Thursday, October 10, 2013
The Man With the Bird in His Mouth: Augie Colon- Sophisticated Savage (1958)
Augie Colón is an Exotica giant, in a way. His work as a percussionist helped to define the smaller-combo Denny sound, and that of its various imitators, but his most noticeable contribution to the genre is his gift for imitating bird calls-- that nonmusically-indebted screeching and howling, so omnipresent in post-Exotica Exotica, tearing holes in the fabric of its easy-listening bubble. Bird calls are a big part of what makes Exotica so curiously avant-garde and internally contradictory (or kitschy and gimmicky, depending on your point of view), and Mr. Colón is a major reason why they exist in the genre such as they do. The idea of listening to an LP with Colón as bandleader, then, is pretty cool, especially one with such a splendidly enticing title as Sophisticated Savage.
It's not as weird as it could be, to be honest. Most of the tracks are vocals, which sort of normalizes the exotic instrumentation, and there's nary a bird call to be had. Still, it's a really enjoyable and unique album-- it feels a lot like a middle-America aimed record of some "exotic" ethnic folk music (Calypso, Cuban, what have you), but like so much Exotica it has no real geographical focus or loyalty. Colón was, after all, a veteran of the outrageously pan-cultural Hawaiian hotel entertainment scene, and a member of Denny's band. Thus his specialty is almost necessarily not any one field, but rather the exotic construct. This makes the album sort of mysterious and dreamy, and places you at an Afro-Latin-Pacific percussion party with no specific location (either geographically or audience-wise; is this a village scene or a nightclub? or a museum diorama?).
Anyway, yakkety yak, there are some really enjoyable songs on Sophisticated Savage. The first song is really odd, and introduces Colón in a flamboyant fashion. The second sort of takes on a dreamy, big-Latin-hotel Lecuona Cuban Boys or Cugat vibe (an aesthetic Colón returns to occasionally throughout, especially for his rendition of "Tabu," which is near-identical to the Cuban Boys version). The third track, "Okolehau" is a bizarro ode to the Hawaiian alcoholic beverage, okolehao, derived from the ti plant root. Opening with a slurring utterance of "'Ey bro, you like drink some okolehao?", the track stumbles along through a lovely instrumental soundscape populated by further boozy, patois-inflected ramblings. It's a high point, both for its basic strangeness but also musically.
The rest of the album is thoroughly good, though not really ever great. There are some lovely romantic numbers, and a pretty interesting take on the eternal composition, "The Peanut Vendor" (as Stan Kenton says, "There'll always be a 'Peanut Vendor,'" though he may have meant it more literally). It may not be a secret masterpiece of Exotica, but it's a really nice record and a great piece of its history. It's also rare as all hell, so in this case I wouldn't recommend waiting til you see it on vinyl.
SOPHISTICATED SAVAGE (320)
Posted by Flash Strap