A broader, more inclusive idea of exotica – exotica less as genre and more as creative style – is basically the central motive behind the Exotica Project, and a case I’m constantly building around here as well.
What has in last decade or two coalesced as exotica refers to a too-limited cluster of albums released by major labels (and nationally distributed independent labels) in the ’50s and ’60s. These are the Martin Denny, Les Baxter, Arthur Lyman and Yma Sumac LPs that Middle American audiences bought by the millions in the ’50s and ’60s, along with a set of a few dozen albums by similar artists that catered to the same audiences and that followed, with a few exceptions, the same formula – beautiful, colorful album jackets, faux-Polynesian, -African, -Eastern cocktail jazz and easy-orchestral settings.
In reality, though, exotica drew from a larger pool. A world of forgotten singers, soloists, bands and orchestras used the basics of exotica – reverberant instrumentation, certain sets of musical motifs, some fanciful idea of other cultures and places – as an imaginative exercise, a platform for expending wild, colorful musical energies. A wide variety of musical backgrounds, pedigrees and technical ability is represented accordingly, the records themselves reflecting an array of motives and approaches to music. A lot of this music is very obscure, and only appears on 45.
Much of the most fascinating exotica was made by jazz musicians. There were many – Herbie Mann, Ahmed Abdul Malik, Art Blakey, Lloyd Miller, to name a few – that made a concerted effort to incorporate indigenous rhythms, instrumentation and modes into their music with some degree of authenticity. But there were just as many jazz musicians – especially some of the obscure examples charted at the Exotica Project – for whom the Exotic Other was complete fantasy, the relationship to the cultural forms being evoked indirect at best (and disrespectful at worst – a charge generally applicable to much of America’s pop culture).
Exotica as creative force afforded great latitude for taking chances with the music without having to justify it as an experimental and, either way, some of these obscure exotica records can and should be enjoyed as sonorous tone poems, pure, stand-alone reveries and atmospheric, crazy, intensely creative examples of the ways that post-War musicians explored moods, sounds and modes.
This week we look at three jazz exotica favorites.
1. Mike Baltch Quartet, Delilah (Green Dent 1008)
From the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area of upstate New York, the Mike Baltch Quartet were a working group, though there’s little evidence of the group in terms of live appearances, or whether any additional recordings were made.
This selection was released in 1961 or ’62, I’d guess. Of the four musicians noted on the 45’s back sleeve, drummer Mike Baltch, as bandleader, is actually the most obscure of the bunch, with little to be found aside from his listed freelance support work. Based on his picture at the drums on the sleeve, he appears to be in his late teens or early twenties at the time.
Better known are the quartet’s pianist John McLean and bassist Mike Flanagan.
McLean, a mainstay in upstate jazz circles, was long associated with saxophone legends J.R. Montrose and Nick Brignola, and, in addition to supporting touring jazz musicians for many years, he led his own groups for many years. (McLean passed away in 2011.)
Flanagan led his own group as well – Mike Flanagan’s Hot Six – and played bass in the area into the ‘90s with other local jazz combos. He later operated the Petit Paris restaurant in Albany.
Saxophonist Bob Cedar was early on fully immersed in the New York City bebop life but had established himself more or less for good in San Francisco by the mid-‘50s, where he continued to play informally, and where he emerged as something of a North Beach character with, alas, bouts of alcoholism and homelessness. Cedar’s handiwork on “Delilah” likely took place between long-term residencies in San Francisco. He is clearly heard in full command of his powers.
This record gathered together different types of musicians and personalities, but, of the many ’50s and ’60s jazz treatments of Victor Young’s “Delilah,” it is to my ears not only one of the deepest versions, but also a definitive version. Released on R&B singer Joe Boatner’s tiny Green Dent label, Baltch and co. conjure, through stark arrangement and ample echo, dim-lit clubland interiors and ancient temptresses to mesmerizing effect.
2. Orpheus Four, Caverns (Orpheus OR-101-B)
How to describe this gem succinctly?
The Orpheus Four’s story plays out along the arcs of two intertwined Los Angeles-based ’60s Latin jazz groups: the Afro-Latin Soultet and the Afro Blues Quintet.
In addition to sharing a few members, these groups – along with fellow travelers like the Harold Johnson Sextet – shared a sensibility, taking the cool, exotic Latin jazz sound of earlier West Coast maestros like Cal Tjader, Tony Martinez and Bobby Montez and adapting it to slightly hipper soul jazz, Bossa Nova and pop sensibilities.
Another crucial player in the Orpheus Four story is Jack Millman, also known as Johnny Kitchen. Originally a West Coast-based jazz trumpeter (there were a few bop-oriented albums to his name in the ‘50s), Millman returned, after a brief retirement in the early ’60s, to the business side of the West Coast music industry, pursuing work as a manager and publisher. Among his charges would be both the Afro Blues Quintet and the Afro-Latin Soultet.
Millman not only helped manage and promote these groups, but he saw to the release of their recordings. Some of this material found relatively legitimate outlet in its time.¹ And some of this material saw later, questionable budget label reuse, like the Afro Blues Quintet’s Guantanamera (Surrey) and Afro-Blues Today (Crestview) albums.
The most obscure of this latter bunch is the Afro-Soultet’s Afrodesia LP, privately pressed on Banyon Records at some point in the late ’60s or early ’70s. In true budget label fashion, Afrodesia comes together as an album from a melange of musicians and sessions, and suffers a bit from some obviously overdubbed strings in parts. Furthermore, one track, “Soul Rockin’,” was simply a retitled Afro-Latin Soultet track, and another, “Afro Revolt,” was lifted from an unrelated jazz group’s session tapes.²
Afrodesia is, not surprisingly, a varied stylistic exercise. Modish Latin jazz and instrumental boogaloo, breezy ’60s easy-listening, straight ahead bop, Afro-percussion interludes and various “ethnic” accountrements all get space. There is a mad vibe to it, but, because the styles represented are so much of their time and, on top of that, they just sounded so groovy together, it works.
Which finally brings us to the Orpheus Four. Both this track and its flipside (“The Shepherd”) were released on the one-off Orpheus label circa 1968, and, significantly, these two sides too would later turn up on the Afrodesia album, retitled as “Le Berber” (in edited form) and “Mozamba,” respectively.
Whether or not the “Alex Garcia” listed on the label, or whether any of the (likely inaccurate and/or pseudonymous) personnel listed on Afrodesia’s back cover – Joseph “Little Joe” DeAguero, (vibes, and formerly of the Afro Blues Quintet), Frank Morris (guitar), Eddie Paris (drums), Johnny Kitchen (AKA Jack Millman, drums), Dean Elliot (percussion), William Quinn (flute and sax) and Bill Collins (piano) – can be positively stated to have played on “Caverns” is anyone’s guess.
My own suspicion is that “Caverns” was a DeAguero-helmed recording and that its flipside “The Shepherd” was taken from an unreleased-at-the-time Afro-Latin Soultet session.
Either way, “Caverns” is a terrific 45, an otherworldly, wholly unique tone poem, one of those records where, from the first shimmering vibraphone notes onwards, it’s instantly clear that something special is happening. It’s also a fascinating glimpse into machinations of the city’s local record industry in that time.
To read a more about the Johnny Kitchen saga (which I have greatly reduced here), please check the Ubiquity Records blog, who interviewed Kitchen/Millman for the occasion of the recent Afrodesia reissue. And pick up the reissue while you’re at it – it’s a highly-recommended artifact.
¹ The Afro Blues Quintet had four LPs on local indie Mira Records. The Afro-Latin Soultet had two albums on Capitol subsidiary Tower in ’66 and ’67, though their personnel changed entirely between these two LPs.
² The Afro-Soultet’s “Soul Rockin’” had been released earlier as “Afro Breed” on the Afro-Latin Soultet’s Wild! Album from 1966. Even more curiously, Afrodesia‘s “Afro Revolt” was taken from an earlier session by a similar but entirely unrelated West Coast group, the Jazz Corps. The track appears as “Chalan Pogo” on the Jazz Corps’s fine album (The Jazz Corps under the direction of Tommy Peltier featuring Roland Kirk), originally released in 1966 on the Pacific Jazz label.
3. Ross Anderson Chorus and Orch., Tam-bu Theme (Channel 45-7002)
Unrelated to jazz saxophonist and fellow Chicagoan Ross Anderson, the Ross Anderson behind “Tam-bu Theme” was the leader of a working dance orchestra that played in the greater Chicago area during the 1960s.
Every large city had at least one of these groups in its post-War decades. Though these vestiges of the big band era would never really achieve much in the way of mass currency again, they kept apace with the times with hipper contemporary arrangements and repertoire, even the occasional bop solo.
In Ross Anderson’s case, his several releases demonstrate a polished, competent orchestra that reflected some of the jazzier, Latin-tinged moments of easy maestros like Warren Barker and Les Baxter. Even by these measures, “Tam-bu Theme” is extraordinary, a dramatic fantasia with deep, sultry atmosphere and great production values, and easily a highlight of Anderson’s discography.
Released in 1961, “Tam-bu Theme” followed Anderson’s debut 45 (“Topaz” b/w “Blues Train”) by several months. Both were released on Channel Records in 1961. All of Anderson’s releases – including a 1966 45 (“That Certain Feeling” b/w “Tuff Cat”) and a full-length album (Misty) the following year – seem to have come through his own Channel Records label.