct decades in an almost prophetic fashion: the typical Denny sound, i.e. that of a quartet with the occasional birdcalls, a huge variety of instruments and a clear nod towards the structures of Jazz on the one hand, and a more symphonic approach with Space-Age hues and Asian colors on the other. The very reason of any music-related quartet is to rely on each band member's skills and simply create a great record via these synergies. If, for any reason, several additional people are all of a sudden on board, the potential in terms of a stale aftertaste grows. But not here, not on Hypnotique.


Every single tune is a glorious hit, the mixture of Japanese and Japanized material creates the eponymous hypnotic fluxion, but nowhere does this estranging feeling swallow the listener more formidably than on the opener Jungle Madness, a downright epic Exotica piece where even the birdcalls are just optional ornaments and by no means essential for the grandiloquence, the at times uneasily enigmatic protuberances and the atmosphere. It sweeps over the listener like a mirage. The Jack Halloran Singers are a great addition to the album, not the slightest bit gimmicky or out of place, hence elevating each song they appear on. The performance quality ranges from astutely savage to sweet and syrupy, but once the singers are a tad too clichéd as on We Kiss In A Shadow, Martin Denny and his quartet already impose a course correction and let the lyrics submerge into glamorous-glitzy isles of enchantment. Is Hypnotique the best album by Martin Denny? Well, it at least provides the greatest string of top-notch Far Eastern material, and while Asian songs are always scattered in each of his albums, here we have eight to nine of them, depending on one's definition or expectations in terms of that very timbre. Hypnotique is available on LP, CD and a digital download version, and I ask everyone who is just distantly interested in Asian influences and Exotica to check it out as soon as possible. It is a tremendously captivating opus.


Exotica Review 237: Martin Denny – Hypnotique (1959). Originally published on Jul. 13, 2013 at