The sound known as “exotica,” while diverse, can be defined by a few elements. It is mostly instrumental, performed by an orchestra, rooted in jazz and classical, and often featuring themes and melodies based upon African or Pacific cultures. What exotica recordings have in common, though, is a quest for the perfect mood, and that mood is relaxation. El Records‘ two-CD collection Exotica Classics offers up a generous five albums released between 1959 and 1962, and collectively, these five records help to create an atmosphere full ensconced in that quest.
Bob and His Flute and The Jungle Sextet’s album, Aphrodisia, from 1956, is the earliest album featured, and though it attempts to be less exotic and more erotic, its happy-go-lucky Brazilian sounds are less bedroom, and more Tiki lounge. Frank Hunter’s White Goddess, from 1959, is a trip inside the darkest regions of the jungle, with tribal drums and percussion, heady vibes, and its blend of female vocalizing and (possibly) Theremin create a sound not unlike that of Star Trek, especially on “Strange Echoes” and the title track.
A little more down to Earth is Polynesia, by The Buddy Collette Septet. It’s perhaps the most straightforward album of this collection; its sound is a Noir-like orchestral jazz, and offers the only vocals of the collection. Those two numbers, “Gaugin” and “Singapore Sling,” feature the fine singing of Marni Nixon—but skip the two dreadful “suites” that close the album, as they’re spoken-word hokum that should have stayed in 1959. Miriam Burton’s 1961 album, Africa Lament, offers Afro-Cuban grooves, and Ms. Burton’s unique vocal styling gives the album a haunting edge not found on the other albums in this collection. The final offering, Ahmad Jamal’s Macanudo, from 1962, is conceptualized around South America, but the finished product is mellow, heady jazz that, surprisingly, only superficially delves into the exotic sounds of that continent.
While a lot of exotica records of the era sound painfully dated, the five records collected here certainly do not. Exotica Classics offers five glimpses into a world much mellower and cooler than our own.