Recent listening, current

Monday, March 18, 2013

55. Martin Denny / Exotica! The Best of Martin Denny (1990)

Is it jazz? Well, it might as well be, if we accept that Louie Armstrong and John Zorn occupy the same section at the record store. Martin Denny purveyed a style of lounge music that re-imagined common melodies with elaborate orchestration to create atmosphere with an "exotic" flavor. It was ideal background music for transporting you to another place. So Tiki culture, African drumming, cha-cha, tribal chanting, bird calls, etc., are all fair game. Exotica albums were made by hundreds of composers and orchestras, but Denny's work was always a few cuts above the rest, maintaining a unique sensibility that was frequently imitated by others. Exotica! The Best of Martin Denny was compiled from several LPs released in the 1950s. It begins with the quintessential "Quiet Village" and Denny's signature bird calls, howling, and other aural oddities sure to raise eyebrows at your next cocktail party. They do a lot of Lex Baxter compositions, but typical of Denny's style, there are other chestnuts, too. For instance, Duke's "Caravan," the town bicycle, is treated here with sufficient aplomb (which means a grab bag of interesting percussion and a wry grin). I was initially concerned that without the thematic context of each album, this compilation would sound disjointed. But surprisingly, I found that not just the pieces themselves, but their themes, dovetail nicely. And Denny keeps listeners awake during each song by scoring for a bewildering array of world percussion instruments. More academically inclined listeners might notice the mischievous melodies, ever present vibraphone, and humorous character all point toward Danny Elfman and Frank Zappa. If you made the mistake of thinking grown men who call like monkeys, birds, and tropical insects can't influence musical history, perhaps think again.

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