Mr. Ho's Orchestrotica
Where Here Meets There






Where Here Meets There is the third album by Third Stream Exotica group Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica, self-released by Phoenix, Arizona-based bandleader Brian O’ Neill and available to purchase on vinyl, CD and download versions directly from After the gleaming brass-fueled big band album The Unforgettable Sounds Of Esquivel (2010) and the more intimate quartet corker Third River Rangoon (2011), Where Here Meets There features the talent of a quintet in nine colorful – and wildly elaborate – compositions.


The personnel is as follows: Geni Skendo plays various flutes, among them bass flutes and the Japanese shakuhachi, Shane Shanahan provides the exotic percussion, Jason Davis slaps his double bass, Tev Stevig plays every Oriental stringed instrument one might possibly desire, among them an oud and tanbur, with Brian O’Neill being the artistic director, mallet instrumentalist and composer; five songs are credited to his aptitude, but many a rendition is severely influenced by his innovative mind as well, be it through interim segues or even complete rhythm shifts. And of the latter there are aplenty! It is comparably hard to review Mr. Ho’s albums in-depth. I have certainly somehow managed to do it a few times already, but only succeeded due to Brian O’Neill’s detailed information, vast input and freely available side notes on his website and newsletter that allow a peek behind the curtains. This is especially true in regard to the classic material that is funneled through the multifaceted arrangements.


In short: the quintet loves eclecticism. I cannot stress this enough. It is the reason Brian O’Neill prefers the Third Stream or World music notion rather than relying solely on the vintage Exotica marker of yore. The interaction between the players and the various textural patterns they create are more important than hummable hymnic superstructures. And yet there is magic all over the album. The Orient's past, the Far Eastern present, the future of Mexico… tally ho! 


As an Exotica fan, I cannot imagine a better opener than Brian O’Neill’s own Chiseling Music. No, it does not enshrine the famous majestic tone sequence of Les Baxter’s Quiet Village, but its nod to the genre craze is multifaceted and impinges on both the conceptual stage and the actual sound waves that reach the listener’s ear. Three particular triumphs come to mind immediately: firstly, the military march structure is distantly akin to Arthur Lyman’s and Martin Denny’s infamous finales which graced many of their 50’s albums and usually united a march-like physiognomy with a quirky comic relief. Secondly, this march structure is not gimmicky, let alone alatoric, but based on Mr. Ho’s artistic vision of "an army of walking palm trees going off to their ‘death’ to be carved." As an Exotica fan, I have enough guts and self-awareness to hail this as one of the genre’s more colorful plots in lieu of, say, the ubiquitous – and welcome – theme of a splashy cascade in a rain forest. Thirdly, the artistic director comes up with a real biggie, a DIY miniature Marching Machine which simulates the feet of the walking palms and comes frighteningly close to a real army.


Due to this aesthetic triad alone, Chiseling Music is worth it. But there is more: Tev Stevig’s Middle Eastern oud mélange, Geni Skendo’s bass flute breezes plus shakuhachi sinews and Brian O’Neill’s pristinely spiraling vibraphone glints are tightly held together by Shane Shanahan’s billow-like cymbal coruscation and Jason Davis’ bass flumes. The opener showcases the interdependence of every texture involved. Rather than spawning euphonious overtones, it is these shadier interstices and rhythm shifts, the ligneous tonewoods and bongo blebs as well as the dun-colored arabesques that make Chiseling Music a critter that is torn between a streamlined sense of tact and saltatory segues.


The pentatonic double bar of Chiseling Music leads to the comparably rectilineal Sansaz, another unique piece specifically written with this album in mind. Stevig’s long-neck tanbur from the Orient is multiplexing Sahara mirages of thermal heat, all the while Shanahan’s percussion devices delight with their decay, attack rate and plasticity. O’Neill’s spheroidal pointillism on the vibes is the adjuvant, the tumular cryogen to a partially uncanny scenery. Once the vibes change into a backdrop of elasticized glissando, their paradoxically purified mystique conflates well with the rubicund foreground. The composition strongly benefits from the laid-back tact, as it allows the listener to absorb the entanglement and placement of each instrument. This is still Third Stream music, but eminently more accessible and cautiously benign. The quintet makes sure to fill the aural epithelium with blotchy patterns and a prolonged circumambience. Although a warm tune, it is loaded with dubious galanty shows and doubts.


Meanwhile, the centroid long-form piece Maracatune For Chalco runs for over seven and a half minutes, breaks the medium-related habit of all those abridgement-oriented corkers of the vintage vinyl days and erects a Brazilian monolith. Brian O’Neill uses a trick that was originally favored and driven forward by the MIDI craze in the 80’s: replacing a – usually synthetic – instrument with another one whose surface has next to nothing in common with the exchanged one. It so happens that this so-called Maracatune substitutes the "battery of percussion," as O’Neill states, with non-percussion instruments. The result is still a percussion-focused staccato arrangement, but with melodious vestibules; be it Jason Davis’ stop-and-go bass undercurrent, Geni Skendo’s flute bursts or the magical interim euphoria of the bandleader’s vibraphone shards, this piece feels like a journey in comfort. Oscillating between technicolor and hatched pastel brethren, Maracatune For Chalco is yet again embracing every listener who is more in favor of textural intertwinements and willed to neglect Pop-like timbres.


Oddly enough, one of the most sophisticated compositions with a lot of classical elements sewn throughout its runtime sports the cheekiest screwball title: Would You Like Bongos With That Fugue? is a question that can only be affirmed here at AmbientExotica. The multiple innuendos and allusions O’Neill has sneaked into the diorama are the real stars of this piece and prove to be epiphanies for many an aficionado, but admittedly grow over the humble reviewer’s head whose layman’s understanding is feeble. Be that as it may, the title freely points out the appearance of at least one contrapuntal motif. Turns out that it is two, namely Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata In D Minor and Fugue In G Minor. Their integration ought to be significant for the classic fans who will recognize their audacious yet courageous injection. Exotica fans will have a field day with this tune nonetheless, as guiro-infused Cha Cha hints meet, mesh and depart with Berance attributes, a traditional Balkan dance that was probably suggested by Tev Stevig who is an expert in that field. This is a rather bubbling tune. Its circumference encapsulates Middle Eastern oud twangs, clanging drums, dreamy flute tones and the glittering enigma of carefully placed wind chimes. The last minute sees a particularly convoluted Jungle-like beat scheme in adjacency to softened fir-green vibe dots. Every partaking instrument seems strangely detached and independent, but this works to the song’s advantage by creating a flow, a laissez-faire contingency which poignantly pays homage to – and is a voluntary victim of – the purposeful tohubohu.


Less synergetic but still a hybrid, the following Ritual Mallet Dance unites the genius of Manuel De Falla’s oft-considered exotic Ritual Fire Dance with Dizzy Gillespie’s and Chano Pozo’s Guachi Guaro. The blending works stupefyingly well, enchants to the maximum and is glued together by O’Neill’s own intersections. De Falla’s ballet-adapted blip sequence leads to further helical vibe-based alacrities and sudden instances of a flute-backed legato euphony. Even though the rhythm tends to shift and the drums are deliberately hectic, the quintet’s balancing act between bright colors, comprehensible melodies and discerning eclecticism is a feast. It does not even take a particularly erudite listener! If it is Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica which introduces the listener to De Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance instead of, for instance, Georges Montalba, Edmond De Luca or Morton Gould, blitheness is still around the bend, and swiftly approaching.


The following triptych is equally witty and prodigious: Brian O’Neill is a luminary in all things related to George Gershwin, and so the musical director’s adaptation of Prelude For Piano I, II and III altogether runs for over 12 minutes. Unsurprisingly, Gershwin fans will distill the most out of this, but will rediscover this piece completely anew. There is no piano on board. Fitting. Once this expected shock is overcome, Prelude For Piano enthralls with grinding drum patterns and – most importantly so – true-bred paradisal flute tones by Geni Skendo and a diffuse polyphonic calypsofied ornamentation on the vibes, with Jason Davis’ bass being delicately warped and spacious.


Prelude For Piano II is another treat, as it unites Gershwin’s original vision (sans piano) with Peggy Lee’s and Sonny Burke’s Siamese Cat Song. The idea of this blending harkens back to a trip to a Disney-themed international sandcastle competition in Belgium. Yo! While the first phase of the second prelude sports bass-heavy vibraphone formations that feel vaulted due to their magnanimous afterglow, the second phase is strikingly – and obviously – Far Eastern, with tambourines, bass flute and galloping beats turning Gershwin’s pianorama upside down and throwing it into the melting pot that is Exotica. The admixed short intermission of lunacy is as good a marker as any for the good-natured blatancy. Prelude For Piano III then interpolates the perceived frenzy once again. Oud-underlined segues, shakers rattling like snakes, vermeil vibe luminescences and the feeling of a horse barn’s complete supply of harness round off the shapeshifting Gershwin epitome. What did Don Ralke once claim in 1960? But You’ve Never Heard Gershwin With Bongos. Turns out that another chapter needs to be written.


Where Here Meets There ends with a real treat, even though by the look of things, this very treat seems bland and obvious on paper. After all the boisterous transmutations, the enmeshment of the East with the West, the embroidery of exotic fibers and North American standards and the joyously labyrinthine uniqueness that is found in Brian O’Neill’s compositions, Mr. Ho waves his listeners goodbye with the rendition of an Exotica gold standard, one that was only a side note in the original composer’s long-winded career, but whose craftsmanship, charming beauty and alluring magnetism only grew over the past decades. Enter Black Orchid by vibraphonist Cal Tjader, a transfiguring and enormously glorifying vignette about the rarest of all flowers. Story-wise, there is not much else to this song; as I have previously implied, the Exotica genre shies away from cogitating schemes in general and plaintive lyrics in particular.


Arrangement-wise, however, Black Orchid is a floral gemstone transformed into music, sporting elated concupiscence aquiver with pleasure. Naturally, Brian O’Neill does things differently by taking the melodious base frame and using it as a blueprint for a conversion into 3/4 time. And this is only the beginning. Geni Skendo plays the lead melody on the flute, accompanied by the bandleader’s spiraling vibes. At times, O’Neill takes over the melody and is himself supported by Tev Stevig’s oud. Going that road further, Stevig then unleashes an oud solo that is backed by Shane Shanahan’s goblet drums and plinking tambourines. The difference in harmonies between Tjader’s and O’Neill’s arrangements is striking: Tjader injects the piano-based melody into a riverbed of bliss and cozy mellifluousness, whereas O’Neill is keener on allowing the darkness of the backdrop to influence the more elaborate approach. This parallax panorama adds wideness and three-dimensionality to the scenery. The result is colder, more granular and ashen than Tjader’s warm blur. In the end, O’Neill’s Black Orchid is no rendition. It serves as the starting position for Third Stream Exotica where the textures and their interlocking is the key feature. It is unlikely to love both orchids equally, but I applaud O’Neill’s variation because of its many differences rather than its similitude or -larity.


Where Here Meets There is a superimposition of a Jazz album, as Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica serves a record whose blending of seemingly contradictory and incompatible styles is as important as the cavalcades of textures, the interlocutions of the instruments’ surfaces and last but definitely not least the omnipresent nods to that vintage feeling. It does not demand a skilled listener, whatever that means and whoever is ostracized by this description. However, what the album does need is a devoted fan who favors complex scintillae, shapeshifting rhythms and other eruptive surprises. No worries, Brian O’Neill’s band neither dishes up a Cool Jazz album nor a serpentine piece of program music. And yet Where Here Meets There functions as a strict contrast to the comprehensible euphony and easily digestible melodies of the eternally flamboyant Exotica genre.


The bandleader fathoms Jazz arabesques and girdling kaleidoscopes; catchy and shower-compatible melodies occur only accidentally. Jazz aficionados who degrade Exotica as Easy Listening, watch out! The result is Exotica, but envisioned from the bottom to the top, with its sophisticated rhythms and playful bursts coming first, and then, at the end of the day, glints of magnificent tone sequences. Brian O’Neill’s distills the old concept of escapism and moulds it into his unique seasonable framework. There are many ways to enjoy Jazz, with the basic premise – and promise – being as follows: there is not one genre called Jazz. Regardless of this adage, the listener better enjoys, absorbs and lives for the glacial vibraphone drops, the desert-evoking plucking on an oud, the double bass undulation, rhythms that change the aggregate phase time and again, and finally, O’Neill’s Marching Machine. If this is a given and you know (of) the works of Manuel De Falla, George Gershwin, Cal Tjader and other renowned composers, Where Here Meets There is the nucleus, the sanctuary, the melting pot of the old and the new, of stringency and contingency, of Third Stream and – thank the tiki gods – Exotica.


Further listening and reading:

  • The album is available directly from and all music shops and digital stores. 
  • Follow Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica on Twitter: @orchestrotica.


Exotica Review 287: Mr. Ho's Orchestrotica – Where Here Meets There (2013). Originally published on Nov. 30, 2013 at