Wednesday, August 31, 2011
The Holy Ghost of Exotica, Weaving Dreams in His Aluminum Dome: Arthur Lyman Megapost
There's really only three true masters of Exotica: Les Baxter (The Father), Martin Denny (The Son), and Arthur Lyman (The Holy Ghost). Sure, Frank Hunter and Robert Drasnin made a stone-cold classic or two, and Xavier Cugat and Perez Prado (legends in their own field) cut some masterpieces of the Exotic variety. Of course, Yma Sumac can't be left out, either, but her stunning uniqueness and divisive abrasiveness sets her apart from the field of hard Exotica and into her own category. No, when it comes to Exotica, there are three names that loom larger than the rest, mean more than most, and have an undeniably greater impact and influence.
Les Baxter and Martin Denny get talked about the most; after all, Baxter is the brilliant innovator of the unique voice of the genre-- his Ritual of the Savage is practically a blueprint-- and Denny is the cunning genius who managed to make the sound insanely popular-- his rendition of Baxter's "Quiet Village" was such a smash hit as to inspire leagues of imitators and make the whole prospect enormously lucrative. Mr. Lyman, while far from unsung, has inspired less of a cult reverence. Which is interesting, because out of all the soldiers in the army of Exotica, perhaps no one is as die-hard a believer as he.
Born in Hawaii, Lyman became something of a musical prodigy almost by force, as his father would lock him in his room and order him to play his toy marimba along to Benny Goodman records. Playing a gig at a Hawaiian hotel, he was spotted by Martin Denny and offered a spot in his band. Lyman became something of a Denny protegé, influencing the shape of the genre along the way (having a big hand in developing their prominent use of bird calls, for one thing), before going off to start his own band (shortly after recording "Quiet Village" and the first Exotica LP with Denny's group).
Lyman's own records were always played by his quartet, which for the prime years consisted of himself, Alan Soares, John Kramer, and Harold Chang. Everything is live, with no overdubs. What's more, nearly all his records were recorded here:
According to the wiki: Most of Lyman's albums were recorded in the aluminum Kaiser geodesic dome auditorium on the grounds of the Kaiser Hawaiian Village Hotel on Waikiki in Honolulu. This space provided unparalleled acoustics and a natural 3-second reverberation. His recordings also benefited from being recorded on a one-of-kind Ampex 3-track 1/2" tape recorder designed and built by engineer Richard Vaughn. All of Lyman's albums were recorded live, without overdubbing. He recorded after midnight, to avoid the sounds of traffic and tourists, and occasionally you can hear the aluminum dome creaking as it settles in the cool night air. The quality of these recordings became even more evident with the advent of CD reissues, when the digital mastering engineer found he didn't have to do anything to them but transfer the original 3-track stereo masters to digital. The recordings remain state-of-the-art nearly 50 years later.
Lyman's albums sound slightly different from those of his mighty predecessors. Less flamboyant, more quietly searching, his sound has been described as "somnambulant." Still, his compositions and arrangements can be surprisingly adventurous and deeply rewarding. For one thing, he carefully manages to wrangle a wonderful complexity out of what was usually a simple quartet-- his records sound no less full than even Baxter's, who used a large orchestra. With the aid of the Dome, he's a master of using negative spaces in the composition to imply rich, mysterious atmospheres.
There's also more of a sense of legitimate Polynesian and Hawaiian influence, and a darker jazz tinge (enforced by frequent use of positively stellar piano performances) that suggests he (or at least, his pianist) was keeping up with Blue Note releases and perhaps Nina Simone at the time. But most importantly, he displays a true mastery of the craft, and the kind of restless, searching experimentalism of the consummate Artist.
Anyway, here's a rundown of some of my favorite stuff from the admirable Mr. Arthur Lyman.
TABOO (1958): This was a big success for Lyman-- only his second outing with his own band, Taboo stayed on the charts for a year and sold 2 million copies. This is a huge pillar in the house of Exotica, as archetypal as the day is long and just generally excellent. Wonderful renditions of "Taboo" and "Caravan", but every song is just as good. Well, all but one. Lyman has an unfortunate tendency to close out records on some kind of uptempo march, and in this case "Hilo March", while it does have its arguable charms, sort of stinks up the dreamy mood of the rest of the record. This is especially annoying when you're listening on vinyl-- but if you don't have that luxury, just lose the track from your music player, or something.
BWANA A (1958): Hard to believe, but Bwana A is even better than Taboo. Intriguingly spare, with a heavier Eastern-- at times specifically Japanese-- influence, this total masterpiece is an agony of hallucinatory beauty. Dreamlike and dark, this is more an opium quest for languid sex and misty visions of island ghosts in the night than a tiki cocktail in a poolside loungechair.
"Moon Over a Ruined Castle" is a heart-stopping highlight, "Canton Rose"' and its use of moon harp is especially exciting, Lecuona's "Malaguena" is given utterly top-notch treatment, "Blue Sands" is so ghostly as to barely exist and yet plays so powerfully, "Vera Cruz" is a breathtaking, aching piece of Exotica Noir, and even the march ("Colonel Bogey March", made famous by Bridge Over the River Kwai) is supremely enjoyable, taken as it is rather slow and dreamily. This is a truly excellent record. Highest possible recommendation. Here's an allmusic review that I rather like.
BWANA A (320)
The LEGEND OF PELE (1958): What if I said Legend of Pele is just as good as Bwana A, if not better? You might think I was overdoing it, but I'm not. Pele is a fucking masterpiece. I've had this treasure on vinyl for years now, but I've never had, nor could I find, a good rip of it to share. I always wanted to do a post on my favorite Lyman albums, but without this crown jewel available, I didn't feel I could do it. Finally, the fine fellow from The Sleepy Lagoon contacted me and notified me that he had posted Legend of Pele to his wonderful blog. Please pay him a visit, survey his numerous treasures, and thank him for his heroic efforts. This great man, when all others failed, produced a copy of this Holy Grail Exotica record. Give him your love.
Legend of Pele is fairly similar to Bwana A, albeit a bit more soulfully rhythmic, and entertains the loose concept of describing the Hawaiian legend of Pele. I wish I had a copy of the back cover notes, because they're fantastic. Sadly, my copy of the record is not with me at this time or I'd type it right up.
One of the best things about Lyman is the way he can take aspects of Hawaiian music (a musical tradition pigeonholed and beaten to death during various periods of Hawaiiana enthusiasm) and find wild, exciting new ways to incorporate them into his vision of exotic jazz. The opening track, "Pele", starts with what seems like a musical description of the rumbling of a volcano, drops out to a female vocal (Ethel Azama, perhaps?) in "savage" Hawaiian tongue, then snaps into a quick dark piano run (soulful, jazzy, slightly Latin, reminiscent of something Nina Simone's might do on tracks such as "Black Swan", "Plain Gold Ring" or "Sinner Man") before transitioning into a jungle train ride-- and then back to the volcano, like an exotic parallelogram.
Every track on this album is good (except the fucking march at the end, sadly), finding unexpected avenues into the savage and dreamlike qualities of Hawaiiana. "Y Lai Sian" and "Hana Maui" again bring the insane piano for rhythms so heavy and powerfully repetitive... a good comparison would be with Perez Prado's similarly heavy Voodoo Suite, but much more restrained and hypnotic (and of course without the horns). These two tracks are followed by a great version of "Scheherazade." The slower numbers are disorientingly immersive as well, numbers like "Cumana", with its bonkers bird calls and gentle melody, "Fascination" with its enormous ocean sounds, and the de facto album closer "Tropical" with its glowing vibes and distant bells.
Lyman's band is just firing on all cylinders for this record, and while the pianist (whoever he is, I should probably know) is the standout for me, Lyman's own masterful work on the vibraphone is superb (he uses a four-mallet approach, two in each hand). The percussion is perfectly applied, and the bassist is brilliant, playing deep, woody lines and teaming up with the piano to bolster incomparably subtle and fascinating rhythms. The sound quality of the recording, of course, is perfection itself.
This is in my top 10 Exotica albums, easily. Top 5, probably. Again, highest possible recommendation, and don't forget to afford a thank you to the man from The Sleepy Lagoon (and if you're still not convinced, go over to his spot and listen to his track samples).
LEGEND OF PELE (192)
BAHIA (1959): On Bahia, Lyman continues his run of excellence. The record opens on the track "Bahia", which is one of my favorite compositions ever, so for me it's off to a good start. It's a very good version, to boot. The rest of the album is sterling. Not quite the mind-blowing stuff of the previous two records, but extremely necessary high-quality Exotica. Nice versions of "Jungle Jalopy," "Quiet Village," and "Beyond The Reef" that don't quite exceed the superior versions of Baxter and Denny, but manage to be more than worthy all the same. "Happy Voodoo" is a nice highlight, as well as the echoey "Caribbean Nights." The uptempo number at the end is even fairly bearable.
TABOO 2 (1959): More of that pure misty jungle juice. This is a stellar collection of both classic and unfamiliar Exotica compositions, with slightly more of a "voodoo" sound than Lyman usually might go for. It's like a cross between the original Taboo and Martin Denny's Hypnotique, or something like that. Easily one of his best records, though not quite as strange and original as his very best. "Tabu Tu" is phenomenal in particular-- and there's more than enough bird calls throughout the album, in case you were worried about a shortage.
TABOO 2 (VBR)
There's more Lyman stuff that's worth knowing about (most notably his 1958 Hawaiian Sunset), but these are the essentials in my book. Hope you enjoy, fellows.