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Mr Ho's Orchestrotica: Endless Bachelor Party

Mr Ho's Orchestrotica: Endless Bachelor Party
Gordon Marshall By

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Led by pianist and multi-percussionist Brian O'Neill, Mr Ho's Orchestrotica plays the kind of music you can listen to with your mother. She'll love the '50s atmosphere of The Unforgettable Sounds of Esquivel (Exotica For Modern Living, 2010)—while you'll pick up all the left-of-center global hints—and she won't even know it's good for her! It's good, indeed, wrought as it is from original charts from lounge/exotica avatar Juan Garcia Esquivel, transcribed from actual recordings by ear. For baby boomers, it evokes memories of '60s TV—the flashy big-band blowouts from everything from Bewitched to The Flintstones, with a residual feel of the likes of Stan Kenton's ensemble.

Kitsch? Well, yes. But its rendering is ultra-fine, and the work that goes into producing it is brutal. A kind, funny, happy-go-lucky guy who could be mistaken for a grownup Bobby Brady (except that he was born about 20 years later), O'Neill is all business when he is in the studio.

O'Neill, in addition, sports a smaller unit that plays in clubs—an exotica quartet. If John Zorn is an exotica Picasso, O'Neill is his Georges-Braque counterpart in cubism's transposition to music. Although, like his orchestra, O'Neill's quartet is as fun and relaxing to listen to as quaffing a stiff martini, it is, likewise, complex and serious. As Zorn patches together strands of surf, Latin and "bachelor-pad" music in such bands as The Dreamers, O'Neill breaks up similar stuff and reconstructs it in kaleidoscopic reverie-scapes. More to the point, as Braque may have been the finer cubist, O'Neill may be, in the long run, a stronger exoticist than Zorn.

All About Jazz: There are terms, like exotica, lounge, bachelor-pad— what are some other names for what you do?

Brian O'Neill: A lot of the exotica stuff is "third stream," which is a term that came out of Boston...

AAJ: Alluded to in your upcoming album...

BO: Right. The Third River Rangoon, in May.

AAJ: It's become unpopular to label things lately.

BO: No, I like to label things, actually. Otherwise, people don't have anything to hold onto. I guess if you were really successful you could get away without labeling. If someone doesn't know you, you need something to hold onto. And even though my labels are somewhat niche, enough people know what that is, and the ones that don't, I kind of give them my best explanation...

AAJ: What is exotica?

BO: The classic sound was something that you might hear with a Latin-jazz, typically instrumental quartet in Hawaii or California in the late '50s. The Royal Hawaiian Hilton, I think it was, where Martin Denny—well, Les Baxter was really doing the exotica sound with the large orchestras, and the Hollywood and the fantasy sound, and Martin Denny took it down into a small group setting, so you could actually go play it in bars and restaurants, and so he was the one who first started that trend in Hawaii. But it's not really Hawaiian music. He's a white guy from New York City—a jazz pianist, really. He did have some local people playing in the group. ... But today the concept of exotica is much broader. Anything that falls outside of categorization sometimes falls into it.

AAJ: Avant-garde?

BO: Not so much the avant-garde jazz thing. Sometimes Sun Ra. How I define it personally often depends on who I'm talking to, if I know what they're into and if I think they'll know what the labels mean. To someone who likes Tiki culture and mid-century music, retro-modern, then exotica means something specific: the Hawaiian stuff, the escapism and all that stuff that's great about Tiki that I really like. But now in my music, I don't tend to do as much as that super- classical sound from the '50s. I like to take just the concept of exotica, which is "exotic" and faraway and not culturally specific to one place. Because exotica was never about authentic music from American Samoa, say. It ripped some stuff off. It's pretty white and, whether that was intentional or not, it kind of became its thing. And I like that idea—even though there's a part of me as a studied musician that's like, "It's this hokey, watered-down, not-legit cha-cha," there's this other side that thinks it's not Cuba I'm thinking of when I listen to this music, it's just this island I can escape to.

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