”Welcome to Broadway, Martin. We sure hope you find it as attractive as we found your Hawaiian Paradise.“ These introductory words are uttered on the back of the LP sleeve by none other than Walter Winchell, famous author, narrator and columnist for the New York Daily Mirror, and his warm words wouldn’t mean nothing if they didn’t serve the purpose of bridging the gaps and assembling the focused minds anew. Winchell, as he admits, is a great Broadway fan, knows all the stage productions and can hum along to every tune. Whether it is the tropical stage production and smash hit South Pacific by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II of 1949 or its cinematic adaptation in 1958, somehow serious listeners lightened up to the idea of Exotica, among them Mr. Winchell. Pianist and composer Martin Denny (1911–2005) gladly delivers and gathers 12 classics on Exotic Sounds Visit Broadway, released on his house label Liberty Records in 1960. The material has next to nothing to do with Exotica one might think, but illusions, yearnings, melancholia and dreams fluctuate between both ends, so exotic transfigurations don’t just work out in theory. With the help of drummer and bird caller August ”Augie” Colón, mallet instrumentalist Julius Wechter, bassist Harvey Ragsdale and additional percussionist Frank Kim, the band brings the lure of the islands to the concrete jungle of New York and then your abode. Here is a closer look at the 12 songs, the things that surprise and the instances that are seemingly redundant.
Oscillating between periglacial winter romance and sun-dappled glockenspiel alterations, Martin Denny is firmly en route to Broadway, launching the album with Rudolf Friml’s Donkey Serenade, a rhythm-shifting good-natured plinking tune with the aforementioned gelid overtones encapsulated in every note. Augie Colón’s congas and Harvey Ragsdale’s double bass provide the desiccated orographic link to a hot summer day to make this ride an exotic one. The Sound Of Music, meanwhile, sees the combo transform a rather pompous piece by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, but here the formerly string-infused physiognomy is willfully emaciated and suddenly enchants with a fluvial glissando during each piano note; various birds protrude the lofty atmosphere, wind chimes augment the playful mysticism. This is paradisiac, with the concept of modernism in the asphalted big city farther away than ever. A caproic corker!
Hernando’s Hideaway by Jerry Ross and Richard Adler is coming up next, quite the exotic ancillary piece to begin with, famous for its gypsy-fied Latin tone sequences and recondite proteostasis. Naturally, the addendum of large-grained maracas and bongos comes with ease, but the stacked vibes and pianos make this iteration quite a bit tipsier and cuter than the original’s obliquity. The adjacent My Funny Valentine by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart then ventures into the Far East with pentatonic piano accompaniments, nebulous vibraphone halides and a banjo/koto hybrid in the epicenter which is itself agglutinated to a galloping rhythm. The apex of the arrangement ventures into Occidental phototropism before the Asian aureoles shimmer again in the final minute. A splendid transmutation! While George & Ira Gershwin’s Strike Up The Band turns out to be one of Denny’s infamous military marches with cenobitic fermions and jazzy double bass rivulets to back the stylistic anathema, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s second offering Something Wonderful sees the band return to jocund chromophores with a Japanese flavor, with Julius Wechter’s polyphonic vibes radiating thermal heat that floats through the metallic haze of the gongs. After the initial phase, this last track of side A becomes entangled in a web of romantic micrometry.
Side A juxtaposed enthralling phantasmagorias with uplifting vibes; side B embraces the latter much more. Diga Diga Doo by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh turns into a tropical thiazide with gorgeously stacked piano chords and deliciously muffled bongos through which birds and jungle noises reach the twilight of the night. Duck-like isospins are a comical element, but they somehow fit into the scenery, never destroying the soothing-bustling diffeomorphism of the scenery. The Gershwin Bros.’ second inclusion comprises of Clap Yo' Hands, a New York-based midday stroll that is carefully taken into the Eastern parts of the world with fir-green koto/banjo licks and woodpecker-evoking marimba amanitas.
Cole Porter’s Love For Sale then succumbs to the style of the day – that’s Rag – and thus transforms this classic into a Honky Tonk peritoneum whose rhythm shift in the last third turns into a crazy Mambo with tap-dancing allusions, before Strange Music by Edvard Grieg, George Forrest and Bob Wright is the only beatless superfluid on side B with high-chromaticity stardust, glockenspiel glints and other salubrious centrioles. Richard Rodgers’ compositional skills appear one last time via Carousel Waltz where Danny and his men don’t risk any experiments rhythm-wise and wade deep into the world of clownery and circus rings. The finale, September Song by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson kisses the listener goodbye by means of a clearly exotic setup: crunchy congas, mellow piano tones, floral vibes and pectiniform timbres make this one great outdo that inculcates the idea of Exotica quite strongly.
Exotic Sounds Visit Broadway is the epiphany for sophisticated fans of musicals, but only if you imagine the ideal listener for such a project, or to be more precise: an idealized listener. As it turns out from an Exotica fan’s point of view, naturally it is the Broadway material which is ameliorated and amended, but this wouldn’t be right, for the majesty and battery of differing moods scythes through the rain forests of the combo’s collective mind equally efficiently. With the exception of Carousel Waltz which remains true to its roots of being a carnivalesque showstopper, Martin Denny and his men alter the living daylights out of the material. Without belittling their effort, this is comparatively easy an endeavor to achieve because there are no classical strings involved which are mandatory in stage productions during that time. The mutation therefore is enforced by the instrumental pool already, but since the group has featured several New York-based pieces and Western classics before, Exotic Sounds Visit Broadway is a great collection of skillful reinterpretations, now tied together by the neon lights of the city. These lights, however, turn into wisps of the jungle, and it is this successful cathexis that is so beloved. Diehard Broadway fans should stay away from this record, of course. It is the Exotica fans that can take away a few electropositive sparks from this one, I presume. Available on vinyl, streaming services and remastered digital download versions.
Exotica Review 458: Martin Denny – Exotic Sounds Visit Broadway (1961). Originally published on Nov. 7, 2015 at AmbientExotica.com.