Remember when The Vinyl Factory told us to “forget everything Martin Denny taught you about Hawaii”? We tried, but then shortly afterwards along came this beauty: Leis of Jazz, Volume 2. Released by The Alika Lyman Group in 2014 on CD and late 2015 on LP, both on Dionysus Records, we couldn’t help but think about the days of 1950s Honolulu when greats like Martin Denny, Augie Colon, and Arthur Lyman roused the imaginations of listeners with an exciting form of paradisiacal jazz music dubbed exotica.
Alika Lyman is the great nephew of vibraphonist Arthur Lyman, who released an album entitled Leis of Jazz in 1959 (the same year that Hawaii became the 50th state of the USA). But for readers wary of diving into songs inundated by the clichéd birdcalls that typifies exotica music to this day, the original Leis of Jazz LP actually showcases none of that stuff. Instead, Arthur Lyman and his group deliberately decided to veer away from the tiki-tinged tunes of the 1950s and focus on jazz music. Alika took the same route by providing us with just a handful of references to exotica music, as in the opening of “Arthur’s Line” with its “cavernous finishes, woodpecker bongos and Surf Rock vestiges,” Ambient Exotica explains, “[that] are the notable careful ornaments to the embroidery.”
But you don’t have to start with Arthur’s LP to enjoy Alika’s Volume 2, because even though this modern day recording is a tribute to the original, it stands out as a solid jazz release stronger than most from Hawaii in the 21st century.
Alika isn’t looking to blow minds with deliciously innovative tracks that would push jazz music to new horizons. Instead he offers the end user a laid back listening experience that from start to finish transports you to an intimate jazz club on the dreamy shores of Hawaii. (Notice I said jazz club and not tiki lounge, although there are a few subtle birdcalls on a track or two that aren’t out of place.)
Needless to say, I’ve had this album on repeat for the last week, flipping the record and bringing the needle back to Side 1 “Swingtime In Honolulu” after the subtly crashing waves and distant birds wrap up “Pua Lilia” on Side 2. It’s an album fit for any collection and any listener looking for a well crafted album to play front to back without skipping tracks.
So what is the immediate difference between Arthur’s and Alika’s albums? Original compositions decorate 2014’s Volume 2, while the 1959 version is comprised completely of covers.
“Arthur Lyman had a tradition of including a contemporary pop song or Broadway show tune on his albums,” wrote Jeff Chenault in the line notes of Alika’s release. Of the twelve songs on Volume 2, five are originals — four by Alika Lyman, and another by vibraphonist/pianist and producer Mark Riddle.
My favorite tune is “Bobo”, an Alika Lyman original. It’s bossa nova, and it’s a swaying, pleasant departure from the rest of the album in that it features Mark Riddle behind the piano instead of the vibes. Alika’s guitar like a sea bird gliding gracefully with the wind.
UPDATE: Alika wrote me shortly after reading this review. Here’s what he said:
I’m stoked that Bobo is your favorite, there’s some weird chords and themes in there man, it’s quirky.
Also, you should know, I was listening to lots of the Mackey Feary Band LP when I wrote this and there’s several “Catherine” type things going on, which is why I chuckled when I read that Bobo was your favorite, I think you can hear the themes and weird chord movements.
I’m excited about this release because I believe it marks an important step in Alika’s career. Between 2010 and 2013 he put out a handful of self-released recordings like Sweat! (currently still available on his Bandcamp page), and added the Mark Riddle-produced, self-titled studio CD from February 2013 to his discography. Followed by Leis Of Jazz, Volume 2, a thematic album that not only takes the original 1959 LP to another level by featuring original compositions but pushes Alika to create a work that transcends time — the goal of this album undoubtedly being a method of transporting one’s music to the future (by preserving it on vinyl) while paying tribute to the past (with its careful nod to great uncle and legendary jazz vibraphonist, Arthur Lyman).
A recent conversation with Alika (outside of Bevy after Mike Lundy’s live performance on March 26, 2016) revealed something: he admitted that he’s now pursuing the bass as his instrument of choice, studying feverishly to distance himself as far away from “sounding like a guitarist playing the bass” as possible (his own words). He’s been playing the guitar for many years now, but recently started focusing primarily on the bass.
I told Alika he already has everything he needs to achieve that goal: his sensitivity and respect for the instrument, his understanding of music, and his passion to learn — three traits that I’m confident you’ll hear in this album, Leis of Jazz, Volume 2.
Buy Leis of Jazz, Volume 2 on vinyl in the Aloha Got Soul shop.