Martin Denny
A Taste Of Honey






A Taste Of Honey is a great success for pianist and Exotica luminary Martin Denny (1911–2005), and for decidedly strange reasons that are not as open to scrutiny as his career might let you think. Released in 1962 on Denny’s house label Liberty Records, the album spawns the usual 12 tracks, all of them renditions of well-known classics. So what? His Exotica albums enshrine similar gems of the book of golden Jazz standards which are then spiced with jungular percussion and paradisiac hooks. That’s the trick, the outcome, the aim of his LP’s. Maybe it helps to look at the alternative title A Taste Of Honey is also known for, one which appears on a smaller run of copies: Martin Denny Goes Modern. This is a dubious title, for who else goes modern in the given context if not the combo of Martin Denny?


Here’s one possible truth: the Exotica context, no matter its enchanting panchromatic gamut, is decidedly lessened here. True, the same gentlemen are on board as ever, Julius Wechter on the vibes, Harold Chang & Augie Colón as dedicated percussionists and Harvey Ragsdale on the double bass, with pianist Martin Denny at the helm, but the tone sequences are much more occidental. Even the omnipresence of bongos and boo-bams cannot lessen the thought that A Taste Of Honey is a classic Jazz album… one, however, which sports exotic patterns more often than not. That’s the reason why bassist Ragsdale is so much more in the limelight as ever before. Here, then, is a closer look at a high-selling LP, one of Denny’s best known tributaries.


From the first proselytizing piano notes over the adjacent amethystine violin in the background to the percussion-accentuated boo-bam mélange: Bobby Scott’s and Ric Marlow’s eponymous A Taste Of Honey is presented in a loungey version, with Julius Wechter’s vibes and Augie Colón’s drums being the only sentiments to an Exotica erethism. Said wishful state becomes all the more apparent in I’m In A Dancing Mood whose saltatory double bass billows by Harvey Ragsdale form the superfluid that drives Denny’s plinking piano and Wechter’s fluid-processed vibe interplay. Even a dreamy anacrusis is included in this uplifting Latinized version originally composed by Al Goodhart, Al Hoffman and Maurice Sigler.


There’s one true highlight engrained on the vinyl: Cal Tjader’s specific take on Exotica called Black Orchid. Suspiciously under the radar and never the real evergreen it could’ve been, it is presented here in a magnanimously exotic version. The glissando of the vibraphone is fir-green, the piano bathes in pectin polymers, the high-plasticity drum accompaniment adds pulsatile vitalism to the scenery, and let’s not forget the bass-driven segue where Denny and his men branch out by creating an unexpected velocity with fusillades of silvery adjuvants on the percussion side. A masterful rendition!


Paul Desmond’s Take Five meanwhile adds a shrubbery of bongo blebs to city-esque aura that is augmented by empty alleys where only the bass and drums reign, making for a high fidelity cross-linkage of their distinct textures before the cocktail vision returns. While Acker Bilk’s and Leon Young’s Stranger On The Shore succumbs to a sunset-colored palinopsia of insouciant easygoing tone sequences with only the slightest swing, Leonard Bernstein’s and Mack David’s Walk On The Wild Side ends side A with a bang; drums like rolling thunder, complex rhythm structures and an ultramafic vibe helix make for a delightful and uplifting corker.


Since it is such a hit in the 60’s, Ernest Gold’s theme of Exodus launches side A and offers an proteostasis of aliphatic polyphonous piano hooks and periglacial vibes, shuttling between grandeur and melancholia, the effervescent drums notwithstanding. Leonard Bernstein’s and Steven Sondheim’s A-Me-Ri-Ca is the expected ditty, the progenitor of all handclap-compatible songs. Castanets replace said handclaps, with the fluvio-lacustrine vibe/piano interconnections doing the same by ostracizing the pompous brass-and-string fusion of the original.


Whereas Nelson Riddle’s Route 66 sees its crimson barycenter transfigured into a nocturnal photodissociation with rattling snares, vibe florets and rocky piano glucans, Si Waronker’s Clair De Lune is presented in a fast-paced rhythm-shifting Exotica epithelium that is as reliant on the freshness of the vibes than the sun-dappled euphony of Denny’s white keys. Violetta by Othmar Klose and Rudolf Luckesch follows suit and comes along as a faint femme fatale fermion complete with piano avulsions and verglas percussion, before The Wild One by Leith Stevens makes for a gorgeous finale with pitch-shifted complexions, alluring piano veils and moxie bongo driblets in a vibraphone-focused arrangement. What an isospin!


A Taste Of Honey is no real Exotica album, that’s the basic gist in terms of its existence. Once this assertion and its aftermath are overcome, however, one might as well enjoy the presented material as I tend to say. Usually, if an album isn’t prone to trigger the Exotica synapses of a listener, it is usually succumbing to the tightly interlocked Latin panorama, whatever that means for the respective listener. I for one am talking Mambo, Merengue, Cha Cha Cha, even Batucada. As it turns out, A Taste Of Honey even denies these styles and flavors most of the time, begging the question what the actual golden thread might be, if there is any? Turns out that even the most superficial fissure still inherits the characteristic traits of Jazz, a kaleidoscope close to each bandmember’s heart and the point of origin of Denny’s whole combo. The same can be applied to Arthur Lyman’s Leis Of Jazz (1957), but this was his first album, followed by congruent Exotica(-like) albums throughout his career.


Denny and his men come full circle with Taste Of Honey, and at an early stage: it is not the first instance where birdcalls and unorthodox instruments are replaced by the nuts and bolts, pianos and vibes, but it marks a crucial success and is one of Denny’s less exotic bestsellers. But fear not: Harold Chang’s and Augie Colón’s drums and shakers provide the principal placenta that has to be cherished… it is the retroflection of Exotica, as are the multinucleate frequencies and sparks that occur when Julius Wechter and Martin Denny amiably collide. A Taste Of Honey (and its successor) are available on vinyl, coupled on one CD, and as download versions.


Exotica Review 436: Martin Denny – A Taste Of Honey (1962). Originally published on Jun. 6, 2015 at