Exotica for the Thinking Man

Brian O’Neill Blends Tiki, Lounge, Jazz, and Classical in Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica

Tiki gods

Mr. Ho’s Brian O’Neill: making the Tiki gods proud.

The murmur of the South Sea waves, the pounding of the ceremonial drums, the Tiki gods standing guard, the dancers in their leis—they’re the sort of fantasies that come easy in sunny California, less so in the vicinity of Boston.

Yet it is there that one of America’s great exotica bands holds forth, reaching on beyond Tiki to even more exotic cultures—those in Rangoon, for example, and the Casbah. Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica, with ensembles that range in size from big band to quartet, has even tackled the mid-century’s ‘king of space-age pop,’ the Mexican arranger-performer Esquivel, in its album ‘The Unforgettable Sounds of Esquivel.’

The album featured O’Neill’s 23-piece space-age pop big band Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica, which featured some of the best musicians from New England and thereabouts, including veterans of the Boston Pops and the Buena Vista Social Club.

Mr. Ho’s second CD, ‘Third River Rangoon,’ featuring a small jazz ensemble, is a particularly tasty mélange of leader and composer Brian O’Neill’s ‘postmodern third stream music,’ which blends classical, lounge, jazz, and world music into a mix that has a sound of its own, somewhat nourish at times, almost always cool, with moody bass flute and O’Neill’s wonderful vibraphone work.

‘Third Stream’ harks back to the late 1950s, when some of jazz’s more egg-heady composers developed a music that mixed classical and jazz.

O’Neill himself has a resume almost as eclectic as his repertoire. A percussionist and vibraphonist, he’s performed with disco diva Donna Summer, straight-ahead jazz trumpeter Wallace Roney, as principal percussionist with the Flagstaff Symphony, and with the Arizona Opera Company. He’s played klezmer music with the Klezwoods and Turkish music with the Fa Diyez Ensemble, among many other gigs.

Tiki gods

Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica on stage: a natural for Palm Springs Modernism Week and beyond.

The Orchestrotica, whose last gig in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was cancelled because tropical Storm Irene was due to roll through the next day—where are those Tiki gods when you need them?—hopes to tour the Golden State. But don’t expect to see them before 2012, O’Neill says.

“It’s where most of my non-East Coast fan base is,” he says of California, noting that Esquivel was based in California, “and Tiki culture is big.” One gig O’Neill would love to line up is Palm Springs Modernism Week, where he’s sure the Orchestrotica would hit big.

O’Neill’s latest project sounds promising. “It will be exploring Sephardic music and blending exotica into that with a six-piece women’s vocal group from New York City,” he says.

O’Neill has performed traditional Sephardic music, Jewish music rooted in Spain with heady tinges of Arabia, which later spread through Turkey and Greece. But no one has ever performed it as he plans to perform it now, with his vibraphone and probably his small ensemble, plus a six-piece female vocal group, “with my own interpretation, that Third Stream, classical, and some improvisation. Hey, this is in the idea stage right now.”

“It will be a fun way to introduce people to unusual music,” O’Neill says, “while doing something unique with it.”

For more on Mr. Ho’s roots—and Esquivel, the ‘king of space-age pop,’ in particular— see our special feature ‘Esquivel in Orbit.’