Ethel Azama – Exotic Dreams album review

It’s a rather paradoxical time for obscure releases from days gone by; on one hand, the recent resurgent interest in all things vintage has put old vinyl records in high demand. Often times, the more arcane and unknown, the better; a higher reverence can be bestowed on releases not out in digital formats. Yet, on the other hand, digital still remains the easiest way to reach a new audience, just as often rescuing forgotten masterpieces and artists from the depths of time. But just what determines if an older album is fit for digital re-issue?

Ethel Azama’s Exotic Dreams originally saw release in 1958. Ethnically Japanese, Azama made a decent living as a lounge singer in Hawaii, and all three seemingly irreconcilable elements come together with varying states of success on the album. Ultimately, however, it’s a bit too kitschy to appeal to the masses, and too bland to really strike a chord with jazz aficionados.

Comprising nearly entirely of standards and show tunes (oftentimes one in the same), Azama’s voice comes off as too polite, too overly emphasized, too “white.” This is stereotypical late 50s lounge singing at it’s dullest. Certainly, that was part of Azama’s commercial appeal at the time; lacking an Asian accent, she could sound exactly like the bored white middle class housewives lounge owners hoped to draw in. “Two Ladies In Da Shade (of Da Banana Tree)” is perhaps the quintessential example of just how much fun one really can suck out of a show tune. The other standards suffer the same vacuous, faux-chic, hollow sheen, as is often the case with white-sourced, female ‘jazz’ singers of the late 50s.

The entire thing is not a total disaster, however. The record does offer quite a bit of unique and creative energy on several tracks, most impressively the closing “Autumn Leaves.” A standard of standards, here is it almost unrecognizable sung in Azama’s native Japanese and accompanied by the koto and a heavy helping of chimes and gongs. “Lazy Afternoon,” riding in on cymbals and chimes, is spookily unsettling, hinting at a very real danger just out of sight, not at all the relaxing tune the lyrics suggest. Arranger Paul Conrad hits mostly when arranging songs that keep Azama’s background in mind, (“Mountain High, Valley Low,” “Green Fire”) but even the very Pacific instrumentation of “Kawohikukpulani” cannot keep it from falling flat on it’s face, like roughly half of the collection. Given that all tracks clock in at around 3 minutes, a relic of the time, the misses are never more offending than they need to be.

Certainly, lounge records are ephemeral, and it’s silly to think one would hold up in today’s atmosphere. However, even in 1958, this record was painfully behind the times. In the jazz world, Bop was already in full swing. Innovative records (to this day) by the likes of Monk, Jimmy Smith, Art Blakely, Cannonball Adderley and so many others were carrying the music in a new direction that when viewed either from near or afar, the verdict is the same. This record is square.

By Stu Gilbert

Stu is a filmmaker, writer and guitar player from Austin, TX. He spent his college years following the Bob Dylan tour around the country and driving from Boulder to Austin every other weekend, putting over 200, 000 miles on a little white Toyota. He came of age in the 50s and 60s, despite having been born in the late 80s.

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