Adventures in Paradise, the debut album by The WAITIKI 7, is a contemporary re-imagining of the classic Exotica sound introduced on the islands in 1959 the year of Hawaii's statehood. Martin Denny, a transplanted mainland pianist who tapped into the tropical zeitgeist, stirred together several disparate elements, and created a whole new sound in the process. Exotica floats in the zone between soundscapes and an early world music hybrid, Randy Wong, the bassist, music director and co-founder of The WAITIKI 7, explains.
Which is where The WAITIKI 7 comes in. Although they bow at the altar of Martin Denny, Les Baxter, Juan Garcia Esquivel and other Exotica pioneers, The WAITIKI 7 is a band making music of the moment. The septet retains the essence of Denny-era Exotica and reconstitutes it for contemporary audiences raised on the multitude of musical genres and pop culture images being created today.
The WAITIKI 7 emerged from a quartet formed several years ago by Wong and drummer Abe Lagrimas Jr. under the auspices of WAITIKI INTERNATIONAL LLC, an organization dedicated to the revitalization of Exotica and the tiki pop culture associated with it. That quartet's success precipitated the formation of The WAITIKI 7, whose other members are pianist Zaccai Curtis (Sean Jones, Donald Harrison, Cindy Blackman), woodwinds player Tim Mayer (Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, Danilo Perez), violinist Helen Liu, vibist Jim Benoit and Lopaka Colon, who doubles as percussionist and bird caller (Lopaka s father, Augie Colon, did the same in Denny s group). Trombonist and arranger Mike Dease (Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars, Charles Tolliver and Roy Hargrove big bands) appears as a special guest on three tracks, as does narrator Greg Pare on one.
The music on Adventures In Paradise was either penned or arranged by WAITIKI 7 members specifically for the recording. In particular, the CD features the group's versions of Exotica standards popularized by Denny, Baxter and Arthur Lyman. ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Award winners Curtis and Dease contributed "Craving" (an original) and a fantastic arrangement of "Mood Indigo" (Duke Ellington) respectively.
All of the album's performers share a love of the Exotica sound and tiki pop culture, which encompasses everything from art and design to painstakingly crafted tropical cocktails to cuisine: The Adventures In Paradise CD booklet includes drink recipes from renowned mixologists Jeff Beachbum Berry and John Gertsen, as well as an appetizer recipe from former Cooks Illustrated editor Sandra Wu.
Adventures in Paradise is a smart and swank affair, the kind that usually hums between the walls of an air-conditioned nightclub. Released to commemorate the islands' 50th anniversary as a U.S. state, Paradise effectively marries the cool melodies of 1959 jazz with a contemporary tang that acknowledges the iconic influence (Les Baxter and Martin Denny are among the tunesmiths lovingly acknowledged here) of predecessors while constructing equally timeless originals in a similar spirit. That aspect's also present in the band's own DNA. Bassist and bandleader Randy Wong grew up around Martin Denny through his family's friendship with Denny's vibraphonist, Arthur Lyman. Waitiki percussionist Lopaka Colon's connection runs even deeper: he's the son of the legendary Augie Colon, whose slaps and trademark bird calls augmented many a Denny groove. Lopaka inherited his father's prodigious talents, weaving a steady thread through Paradise with his own percussive pats and impressive whoops and cries, the latter of which add a remarkable third dimension to an already exotic instrumental dialogue. And what a conversation. Listen to how Tim Mayer and Mike Dease interact via soprano sax and trombone, respectively, on "Totem Pole." They melt into each other, complete each other's thoughts, and maintain a compelling flow over the distant perpetual cool of Jim Benoit's vibes, which, like Colon's calls, dab the canvas with an extra splash of color (can't imagine "Manila" without those drops) and smooth the edges of Zaccai Curtis' often-chomping piano ("Left Arm of Buddha"). Benoit and Curtis collaborate to a different end on "Her Majesty's Pearl," painting wondrous landscapes over the hushed rush of foamy falls and a lovely interlude from violinist Helen Liu, whose subsequent slide between Benoit's vibe dots and Wong's bass jaunt sets up a most astonishing personal showcase on "L'ours Chinois," where she memorably flaunts her stuff. As if the music wasn't enough, The Waitiki 7 remain devoted to making Adventures in Paradise as interactive an experience as possible. Within the booklet, the band thoughtfully includes some choice drink recipes guaranteed to refresh just as effectively as tracks 1-13. "Shake like hell with ice cubes," advises one. Consider it done. Heck, you don't need liquor or even a glass for that --Cory Frye, Under The Radar (August 26, 2009)
The press release for the album Adventures in Paradise states that Waitiki 7 is the only band that is performing Exotica live and acoustic, just like it was in the 1950s. They are the rightful heirs of Denny, Lyman, and Esquivel. Randy Wong, one of the principle co-founders used to go see Arthur Lyman play the vibes as a child. Lopaka Colon, who adorns the album with colorful bird calls, follows in the footsteps of his father Augie Colon, who used to do the same for Martin Denny's albums. They have lived and breathed with this music, and as such, it is not merely hipster irony or pastiche that urges them to resurrect this incidental music, but rather a burning passion. Adventures in Paradise utilizes most of the sonic signatures of Exotica: bird calls, vibraphones, animal noises, latin percussion, and ukulele, performed with jazz and oriental flair, drawing from a richer pallette that paints a more compelling picture than much of the blanched white-bread sonic excursions around the world. Of the original Exotica, much of it was recorded as background music for seductions or cocktail parties, or to audition new Hi-Fi systems. In short, it was easy-listening, and the emotional range could be rather bland. A lot of interesting experiments and innovations arose from the era, and Waitiki 7 embraces the strengths and weeds out a lot of the chaff. Standards like "Totem Pole" by Lee Morgan, "Left Arm of Buddha" by Martin Denny, and "Mood Indigo" by Duke Ellington, are mixed in with eclectic originals like "Her Majesty's Pearl", a beautiful conversation between piano and vibraphone, "Ned's Redemption", a madcap xylophone ragtime improvisation with slide whistle, and "L'ours Chinois", an oriental-sounding violin concerto that is chilling, but resolves into an upbeat Eastern adventure. They seem to have spent the time wallowing in far-off sounds, getting to know them and how to play them proficiently, rather than merely perfoming generic stereotyping to make something sound weird. "L'ours Chinois" is a perfect example of all that is great about these young musicians dusting off all this marginal music. Darkness gives way to light, sour into sweet, as Waitiki 7 takes a journey through all of this Earth's music. Anything goes, as was the case with the original creators of Exotica, but unfortunately the genre got trapped in the miasma of style and cliche, and became a parody of itself. According to Wong, "Exotica just sort of stopped in the '60s". Waitiki 7 are transcending time and space, resurrecting spectres of vanished musical styles and making them dance on the rim of dormant volcanoes. This is vibrant and exciting music, full of dashing and daring-do, captured brilliantly by the folks at Q-Studios in Somerville, Mass. They are correcting some of the sins of the fathers, namely complacency and commercialism, and making them their own, as is the right and privilege of all children. The album is not flawless, the smooth jazz soprano sax of "Ounalao" is a step in the wrong direction in my opinion, but the blood and guts, tears and laughter more than make up for the muzak. Waitiki 7 are wonderful musicians that are creating exciting worlds and have made one of the most compelling exotica and jazz albums that I've heard this year. --J. Simpson, Weirdomusic.com