This ongoing Lux and Ivy project, which hasn’t as yet descended into tarnishing their names, has started to find its feet with recent releases, with less in the way of flitting around trying to cram in as many artists as possible but to concentrate on key artists – or in this case, key artists and four full albums. Dark Exotica – a perfectly malleable label meaning pretty much whatever you attach to it, could easily be Snooze Lounge, Sopoforicore or Espionage Exotica. It’s not especially wrist-slittingly dark but much more likely to get you to order an Espresso Martini from the bar than a Samoan Typhoon. This is end of the night wooziness punctuated by gloomy bass lines and paralytic horns.
For a long time feverishly rare, Buddy Collette Septet’s ‘Polynesia’ had a very nice vinyl release in 2019 through Trunk Records, making its appearance here slightly less glossy. Vocals are supplied by Marni Nixon, an artist who spent a good deal of her career as a ghost singer, having the credit for her voice taken by screen stars such as Deborah Kerr, Marilyn Monroe and Natalie Wood. A largely thankless task and one in which she found herself fighting for royalties and recognition on more than one occasion. Shuffling along, it feels like a noir meditation on murder in the tropics, a feeling helped along nicely by the participation of narrator, Robert Sorrells, an actor who largely found work on TV in the likes of The Twilight Zone (the ‘Mighty Casey’ episode); Gunsmoke and Bonanza, though one of his last appearances was in the Chevy Chase film, Fletch. Notoriously, Sorrells was convicted for murder in 2005, ironically for shooting someone in a bar. It’s an odd beast, not quite working as a concept album and not fitting easily into any genre.
The remainder of disc one features the John McFarland’s Sextet’s ‘Provocatif’. Afro-American McFarland had perhaps his greatest success in 1960, co-writing the Elvis hit, “Stuck on You”. ‘Provocatif’ was recorded the previous year, his only dabblings in exotica and a particularly strident, no-nonsense affair – so long as you accept a man making bird noises as not nonsense. Given some extra swamp gunge by retaining the record’s old pops and crackles, there is a discordancy even to the nature effects, jarring not so much that it becomes an annoyance but enough to be unsettling and unexpected. More-so than ‘Polynesia’, there is a darkness to this album – the piano is played with somewhat angry fingers by McFarland, at odds with a zephyrean flute and soothing vibes but accentuated by some oddly visceral percussion from the aptly named, Stick Evans. A new album to me and one which I’ll certainly return to.
Disc two kicks off with a much more famous name, Stan Kenton, and his 1956 album, ‘Cuban Fire’. Not short on bombast, the album has the feel of a B-movie soundtrack – lung-popping blasts of brass, followed by soothing quacking trumpets and gentle clonks and boings. Subtle it is not and it’s probably the least satisfying album on this set, qualifying as ‘dark’ by not being particularly lovable. Though the musicianship is excellent, there is little variation – it sounds pretty much exactly how you’d expect a Stan Kenton album called ‘Cuban Fire’ to sound – competent and fulfilling the brief without spooking the Latin horses.
One degree removed from Stan is Bill Russo, his ex-orchestra arranger. Fleeing the nest in the mid-50s, his album, ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ was released in 1960 and is far more forward-leaning than his old employer’s work. With each piece representing one of the deadly sins (plus one overall theme), Russo is not reinventing the jazz wheel, even though the solos on the album are largely improvised in the studio. Rather, he expands upon jazz totems such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington, bringing a cinematic scope to his work without it being stagey or cliched. Each ‘sin’ is beautifully realised and work as stand-alones as well as a complete suite. Certainly dark and sinister, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to class the album as exotica but that aside, it’s the most enjoyable and thought-provoking album of the four and one which, I’m doomed to say it, is worth the price of the set alone.
Buy the album here: Dark Exotica as Dug by Lux and Ivy