Liberty – 1958
Martin Denny’s fifth LP synthesizes the novel stylistic elements of his 1957 landmark debut with a fully-realized sense of arrangement and purpose; the resulting album represents the high-water mark in the genre for which Denny had given a name.
In 1954, Martin Denny was brought to the island of Oahu by Donn Beach; the founder of the Don the Beachcomber tiki bar franchise, and the man who had once promised “If you can’t get to paradise, I’ll bring it to you!” Having reached paradise, Denny had no intention of leaving. After a two-week stint at Waikiki’s Beachcomber, Denny’s group began an extended residency at the Shell Bar, located within the Hilton Hawaiian Village.
It was at the Shell Bar that a pivotal moment in Denny’s career would occur. During an evening performance, a chorus of bullfrogs joined in tandem with his group. Denny’s bandmates soon joined in, offering up a counterpart of bird calls. A good time was had by all. The next day, a patron asked Denny if he would play the “bird and frog song.” Before long, Martin Denny would have a million-selling single on his hands; a version of Les Baxter’s 1951 track “Quiet Village”; the centerpiece of that year’s Ritual of the Savage LP. Denny’s “Quiet Village” would soon become the lead-off track to his 1957 debut album Exotica.
Exotica was a hit; an album that not only put a genre on the map, but one that also gave it a name. Within months, labels across the United States – including Denny’s Liberty Records – were recasting “easy listening” combos as exotica bands. As often happens, the desire for product to fill record bins at the peak of an ephemeral fad led to more than a few albums of questionable quality hitting the shelves. While Denny himself would be spread thin – releasing eight albums within a span of two years – his group would maintain an impressive level of quality during the height of the exotica craze.
It was on his fifth record in which Martin Denny reached a personal zenith. While Hypnotique diverges only slightly in tone from its predecessors, its commitment to mood makes for an experience that is little short of enveloping. The album’s captivating nature is immediately established with its opener, “Jungle Madness”; a Denny original that features an inventive vocal arrangement by his frequent-collaborator Hal Johnson. Despite the fact that it features only one additional Denny composition – the penultimate “American in Bali” – and reinterpretations of already-familiar material, Hypnotique remains an immersive listen throughout its thirty-minute run-time; only the A-side closing “St. Louis Blues” – and the subsequent record flip – threaten to interrupt an otherwise-seamless experience.
That sense of engagement can be attributed to several factors; the first of which is the album’s comparatively limited scope. Whereas earlier Denny records had played out like a mélange of “worldly” influences, Hypnotique largely fixates on Far Eastern – specifically Japanese – influences. The ambience created by this sense of focus is reflected in both the melodic sensibilities and instrumentation; including Japanese flute, shamisen, shakuhachi, and koto. Hypnotique’s scope is similarly matched by its depth. Featuring some of the most tuneful material of Denny’s career, the album’s eleven tracks are augmented by lush arrangements that emphasize their melodic and rhythmic complexity. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than on the reworking of George Gershwin’s 1934 classic “Summertime”; a rendition that makes the song’s iconic melody only vaguely familiar upon initial listens.
Just a year after the release of Hypnotique, the exotica craze was rapidly losing steam. While Denny would hardly hit a dead end as a successful recording artist, he would never again match the commercial success or dizzying productivity of his early career. Hawaii – just recently admitted as the fiftieth state – would serve as his base of operations for the remaining forty-five years of his life. Like Donn Beach before him, Martin Denny had found his way to paradise. With Hypnotique, he brought a little bit of that paradise to the rest of the world.