Axel Stordahl






Before trumpeter and arranger Axel Stordahl (1913–1963) became known as a four-time luminary of symphonic Exotica records, he was pretty fond of the amalgamation of strings and horns, and this predilection is shown in Dreamtime, an eight-track LP released in 1953 on Capitol, long before the Exotica genre was officially coined. What Dreamtime lacks in exoticism, it gains in a mélange of instruments that are proudly presented in the subtitle: The Strings Of Stordahl. Here the focus is indeed on the strings, for the large orchestra unleashes magnitudes of orchestral strings and harps. There is the occasional path leading away from this focus; Stordahl also features alto flutes and glockenspiels, but they rarely occur. However, when they do, they add delight to the arrangement by augmenting the moony setting.


In a probably accidental and unintended plot, Dreamtime’s two sides are conceptually different from each other. Side A is about remembrance and the passing of time, Side B triggers the lovestoned synapses and presents wraithlike pieces of romance. The differences are not striking, but definitely notable if one listens closely and absorbs the interstices and tonal nuclei of each composition. Side A is by no means a meaningful heavyweight, this is still a Space-Age album of the Easy Listening tradition that shall deliver mirthful joy to the audience. Attentive listeners are still going to favor one side over the other. Here is a closer look at Dreamtime, its promised reveries and breezy material.


As Time Goes By opens the vinyl version of Dreamtime. Originally envisioned by Herman Hupfeld as a piece for strings, Axel Stordahl does not alter overly much in terms of the given premise and ventures on to let these devices be in the foreground. As can be expected from the arranger and trumpeter, there is a silky lead trumpet murmuring amid the haze filled with violins and harps. I am still not overly fond of this interpretation: the tonality sounds antediluvian and a bit too yearning. The strings are not warped and spacy enough. The same could be said about the following A Blues Serenade, written by Frank Signorelli, Jimmy Lytell, Mitchell Parish and Vincent Grande, but here the antediluvian transfiguration and occasional show tune blitzes are encapsulated in delicately wonky string washes which do evoke an oneiric scenery. The brass instruments, meanwhile, seem to be either detached or serving as counterparts to the blurred gauze as they appear upfront and are mixed purposefully louder.


Lorenz Hart’s and Richard Rodgers’s It’s Easy To Remember is a much better vignette, probably due to the widened pool of instruments: the many nocturnal glockenspiels, aquatic harp coils and dreamy double bass pulses altogether create a truly blissful panorama. The good-natured tones in major are an additional amendment, as is the omission of the horns. Lew Brown and Sammy Fain close side A with That Old Feeling, another piece of withdrawal and contemplation and closely tied to It’s Easy To Remember. The trumpet is on board alright, but muffled for a change, almost swallowed by the moonlit string serenades. The harp droplets are prominently featured once more, as are the harps.


A composition by James Van Heusen and Johnny Burke starts side B with much delight and wizardry: Imagination kicks off the second theme of this LP, one that is much closer drawn to this specific side. Romance and Space-Age strings are in the air, the onerousness of nostalgia is washed away, though its afterglow is still recited and graspable as a vestige. Unexpectedly sun-dappled harp solos are merged with euphonious flute rivulets, gracefully tumbling strings are no oxymoronic devices but capable heralds of the race to the moon, the blooming technocracy that exists freely with a rose-tinted devotion. Edgar "Yip" Harburg’s and Vernon Duke’s What Is There to Say is probably the most elysian offering of Axel Stordahl, as he injects a mountainous but seemingly distant trumpet into a cataract of saccharified strings, aggrandized to the max, agglutinating the majesty of a mirage. Since the writing duo’s conception is already rich in positive overtones, the result is sumptuous and insouciant, even though the elasticized sustain of the strings is not as spacy as could be.


Edward Heyman and Victor Young are featured next with their classic Love Letters, and by the look of things, the listener knows what to expect, but I for one know that Stordahl outwitted me severely with this particular piece: instead of a chintzy romance galore, polyfaceted string sinews gyre through the lilac antrum, transforming the besotted granuloma into a wondrous journey, with the finale I’m Getting Sentimental Over You by George Bassman and Ned Washington rounding the mélange off with glacial strings, diffuse trombone drones and blotchy harp undercurrents. Here, a certain coldness gains access to the endemics, one that feels like antimatter in juxtaposition to the otherwise mesmerizing rapture.


Dreamtime is a nonessential, no-surprise Space-Age artifact, at least partially so. Stordahl continues his effort to intermix trumpets, trombones and similar instruments with strings, and while it has been done before and ever since, the result is not without its conflicts as his orchestra shuttles between Prohibition era gigantomachy and truly mellowed countermovements where the trumpets are mere shadows that work well with the enchanting forces that reign over Dreamtime. The subtitle of this album is The Strings Of Stordahl after all. So why can I not fully recommend the album, and should you even care? Of course not. But to address the first question: it is curious to look back at an album that itself looks back to better times. This twofold factor of reminiscence becomes poignantly apparent when the album is reviewed, as there are more than just a few scattered moments where the gravitas of age and long distances schlep themselves forward in the arrangements. It is the omnipresence of this heaviness that makes the argentine aureoles of Dreamtime so dichotomous.


Side B works much better conceptually as it is here where the strings are truly unchained, allowed to reveal their Space-Age heritage. Fans of Jackie Gleason and his utterly focused string escapades with not too many textural changes or intrinsic alterations will get the most of Dreamtime. Everyone else won’t possibly care for this album and should either long for Stordahl’s arrangements for Frank Sinatra or check out one of the arranging trumpeter’s four Exotica albums of the 50’s and 60’s which are of much more interest. Still, it cannot hurt to check the tracks out, as Dreamtime has been digitally reissued by Sinetone AMR and other distributors. The cover is gone, and side A and B are in reverse order, but at least the sound quality is crisp.


Exotica Review 397: Axel Stordahl – Dreamtime (1953). Originally published on Dec. 13, 2014 at