Such is the reverence now given to Les Baxter and Martin Denny, it’s easy to forget that in many ways it was Arthur Lyman who defined the sound of exotica. Who else but a man born in Hawaii would introduce the sounds of distressed parrots and aroused frogs to a distinctly gentle form of jazz music? Lyman’s music is most easily recognised for his use of animal and bird sounds, as well as other atmospheric whoops and downpours, but more than this, his extraordinary vibraphone and marimba playing. So multi-layered were Lyman’s albums that they became one of the go-to records to demonstrate stereophonic sound to customers with cash burning a hole in their pocket. It’s possibly because of this that Lyman’s output has always carried with it more of a novelty element than his contemporaries, less a musician and more of a performance artist. People are such idiots.
Lyman didn’t become a percussionist by choice. His father, for whatever reason, locked him in a cupboard at home for hours on end with nothing but a pile of Benny Goodman 78s and a toy marimba. Goodman was an early adopter of vibes and marimba players, most notably Lionel Hampton, whose parts Lyman perfected. By the age of eight, he was appearing on local radio in Honolulu. Leaving school at 14, he turned professional, joining cool jazz combos on vibes and marimba and already being so adept that he had perfected a four-mallet technique, giving him a range and tone which brought him to the attention of musicologist, Martin Denny.
Denny had been brought to Hawaii at the behest of Donn Beach – better known as Don the Beachcomber – the man who did more than most to bring tiki to the masses. Having opened a tiki-themed bar in New York as early as 1933, straight after prohibition had ended, his extravagantly-decorated restaurants and cocktail joints had attracted many top celebrities but an unfortunate run-in with the mob meant that he had to extend his business away from the mainland. Denny was drafted in on contract to play at the Shell Bar at the Hawaiian Village which Don had established, knowing that the gentle jazz would be augmented by the collection of weird and wonderful instruments he had collected over the years. The deep and sonorous tones Lyman created were a good fit and all was relatively normal – until a drunk Lyman, in a fit of giddiness, impersonated a parrot as the band played the theme from ‘Vera Cruz’, as many of us will have done over the years. The audience responded by mimicking the call, something fewer of us will have experienced.
As part of Denny’s ensemble, Lyman appeared on 1957’s ‘Taboo’ album, the green light for mainstream exotica and a huge success commercially. Tiki imagery appeared on everything from mugs to clothing and bars rushed to stock some of Don the Beachcomber’s most popular cocktails (the Zombie remains an ever-present on most menus). While Denny went off to fully exploit this worldwide, Lyman stayed put, forming his own combo and playing with different configurations until the late ’70s, after which he appeared as essentially a solo act.
The one track he is most often associated with is ‘Yellow Bird’, a number four hit in the US charts in 1961 and a track which cropped up on countless compilations during the resurge of interest in lounge music in the 1990s. This new double-disc set finally gives Lyman’s work its own platform, rather than sandwiching him in between all the usual names.
Lush Exotica features four of his early period albums, moving from the trademark heavy effects-laden to more straight-ahead jazz-lite. Frustratingly, the track listings for both discs are merged together, giving the impression that the music has just been thrown together, rather than a more reverential presentation of albums which were not just hugely successful but important in pioneering stereophonic sound and bringing it to a global audience. Included are: ‘Taboo’, an obvious inclusion given it sold over a million copies; ‘Leis of Jazz’; ‘Bahia’ and ‘Bwana Ā’. No ‘Taboo 2’? Maybe it’s good that there’s more variety, it’s easy enough to pick up.
‘Taboo’, despite not being the earliest album Lyman recorded, comes up first, literally with all the bells and whistles you might expect. In common through all four albums, is that they were recorded at the Kaiser Aluminum Dome in Hawaii (an extraordinary structure which doubtless not only inspired the musicians but helped to capture their mysterious sound better than any conventional recording studio), and utilised one of his most trusted collectives: John Kramer primarily on bass, guitar and flute; Alan Soares on piano and celesta; Harold Chang on percussion. The actual list of instruments used would take far too much space to list but suffice to say there were countless objects made from bamboo, marimbas, vibes, clarinets and, obviously, bellows, cries and honking.
In all honesty, this album deserves a deluxe reissue in its own right. Stuck here alongside three other albums, it feels very, “will this do?” which to be honest, it doesn’t. ‘Taboo’ is the album which most fully demonstrates Lyman’s array of atmospheric bird and animal calls alongside his sublime touch in bringing together percussion to work as an orchestra in its own right. The title track had already been covered by Les Baxter but Lyman takes it to another level. With aggressively twisted and scraped wooden weapons he brings some startling bird calls, not just once or twice for cheap laughs but throughout and with a degree of authenticity which never takes you out of the moment to consider how bizarre this must have looked when recording. The flute playing is ragged enough around the edges to set Lyman’s work as significantly different to others recording in the genre at the time, sounding more like tribal musicians than skilled jazz performers.
“Kalua” adds even more depth, this time launching us off with a ship’s whistle (sounding like its ancient lungs are about to give out) and some gorgeous chiming bells punctuating some sublime vibes playing. “Ringo Oiwake” has some Far Eastern styling which may be too much for sensitive types, gathering gongs, drunken tinkling melodies and some wrist-challenging bongo-playing. Cultural appropriation? That was the whole point – for those who couldn’t visit the tropics, which was virtually everyone, this was as evocative as any film studio set-up with a gently-smoking volcano ready to blow. Those used to the surf blitzkrieg of Dick Dale’s version of “Misirlou” will be surprised to find Lyman’s interpretation, an oddly restrained affair with piano trills and lurching zither.
“Sim Sim” adds a real groove to the mix and it’s easy to imagine this playing is cool joints on the mainland. For both drinking and dancing to, it’s difficult now to imagine how completely new this would have been to listeners, many of whom may still not have got their heads around rock ‘n’ roll (this was 1958 after all). “Katsumi Love Theme” lays on the Far East once again, to less effect than earlier, and it’s interesting to note that this is a piece by Franz Waxman, best known for his soundtrack work. There is a very clear difference between the atmospherics of exotica and soundtracks and this is laid bare here – it sticks out like a sore thumb, more classical than jazz and with less life.
“Caravan” ups the jazz levels to fever pitch, again dragging you out of the steamy environments you’d been transported to, though this is made up by a brilliant version of “Akaka Falls”, a drowsy, bird-stuffed bob along a dusky stream. “Dahil Sayo” follows on perfectly, adding more drive with some echoing bashed congas to some fruity vibraphone, capped off with a “ta-daa” style ending. The hiss of the original record is comforting but a reminder that this is not the most lovingly curated of collections. The album’s closer, “Hilo March”, is just that and doesn’t quite fit, the silly whistle and spastic polka feeling like a not-very-good musical joke. Even Lyman struggled to take himself seriously at times it seems.
‘Leis of Jazz’ is a strange choice for a collection of four albums. It’s the one you’re always most likely to skip as it’s exactly as it suggests – straight-ahead jazz. Less than that, it’s not even great jazz of its type. This was the first album released by this configuration of Lyman’s line-up and it’s to their credit that they bounced back straight away. Kramer’s bass playing on “Trigger Fantasy” sounds like it was recorded in a different postcode, though the shuffles and shakes of Chang’s percussion on “The Lady is a Tramp” are infectious and produce an interesting take on the song. Likewise, there’s a jauntiness to “On the Street Where You Live” which is quite refreshing without ever threatening to become a threat to the more familiar renditions.
It’s neither elevator music nor satisfying cocktail jazz, with the mix putting the piano too high and the percussion too low. The album shows another side of Lyman but not one you’d have requested in a million years. A slightly silly inclusion which would only have worked in the box set had been significantly more expansive and it was a stand-alone disc.
Over on disc two, there’s far more of what you’ve paid your entrance fee for. ‘Bahia’ was released in the downpour of exotica albums which were released when the craze had really taken hold. It’s full-on tropical, from the unrestrained bird calls on the title track opener to the unintelligible tribal chatter on ‘Jungle Jalopy’ and monsoons of ‘Legend of the Rain’, all of which feed into one another effortlessly. The recording is a huge improvement with piano taking more of a backseat to the vibraphone and the sound effects of the jungle snapping around your speakers in a way that makes you seeth slightly that stereo has become so…well, mono.
‘Bahia’ is the epitome of hammock rock, should that exist. If you were on a Tiki train at a theme park and this was playing, you’d never want to get off. The gloopy swoon of “Bamboo” is mesmerising, until the point the parrot enters and delivers a near-cardiac incident. “Return to Me” is as restrained as you’d imagine with some Spanish guitar warbling alongside some soothing vibes. “Caribbean Nights” didn’t evoke images of white sandy beaches, more donkey rides in the Costa Del Sol, although the donkeys go mental around the middle of the track, possibly too many cocktails.
If you’ve ever fancied hearing the theme to ‘The Exorcist’ done in an exotica style (‘The Exoticaist’?) then “Tropical” will suit you very nicely. Some nice blocky mallet thumping here, a nice change from the more gentle clattering you may have become used to. “Happy Voodoo” gives the impression it’s going to be a tranquil chant experience but quickly transforms into a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins boiling cauldron gong feast with you not invited as one of the diners. The album ends with some real exuberant fun, “Maui Chimes”, a remarkable ukelele and kitchen pans fiasco. ‘Bahia’ is an album which shows fully how Lyman differs from other performers in the field, adding some strong quiet/loud dynamics to accomplished musicianship and a sense of humour.
‘Bwana Ā’ rounds off the second disc. It’s a hugely entertaining record and just highlights how out of place ‘Leis of Jazz’ is. It packs together the full range of instruments alongside animal and bird noises, chants and some particularly frenzied flute – and that’s just on the first (title) track. The drums and percussion are far heavier than in much of Lyman’s work and the tracks are generally more expansive, allowing the listener to immerse themselves even more fully in the journey towards the centre of whichever godforsaken island you’ve been helicoptered onto. “South Pacific Moonlight” is one of Lyman’s boat-bobbers but adds far more sound effects to the usual vibraphone workout, with a ship’s horn fading into some ebbing and flowing tide sounds. It’s not the most memorable of tunes but it’s an engaging experience.
“Moon Over a Ruined Castle” has featured on many compilations love the years but it’s nice to hear it in situ as part of a travelogue rather than an oriental oddity. Features an unusually restrained gong fade-out. It’s at odds with “Otome San”, another visit to the far east but with an almost cartoon theme tune approach. “Canton Rose” ups the ante even further, a shy, asthmatic bamboo flute giving way to silence…until some berserk plink-plonk xylophone and a particularly exotic-sounding moon harp take over. As a trio, these tracks make complete sense, taking away much of the novelty that they attract when featured as part of compilations.
After something of a lull in the album, we reach “Vera Cruz”, a track which had already proven vital to Lyman’s success and here resplendent with some particularly realistic bird whistles – if you can rate such things, they’re some of his best. It’s the best opportunity to see Lyman’s worlds of jazz and the tropical strange combining and though the low-end isn’t the best on this recording, it’s still a real treat. The album closes with a version of the “Colonel Bogey March”, which is both better and weirder than I can adequately convey.
Overall, we’re left with two discs of prime Lyman (with one exception) but one which lacks real care. The sound is dull compared to the Rykodisc issues of a few years ago and I think it’s a missed opportunity to really go for broke and offer something definitive. For those used to just hearing the odd Lyman track, however, it’s a great cheap purchase to see how skilful a performer and arranger he was.
Buy Arthur Lyman’s “Lush Exotica” here