Martin Denny – Deep Exotica Music From Martin Denny’s Lush Lounge
Righteous/Cherry Red Records
There aren’t many genres of music where you could confidently, hand on heart say that one particular artist was the absolute pinnacle of their art. However, with all due respect to spluttering fans who would put forward someone else as an ironic gesture, or to those who would champion fine artists such as Les Baxter, Arthur Lyman and Esquival, there can only be one choice – Martin Denny. The King of the Tiki Hut; The Father of Exotica; The Shah of the Tropics; The Caesar of Polynesia – however you’d like to describe him, he was the best – collected here, over two discs, are four of his essential albums.
Denny was born in 1911 in New York City, and studied classical piano from a very young age, continuing after he and his family relocated to Los Angeles. In his early 20s, he played with the Don Dean Orchestra, which toured extensively across South America for four years. Though interrupted by World War II and a stint in the airforce, the sounds and rhythms of Latin music stayed with him. Further studies at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, and the University of Southern California helped balance his classical theory and performance with more free-form jazz techniques. Continuing to play with anyone who’d have him in small clubs, he was plucked from the mainland by scenester, Don the Beachcomber, to play at his club in Honolulu, Hawaii. It was only a short-term appointment but Denny was smitten and stayed to form his own band, featuring himself on piano, Honolulu native Augie Colón on percussion and birdcalls, Arthur Lyman on vibes, and John Kramer on bass.
The collective was booked on a short-term residency at the Shell nightclub on the newly created resort of Oahu, but their early appearances were somewhat vanilla lounge performances, with the only curveball being the additions of vibes. It took Augie Colón to introduce Denny to Les Baxter’s landscape-changing LP, ‘Ritual of the Savage’, for them to adapt their sound to what they would soon become celebrated for – a lush, tropical soundscape which seamlessly brought the steamy locale into the club and vice-versa. This is far from hyperbole – their stage was so close to an outside pond that early performances were interrupted by ribbiting frogs, something the band circumnavigated by croaking along, in jest rather than high art. When birds too began to punctuate their shows, their sounds too were mimicked, until the club owner requested they make this a regular feature, given the entertainment this brought to their audiences.
With each band member squawking along and the frog sounds replicated on a struck ribbed cylinder, audiences were in on the gag – there was no pretence and no intent other than to entertain the crowd and set themselves apart from competitors. A particular favourite was ‘Quiet Village’, a track by Baxter which featured on his LP. When Denny’s band was signed to Liberty, it was a natural choice to record as part of their debut album, ‘Exotica’. Liberty was just starting out in LA and the LP was recorded in mono – released in 1957. the response was underwhelming. Jump forward two years and Hawaii was everywhere. Its imminent unveiling as the 50th state of America, had the mainland going Hawaii crazy, with tiki, cocktails and aggressively-patterned shirts suddenly becoming essential items for the culture viper and man about town alike. Sensing an opportunity, Liberty reissued the album in stereo and took a punt of releasing ‘Quiet Village’ as a single.
The response was sensational. They included their sound effects purely as it had become an expected part of their performance. What they didn’t foresee was how this would go down with an audience who COULDN’T see them making the animal and bird calls. It was a sensation and sold over one million copies, reaching number 4 on the Billboard pop charts and the album finding a home in suburban homes nationwide. The critics weren’t quite sure what to make of it, but the allure of the mysterious sounds, as well as the enticing, otherworldly cover painting, had record-buyers flocking to show how cultured they were.
Quite reasonably, ‘Exotica’ is the first album featured on this newly-released, four-album set – there’s really no arguing with an album which gives its name to an entire genre of music. Purists will rejoice that it’s the mono versions which are presented to us, though this is usually the case. I do wonder at what stage artists such as Denny will be given a truly reverential release – how much more would it cost the buyer if both stereo and mono were included? Regardless, it sounds great of course. Like so much music which now lurks on the fringes of mainstream acceptance, it hasn’t dated because it never sounded like it came from the time it was created. It’s as much 1850s as 1950s – if it was recorded yesterday, you’d remark on how creative it is.
‘Quiet Village’ has become a totem for the genre, largely because it’s so strident and confident – though the shimmering jungle is almost tangible, there’s nothing here that screams slippers and smoking jacket – the piano is given a fair old thumping and the bird calls are percussion are buzzing around your ears, not painted on with pastels and drizzled in the background. Likewise, ‘Return to Paradise’ opens with chimes taken straight out of a ‘Rentaghost’ dream sequence, with a gong quake to round it off. This was music made to interact with – to talk to your partners and friends over tall drinks; to parade yourself in front of others; to escape utterly from the world around you.
Not that ‘Exotica’ isn’t kitsch – kitsch to the point of ‘Hong Kong Blues’ stopping mercifully short of descending into racist accents and funny hats; kitsch to the point of ‘Stone God’ sounding more like rearranging the cutlery drawer than evoking images of ancients deities. Of course, there were no losers – Hawaiian tourism was already booming and the demand for the exotic was never higher – all this and no need for a plundering explorer to be involved. The musicianship is unquestionable – Denny is always driving the action, regardless of how carried away Lyman, Colón, and supplementary percussionist, Harold Chang get. Fundamentally, it’s jazz, but removed of all its pretensions, formality and pompousness. It drifts, but with a destination in mind, never allowing you to question the music itself, which disguises itself as much as a television masquerades as furniture. It just IS. Introduce a standard vocal into the mix and the illusion would be shattered immediately.
It’s interesting to note that Denny composed not one of the tracks on ‘Exotica’. Les Baxter features prominently, as contemporary artists often did on albums in the 50s and 60s – a cover version now is felt as lazy or opportunistic, whereas reinterpreting something very recent was par for the course back then. Even by the time of the stereo version’s release, Lyman had jumped ship, taking Chang with him as his drummer. There was no hanging around waiting for a follow-up though, with’ Exotica II’ released in 1958, Lyman appearing on some tracks but with the collective being augmented by vibraphonist, Julius Wechter. ‘Exotica II’ is very much an extension of the first album, with only a more Far Eastern route being the obvious change. Despite the speed of its release, the track selection doesn’t feel lazy, nor are the performances rushed or forced.
‘Island of Dreams’ sees Denny’s first co-write on an album (with jazz pianist, Bob Laine), and it proves to be very successful – a glistening meander through star-lit groves with some restrained yet enchanting percussion and a triumphant bird whistle at the conclusion, lest you think they’ve gone soft. It is to Denny’s immense credit that despite the clamour for the exotic, he did not seek to ladle even more on as thickly as possible – if anything, this is more refined and more beguiling by its restraint. ‘Singing Bamboo’ chucks out some of the first album’s strangulating, if endearing daffiness, and creates a pool of cool reflection instead of a misty pit of drama. Even when ‘The Queen Chant (E Lili Ua E)’ threatens to turn into tribal shamanism with machine gun bongos and frantic bass runs, the vibes hold everything in place.
Also proving something of an anchor to the album overall is Sandy Warner, the cat-eyed model, actress and singer who adorned the cover of a slew of Denny’s record sleeves. Happy to adapt her look depending on the album’s feel or appeal, Warner had already starred as the cover model on many of Denny’s releases before she became a familiar face to American TV viewers with her role in ABC’s ‘Mr Smith Went to Washington’, a sitcom spin-off of the 1939 film. Though rarely a lead, her appearances in film were extremely well-chosen – ‘Party Girl’ (1958); ‘Some Like it Hot’ (1959) and ‘Point Blank’ (1967) showed her as not only transfixing to watch but incredibly engaging as a performer. She was so willing to change her appearance for modelling shoots that it’s entirely possible that she has gone unrecognised on many record covers.
Two bonus tracks conclude disc one – nothing to get the smelling salts for, merely the drum hoedown, ‘Llama Serenade’ and the rather more sedate (though excellent) ‘Enchanted Sea’, both single releases. Disc two opts for titling to keep its theme, so we’re on to ‘Exotica III’ – not Denny’s third album by a long chalk, though this doesn’t upset any applecarts musically. The year is 1959, and there are still some for whom anything with ‘exotica’ written on it is too much to resist, whilst completists will be unable to bring themselves to miss out on such a tempting title, nor on Sandy Warner’s blonde hair-do.
Part three doesn’t mean the atmospherics have been diluted. Augie Colón’s bird calls on a cover of Les Baxter’s ‘Jungle River Boat’ are as frenzied and plentiful as on anything we’ve heard previously, and whilst the melody is a little hidden, it’s a fun and enjoyable start. Of significantly more depth is Jimmy and Gordon Kennedy/Hugh Williams’ ‘Harbor Lights’, whose rippling water effects are sublime, with a half-asleep glockenspiel occasionally startled by a boat’s chiming bell. ‘Manila’, a Denny original, essentially combines two previous tracks, to sizzling effect. It’s sophisticated, a bit daft and beautifully played – it’s one of the tracks to wheel out when you’re asked to describe the genre to the uninitiated.
There are tracks which approach filler status – a reliance on frantic percussion turns some selections into admirable workouts for stereo systems but leaves melody and innovation at the doormat. More successful are stately, more considered efforts like ‘Moon of Manakoora’ by Alfred Newman and Frank Loesser. Here, we’re back on a nocturnal barge, with the moonlight reflecting off the eyes of unseen jungle creatures and the water merging with the sky imperceptibly. It’s peak Denny, and a demonstration that Augie’s birdcalls and whoops can still be refined and sporophoric given the right canvas. Sadly separated by the by-numbers oriental plink-plonk of ‘Limehouse Blues’, in tandem with the sublime ‘Beautiful Kahana’ written by Mary Jane Montano and Charles E. King, this is exotica at its most magnificent. The album ends with the rolling locomotion of ‘Congo Train’, a jazzy journey which is oddly uplifting, before the closer, Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s, ‘Hello Young Lovers’, which serves as a farewell lullaby, fading out to a distant bell chiming.
Righteous have slightly boxed themselves into a corner at this point – there was no ‘Eoxtica IV’. Instead, the set is completed by Denny’s 1959 album, ‘Quiet Village’. Given the title and the legend on the cover, “The Exotic Sounds of Martin Denny”, it does rather scream ‘hodge-podge compilation’, but this is not the case. Such was Denny’s eagerness to strike which the Polynesian iron was hot, this is his eighth release, yet still only appeared in 1959. It’s actually a good choice – the reappearance of ‘Quiet Village’ gives a nice wraparound to the set and also shows how the genre was, even at this stage, very self-aware.
‘Hawaiian War Chant’ sounds less like a call-to-arms and more like a conga going around a beach bar, though is no less enjoyable, with its clip-clopping drums and hip-swaying vibraphone. Likewise, a cover of Baxter’s ‘Coronation’ sees Colón adding a wolf to his vocal zoo, with his birdsong reaching Mr Cadbury’s Parrot levels of enthusiasm. Denny’s journeys to the Orient have also changed – no longer are these slightly twee, reserved glimpses of kimonos – we are now given ‘Sake Rock’ and ‘Firecracker’, both far jollier, carefree tranches of the East. ‘Quiet Village’ shows Denny’s band cutting loose – now confident in their own skin and happy to wink knowingly at their audience.
‘My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii Cha Cha Cha’ is the most overtly humourous song Denny had recorded up to this point – it sounds like the music accompanying a game of drunken musical chairs, punctuated, bizarrely, by Colón quacking like a startled mallard. A cover of ‘Happy Talk’ from ‘South Pacific’ could well be seen as a dig at a rather clumsier Western attempt to showcase the tropics – it’s fun but throwaway, two minutes of reflection on how far the general public’s obsession with foreign climes had come in barely two years. The disc is brilliantly expanded by two bonus tracks, the first, ‘Banana Choo Choo’ seeing Martin Denny and his band disappearing over the horizon on a cartoon train ride with the latter carriages filled with birds, animals and, in a rare move, actual singing.
The wheels never really fell off the train, it just carried on down the track past less populated villages. Denny stayed with Liberty until 1969, with the latter works heavily reducing the bird calls and animal outbursts, something one suspects he would now regret. There was never an intention for Denny’s albums to be genuine travelogues, giving audiences the sounds they could expect to hear when they were on their once-in-a-lifetime cruise. They were, in reality, not much far removed from Haunted House Sound Effects LPs, with the smiles on the faces of the creators hidden from the listener. They remain exceptional historical documents of a post-war period when the world felt like it held endless possibilities and the idea of visiting Hawaii, once seen as likely as holidaying on Mars, could now be a realistic prospect. Denny never stopped, emerging on more than one occasion from retirement. He lived long enough to see his works reappraised and loved by brand new audiences in the early 1990s before passing away at the age of 93 in 2005.
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