Thursday, June 20, 2024

Les Baxter – Exotica Absolute

With recent collections springing up covering Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman, it’s no surprise that Righteous now turn their attention to Les Baxter. So, where does Les fit into the exotica landscape? Well, Les is the exotica landscape. He started it, built the roads it still travels on and wrote many of the themes which are still covered today. It says a lot that to many, he’s first and foremost one of the preeminent film score composers of the 50s, 60s and 70s, with some perhaps being unaware of his life as the Grandfather of the musical travelogue. ‘Exotica Absolute’ brings together four of Baxter’s 1950s albums – ‘Ritual of the Savage’; ‘Tamboo!’; ‘The Passions’ and ‘Caribbean Moonlight’. Is the original still the best?

Baxter never sat still.  Born in Texas and growing up in Detroit, he was considered something of a child prodigy. Switching from baritone sax to piano to becoming a backing singer for Mel Tormé, he seemed to gravitate towards where the action was – by 1950 he was conducting and arranging at Capitol Records, most notably for Nat King Cole on ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘Too Young’. This still wasn’t quite enough and he side-stepped ever closer to the limelight.

The game-changer wasn’t actually Nat King Cole – it was a chiropodist called Dr Samuel Hoffman. Hoffman, seemingly keen for a break from feet, was also an amateur violinist but it was as a theremin player that Baxter got to know him. Employed by Broadway composer Harry Ravel to arrange an album of his tracks which used the instrument, it opened up a world of possibilities. The theremin had been utilised by a handful of classical composers since its arrival in America in the 1930s – Edgard Varèse and Percy Grainger were fans, although they were operating outside of the mainstream as maverick avant-garde musicians. Miklós Rózsa brought the theremin to a much wider audience through its use in the films ‘Spellbound’ and ‘Long Weekend’ (both 1945) and it’s likely that this is where Ravel was inspired to use it.

The problem Ravel had was that the theremin was – and is – notoriously difficult to play, requiring the player to perform a university-level equivalent of patting his head and rubbing his tummy. Hoffman had enough ability to make the theremin cry and swoop and the resulting album that Baxter arranged was ‘Music Out of the Moon: Music Unusual Featuring the Theremin – Themes by Harry Revel’. The album was a sea of odd effects and musical tones, drawing on the popular lounge music scene but adding a huge injection of futurism and adventure.

It was a smash hit, as was its follow-up, ‘Perfume Set to Music’. These pivotal releases all but shattered Baxter’s brain and the universe of possibilities led Baxter on a journey not only through the birth of exotica but a shift in soundtrack composition, whereby alternative scores for different audiences proved exactly how important scores were to the success of a film.

1950s ‘Voice of the Xtabay’ by Yma Sumac was another chance meeting which drove Baxter into new pastures. Zoila Emperatriz Chávarri Castillo was only slightly less exotic than the Peruvian empress she purported to be. Quite where Baxter found her was unclear but her five-octave vocal range, bewitching looks and thrilling outbursts of vocal chicanery made her a huge star and Baxter’s production and songs – combining Latin sounds combined with something approaching modern impressionism –  catapulted him into exactly the place he wanted to be – the master of his own domain with an expectant audience. Capitol gave him the keys to the studio and ‘Ritual of the Savage’ was born.

Subtitled ‘Le Sacre Du Sauvage’ for extra international pizzazz, his 1951 album (also a nod to one of his heroes, Igor Stravinsky – ‘The Rites of Spring’s alternative title is ‘Le Sacre Du Printemps’), though predated by Yma Suman and Harry Ravel, is still held aloft as the first true exotica album. The album sleeve didn’t hold back: “Do the mysteries of native rituals intrigue you…does the haunting beat of savage drums fascinate you? Are you captivated by the forbidden ceremonies of primitive peoples in far-off Africa or deep in the interior of the Belgian Congo?”.

Five years after the end of World War II, listeners were being invited to get off their sofas and explore a world they had been fearful was on the brink of destruction. These were still times when it was almost a pre-requisite to prefix ‘Africa’ with ‘darkest’ and the South Pacific, Hawaii and the Far East were now on a par with the moon as destinations one could realistically dream about visiting (with a pinch of salt or so).

So much of ‘Ritual of the Savage’ has been re-recorded by other artists or copied to within an inch of its life, that it’s easy to find it almost pedestrian. However, ‘Quiet Village’ cannot and should not be taken for granted – it’s the genre’s ‘Yesterday’ or ‘Stairway to Heaven’. The one thing that is apparent in reflection is that the album is far from a scary journey. There’s no sign of savages and whilst it’s perfect escapism, it works more as a taster than a deep dive into a specific part of the world.

Ports and boats feature heavily across the majority of exotica releases and here it’s no different. The actual invitation to go somewhere different was often all it took for those in the 1950s (and 60s too, to be fair) to prick up their ears. Throw in some wooden percussion, a sitar or chiming bells and your audience will all but marry you.

Baxter’s journeys through the jungle are a languid affair, (is that a cannibal? No it’s track four, ‘Jungle Flower’), with the frenetic excursions (in particular, ‘Stone God’) being angular amphetamine bongo bashing affairs, rather like the sound of someone pushing a one-man band down a large flight of stairs. It’s unusual and arresting but never unwelcoming. It’s ‘Quiet Village which kicks off side two. The melody is straight from a 50s adventure movie, straining its neck and gazing over the tree line. It’s the additional flourishes and textures which Baxter introduces that gave everyone the licence to go away and be weird.

All of which is not to say that ‘Ritual of the Savage’ is all discordance and sound effects. The drumming and percussion, heavy in the mix as it is, is superb and there are tracks where Baxter’s orchestration of multiple instruments shines through on particularly elaborate tracks like ‘Coronation’. Rumours persisted for years that Baxter was merely a figurehead for work done by other composers and arrangers, though why others would willingly let him take the credit makes no sense.

1954 and rock ‘n’ roll was still yet to scream into the night. Instead, Les Baxter was recording ‘The Passions: Featuring Bas Sheva’, seven tracks of emotions translated into sound. Bas Sheva was in fact Bernice Kanefsky, a Bronx-born cantor at Jewish services who made the unlikely step into popular music. What soon becomes apparent is that Sheva doesn’t sing in the traditional sense – she wails, screams, moans and whimpers, rather like an American Edda Dell’Orso with a more limited range and more amateur dramatics.

You know you’re in for quite an experience after the first track, ‘Despair’, an almost impossibly over-the-top exercise in histrionics and bombastic orchestration. ‘Ecstacy’ is a little more down to earth, though is rather more like the sound of a dream sequence than unquantifiable bliss. It would be easy to be distracted by Bas Sheva’s warblings but Baxter’s music is sublime, reflective of the work he did on film scores – indeed, there are elements of all these tracks which would have worked amazingly well across the Poe/Corman films he lent his skills to.

‘Hate’ has an unhinged quality that isn’t a million miles away from some of Morricone’s more experimental work, and it’s at this stage you really begin to wonder in what situations Capitol expected people to be sat down listening to this album. Credit to them for releasing it – it is still genuinely extraordinary – but for a country which would soon be terrified of swinging hips, it’s a lot to take in. ‘Lust’ is Baxter’s attempt to win the musical equivalent of the annual Literary Review ‘bad sex in fiction’ award. ‘Slightly vexed’ might be a better title.

‘Terror’ breaks the mould with Bas Sheva actually singing. It doesn’t work, sadly, somehow dating the recording and being the most archly kitsch of all the tracks. ‘Jealousy’ and ‘Joy’ see her back to grunting and bleating, which is far more becoming. The album wasn’t a huge success, though has remained popular among fans of the odd. Bas Sheva never recorded again, returning to performing for smaller, select audiences. She died aboard a cruise ship, where she was part of the entertainment crew, in 1960.

Helpfully, released around the same time as ‘Passions’ was ‘Tamboo!’ recorded by Les Baxter in a style far more familiar to the legions who had bought ‘Ritual of the Savage’. A travelogue around places far-flung, I’d struggle to easily tell you exactly how far-flung you’re taken – is a zither somewhere’s national musical instrument? ‘Oasis of Dhakla’ is a real gem, not least as no matter how many times I look at the title, my immediate reading of it is always ‘Oasis of Dracula’. A woozy flute and bobbing percussion lead you to some quite prim and proper 50s singers harmonising. Not exactly what you’re after when you’re gasping for a drink, but still, a nice surprise.

The surprise with ‘Tamboo!’ is how safe it is. Of course, modern ears and eyes will always expect something different from a track called ‘Tehran’ written in the 1950s, but even so, the snake-charming flute sounds more like a eulogy to a dead serpent, and the busy streets of the market sound distinctly muted. ‘Havana’ seems to have hazarded a wild guess at where Cuba is on the map and sounds like an old Pathé film showing you how lemonade is bottled. Far better is ‘Wotuka’, a wordless male choir guiding you through the undergrowth before an impassioned gong and dingy outro suggests this might be a bad time to start writing your postcards home. Overall, whilst pleasant, ‘Tamboo!’ isn’t deserving of its exclamation mark, feeling like a rather rushed piece to capitalise on what could have been a very brief public clamouring for instrumental melodrama. He needn’t have worried.

‘Caribbean Moonlight’ from 1956 rounds things off, a title which may not excite you as much as those promising savages and the like but that makes the experience of actually listening to it all the more satisfying. If ‘Tamboo!’ felt a bit ‘dog on ice skates’ in terms of direction and cohesion, ‘Caribbean Moonlight’ shows off Baxter’s compositional skills to the max, whilst serving as a hugely underrated slab of exotic lounge music.

His reworking of ‘Taboo’ is admirably restrained, with phantom strings drifting across the vista like clouds of locusts, a daydream leading into the unrushed and confident ‘Deep Night’. ‘The Breeze and I’ pushes the shuffling drum skins into the background and lets a bass flute and some excitable strings – this is far from the boat-bobbing saccharine gloop you may have expected.

Baxter presents the Caribbean as a varied landscape – ‘Nightingale’ evokes an evening stroll but ‘Poinciani’, in contrast, a stifling sweat-drenched stagger through the dunes. If this all sounds very grown-up, it is – though it’s a nice touch to end with a rendition of ‘Sway’ – the only track which gives even the slightest side glance at the listener. A word on the packaging – it’s really poor, almost shockingly so. Original artwork is largely ignored and the original liner notes are conspicuous by their absence – indeed, there’s so little commentary it’d be almost more polite to say nothing. Very disappointing.

Daz Lawrence

You can buy  Les Baxter – Exotica Absolute here


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