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Les Baxter's African Jazz Jungle Jazz

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Album Review

They may have had the word "jazz" in the title, but these two albums, recorded in 1958 (African Jazz) and 1959 (the somewhat slicker and brassier Jungle Jazz) and here combined onto one CD, were cornerstones of the genre that came to be known as exotica. Many of the elements that define the style are on these two instrumental albums, including a sense of cinematic jazz swing; Latin and ersatz tribal rhythms aplenty; easy listening orchestration; echoes of the music of non-North American/European continents in some of the melodies and, for a late-'50s pop recording, exotic instruments employed; a shifting collision and blurring of multiple genres; and a sense of frivolous, irreverent fun. There are even, at points, high trilling vocals and (on "Cairo Bazaar") almost pre-surf rock electric guitar. It's true that Les Baxter's musical references to Africa, Brazil, Cuba, Bali, and jungles and islands the world over might have had more to do with mid-20th century travelog stereotypes of those cultures than the reality of what you'd hear in those places (though he was hardly alone in that regard). Nonetheless, they are key texts in the movement, as they might be called if there's ever a university course on exotica. And while general popular music scholars would probably not cite them among the prolific, multifaceted Baxter's top achievements, these are probably the recordings that had more impact within a single genre than any others with which he was involved. [This U.K. CD reissue is filled out with five other tracks recorded between 1951 and 1959, presumably chosen because of their relation to the kind of exotica Baxter developed, though the annotation doesn't give many details about their origins and source releases other than the recording dates and writing credits.]


Born: 14 March 1922 in Detroit, MI

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s

Les Baxter is a pianist who composed and arranged for the top swing bands of the '40s and '50s, but he is better known as the founder of exotica, a variation of easy listening that glorified the sounds and styles of Polynesia, Africa, and South America, even as it retained the traditional string-and-horn arrangements of instrumental pop. Exotica became a massively popular trend in the '50s, with thousands of record buyers listening to Baxter, Martin Denny, and their imitators. Baxter also pioneered...
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