Mr. Ho's Orchestrotica Quartet: "Where Here Meets There"

"Mr. Ho" otherwise known as Brian O'Neill has a passion for "exotica" but it would be wrong to call him a trader in nostalgia. Yes, he's clearly a fan of Les Baxter, Martin Denny and especially of the Mexican arranger extraordinaire Esquivel. While I bet he'd be comfortable downing a Mai Tai or two at Trader Vic's, Mr. O'Neill is a thoroughly modern multi-instrumentalist.

O'Neill fronts a malleable outfit he calls Mr. Ho's Orchestrotica that began its recorded life with a CD called The Unforgettable Sounds of Esquivel (Tiki-001)—the first in the "Exotica for Modern Living" series. If you know the recordings of Mr. Esquivel on RCA "Living Stereo" you know they are musically novel and sonically stupendous—everything a 1960 era swinging bachelor pad Don Draper kind of guy would want to spin on his Rek-O-Kut while softening up the new office hire.

Revisiting Esquivel wasn't easy both because it calls for a level of musicianship once commonplace but today somewhat rarified and because the charts no longer exist. That required O'Neill to listen to the records and transcribe and then to find capable musicians who could play some of the fiendishly complex parts, particularly, Mr. O'Neill pointed out to me during a recent visit, the high brass ones.

In the liner notes for the follow-up CD Third River Rangoon, O'Neill avers that he "…was not a big fan of traditional exotica music when (he) first heard it…(but)…over time (he realized)…that it had an insidiously endearing quality: it lets you escape".

Generations of listeners have made that discovery and the music never seems to go out of style, though the demand for it waxes and wanes, undulating like a grass-skirted hula dancer.

With the release last year of this album, both on CD and vinyl, O'Neill is hoping for a pelvic thrust of popularity for the music that might coincide with the one for the analog media that, with the advent of stereo, originally catapulted the genre to commercial success .

The liner notes for this snazzy production claim that "Somewhere in the middle, Here meets There. The Orchestrotica is always searching for that place: the one were Macedonians dance backward while Bach takes another chorus over his latest fugue….

On this outing the group plays originals on side one including "Would You Like Bongos With That Fugue"? and on side two a series of covers including an O'Neill adaptation of the familiar but renamed de Falla piece by way of Dizzy Giilespie "Ritual Mallet Dance", Gershwin's "Prelude for Piano I, III and III (with II featuring "The Siamese Cat Song") and concluding with Cal Tjader's "Black Orchid".

O'Neill's orchestrations are heavy on the percussion and somewhat lighter on melodic intent, which is fine since this is an exercise in persuasive percussion. The multi-instrumentalist O' Neill plays vibraphone and through a series of overdubs pandeiro, cajon, marching machine, tappan (not a stove), doumbek, riq, udu, and frame drum), while a quartet of musicians plays other instruments including bass flute, percussion, bass, our, and tanbur). If you are unfamiliar with some of those you are not alone.

The music was recorded "live" in a Roslindale, MA Masonic lodge where generous amounts of room sound were allowed to percolate into the microphones, helping to give the recording an almost "Bang Barroom and Harp" quality, if you know what that is. If not, you can be sure of a generous sense of space, good depth and generous width. It's a picture you can feel and see. The instruments have been recorded precisely and cleanly. Mr. O'Neill and recording engineer John Weston pay homage to both the music and the sound of the original "exotica".

In fact, the glossy, colored insert provided "old school" recording details of both close and distant miking. The vibes were recorded with a pair of Schoeps Mk34 DIN mikes, the room with a pair of Shure KSM32s, etc. Even the height is revealed along with the final stereo pan settings.

The sides run about twenty minutes each and are over way too fast as they both lull you into a relaxing, fertile exotica-land and stimulate the senses with percussives. Nothing about the arrangement are nostalgic or backward leaning. Instead, O'Neill has produced a somewhat harder-edged album that takes you on a bracing, somewhat bumpy ride through a modern, imaginary Polynesian landscape. Great, somewhat distant but cleanly percussive sound help make the ride consistently enjoyable as does the well-pressed (at Record Industry in The Netherlands), quiet vinyl. Lights out and away you go!

For now the vinyl album is only available on Mr. Ho's website, but hopefully the usual vinyl vendor suspects will get involved.

Meanwhile if you want a taste of the Orchestrotica playing a track live from the album go here:

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I bought Bar-None's "Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music" and "Music From a Sparkling Planet " compilation LPs. Perfect, as in fact I DID have a bachelor pad. Not swingin' however.

Tomorrow I may have to bring them out and scare the kids.