Martin Denny
Exotic Sounds From
The Silver Screen 





Exotic Sounds From The Silver Screen delivers what its title promises: pianist Martin Denny (1911–2005) and his quartet of birdcaller and bongo drummer August "Augie" Colón, vibraphonist Julius Wechter and bassist Harvey Ragsdale (plus guest bassist John Frigo) present 12 cuts from Hollywood’s greatest movies, whether they are contemporary at the time of release or comprise of examples that are already considered antediluvian back then. Still: is this really an Exotica album or just a jazzy sidestep to the concrete jungle of Hollywood, the very city where Martin Denny’s opus Exotica (1957) started it all?


Released in 1960 on Liberty Records, Exotic Sounds From The Silver Screen dives deep into the world of cinema as the quartet takes the – exclusively orchestral – core of the material and rearranges it in order to both resemble and truly enshrine the humbler spirit of Exotica. In addition, this album focuses on Asian timbres more often than not; a welcome subtheme! Therefore, Exotic Sounds From The Silver Screen is, believe it or not, a great addition to the Exotica formula in general, one which has not been considered prior to this album. There are many works that were to follow in Martin Denny’s footsteps, at least in regard to the cinematic topic, be it Mantovani’s Hollywood (1967) or Chaquito’s Spies & Dolls (1972), to just name two examples. However, these paradigms are not particularly right either, as the composers and arrangers use large orchestras or big bands to accomplish the evocation of wideness and oomph. Admirers of Hollywood and the quartet sound should have a lot of fun with this album; that is, until a surprising realization arises that addresses the very concept. And this realization is quite enlightening. But first, a closer look at the 12 formerly orchestral themes.


All uncertainties notwithstanding, the opener is a well-known particle of that meteor called Space-Age and has been interpreted many times, albeit not necessarily in this strikingly exotic way: Mitchell Parish’s and Heinz Eric Roemheld’s Ruby greets the listener. Taken from the 1952 picture Ruby Gentry, Denny and his men enchant right from the get-go with a birdcall-accentuated vibraphone-piano mélange which reminds of Cal Tjader’s interpretation of Moonlight In Vermont (off 1956’s Latin Kick). And equally nocturnal it is, too. A soothing diorama of glistening droplets and blotchy carefree keys, the main theme is fully intact but hued in a tropical haze.


Vincent Youmans’, Edward Eliscu’s and Gus Kahn’s Carioca follows, its aura of 1941 presented here in a rhythm-shifting and seemingly overexposed fashion. Multitudinous textures swirl by, Augie Colón’s boo-bams dribble through Denny’s Latinized piano chords and Julius Wechter’s saltatory vibraphone helixes. Jumpy and swirling, Carioca is almost too comical, but the blending of Bop and Exotica works well enough and retains enough Latin spirits to present a delicate melting pot. The winner, at least in my book, is Bobby Montez's take as delivered on his debut Jungle Fantastique!, released in 1958.


Jimmy McHugh’s and Dorothy FieldsI’m In The Mood For Love is coming up next. Taken from the movie Every Night At Eight (1935), it evokes a gorgeous cascade of insouciantly arpeggiated vibraphone bubbles, marimba sequences, sparse birdcalls and exciting hi-hats. Harvey Ragsdale’s jazzy bass sequences hold this piece together, but it is the mélange of beatless sections that make this tune the next of kin to the worshipped Akaka Falls. Irving Berlin’s Sayonara meanwhile is distilled from the 1957 war movie and is unsurprisingly realized here via goblet drums, wind chimes and most importantly a koto whose attack and decay are mightily punchy but amicable. A second koto plays in the background and is in constant dialog with the frontmost one. This nod to Martin Denny’s own Buddhist Bells off 1958’s Primitiva is a welcome inclusion and strikingly Asian, thus true to form and a faithful rendition.


The medley Children’s Marching Song continues Denny’s passion for marches, as almost all of his 50’s and early 60’s albums contain at least one bow before this genre, even though it is mostly a comical one. This version does not differ much. It is basically a take on This Old Man presented in different formations, some of them in 3/4 time, others fairy tale-like, with another one sounding like a vitreous music box. This is an unnecessary feature of this LP, severely outshone by every other tune, and this notion also applies to Nacio Herb Brown’s and Arthur Freed’s Singin’ In The Rain. This 1952 smash hit is shown here in the expected drenched and aquatic fashion, with Wechter’s glockenspiels and vibes sparkling around a marimba aorta and sudden warm piano soils. This one is for fans of mallet instruments and their various textures.


Side B opens with Chattanooga Choo Choo, a song written by Mack Gordon for the movie Sun Valley Serenade (1941). As its title already implies, it is a crossbreed between Martin Denny’s Conga Train (off 1959’s Exotica Volume III) and Llama Serenade (off the aforementioned Primitiva). Steamy flutes, cabaret-like Honky Tonk pianos, twinkling mallet instruments and bongo blebs are unleashed in an uplifting but forced song of glee. Gordon Clifford’s and Nacio Herb Brown’s following Paradise, however, is an Exotica gold standard, if not in its original incarnation, then so due to the years that have passed by. Written for A Woman Commands (1932), its title is of course highly compatible with the topic of escapism, and therefore it appears many times on genre corkers. Denny’s version is actually a camouflaged piano arrangement as it does not make use of the instrument-related wealth. Only Wechter’s helicoidal vibes provide a soothing backdrop, but this is otherwise a very focused and precise affair, with only the paradisiac and alienating Space-Age strings at the beginning and end providing a memorable texture.


While Hughie Cannon’s Frankie & Johnny sports an Occidental-Asian synergy that could have inspired Tak Shindo’s Far East Goes Western (1962) as it shuttles between crepuscular Honky Tonk tonalities, barrel organ goodness and koto wisps, it is Harold Arlen’s and Edward Yip Harburg’s Over The Rainbow which again focuses on the piano side of things with clichéd glockenspiel sparks. However, the occasional birdcall and the mellowness of the performance enchant enough to be considered in a moony playlist. We’re Off To See The Wizard off Alice In Wonderland is the second appearance of Arlen’s material, but the bongo coppice and vibraphone glamour do not transfer well in this rendition and seem curiously de trop. Sammy Fain’s and Paul Francis Webster’s finale Love Is A Many Splendored Thing off the eponymous 1955 movie starring William Holden is already placed in an Asian setting to begin with, and so the final bokeh blur of vibes and ethereal piano billows does the original justice and transforms the symphonic nature into that quartet sound.


Exotic Sounds From The Silver Screen is the typical hit-or-miss affair that plagues many an Exotica artifact, but for once, the topic is mercilessly followed through, from the starting point to the very end of the album. And granted, it is comparably easy to achieve this. It just takes twelve pieces of sheet music that appear in different movies and the budget of a big record label. Apart from the successful realization, what does Martin Denny’s first cinematic album offer the connoisseur? It is, in hindsight, a dubious sparkler, one which cannot be immediately hailed, nor subsequently smashed. First to the positive aspect: it is indeed rarely the case that one will find a dedicated archive of orchestral film music transmuted into exotic Jazz. In this regard, Exotic Sounds From The Silver Screen shines. However, there occurs a problem once this thought is followed through: Exotica as a genre has always been keen on languorous interpretations of film music! Though this kind of mimicry does not appear on every album, works such as Arthur Lyman’s Bwana Ā (1958) feature takes of Vera Cruz and other gems. Naturally, material of TV series is also frequently considered.


It therefore comes down to this: the presumed novelty of Martin Denny’s LP, the concentration of glorious Hollywood material, is actually a fad! Therefore, it is the instrumentation that needs to enchant. This is indeed the case with the dreamier arrangements, their delicate vibraphone nebulae, Asian overtones and soothing piano interactions, but there are also many instances where the comicality is too bodacious, the jumpiness of the tones too crazy and – most surprisingly – the Exotica transformation turning out to be a failure. The Alice in Wonderland nods come to mind. The good and superb songs naturally outshine the bad one, but still, Exotic Sounds From The Silver Screen is not captivating enough to live up to the movies themselves, let alone the Exotica fan’s expectations on all 12 tracks. It is luckily considered good enough to be digitally sold on iTunes, Amazon MP3 and co. in case you want not hunt down the vinyl. 


Exotica Review 355: Martin Denny – Exotic Sounds From The Silver Screen (1960). Originally published on Jul. 5, 2014 at