Review by Alden Gewirtz
Exotica fans, rejoice! With the release of this new Greatest Hits album from Empire Music Werks, Arthur Lyman finally gets his place in the sun. For those unfamiliar with his story, Lyman was a master percussionist who excelled at marimba, vibraphone, congas and bongos, among other instruments. He performed and recorded more than 30 records and 400 songs from the late 1950s until his death in 2002. Although his renown in the exotica genre has been somewhat eclipsed by Martin Denny and Les Baxter, Lyman’s music is more sincere, rarely resorting to gimmicky effects or kitschy arrangements (save for the remarkable, authentic-sounding birdcalls).
As in the title of one of his original LPs, this compilation showcases Lyman’s “many moods” and displays his musical range and influences. Of course, there are plenty of his classic exotica arrangements, like “Quiet Village,” “Taboo,” and his biggest hit, the Haitian melody “Yellow Bird.” But, he also interprets classical music (“Bolero,” “Scheherazade”), upbeat jazz (“Love for Sale,” “Caravan”), and late night lounge (“Midnight Sun”). As performed by his usual four-man combo, most of the songs have an intimate, cool-jazz feel.
Lyman’s recording technique was very sophisticated for its day. He used state-of-the-art three-track equipment, and songs were captured live in a futuristic, aluminum dome at the Hawaiian Village Hotel in Honolulu. Sounds were so bold and clear that music stores in the ’50s and ’60s routinely used Lyman’s albums to show off their newfangled “hi-fi” stereos. Those haunting and ethereal tones are duly preserved and honored in this digitally re-mastered compilation. At times Lyman’s music is as soothing as rolling ocean waves on a tropical shore. But it can also build to a climax as explosive as an erupting volcano.
The CD comes with a decent set of biographical liner notes and thumbnail photos of all his original album covers — a treat for those with holes in their vinyl collection. The album is a must have for any exotica fan looking to go beyond Martin Denny and Les Baxter. And it should raise the status of Lyman to the Big Kahuna.