Skip Heller: Lua-O-Milo

21st century exotica twists on the classic form

Skip Heller is a man of many musical hats. He’s played and produced rockabilly, country, jazz and blues, composed television and film scores, toured with the vocalist Yma Sumac, and worked for the legendary composer Les Baxter. This 2009 release coincided with Heller’s score for Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball, and is clearly indebted to his work with Baxter (whose signature “Quiet Village” riff is repurposed in the spy-jazz influenced “Hurricane Apartment”), along with the music of Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman and Robert Drasnin. The latter even adds clarinet and saxophone here. Though Heller is often thought of as a guitarist, there’s nary a six-string to be heard in these arrangements. Instead, he plays piano, dulcimer (including a tsimbalom) and chimes; his assembled personnel add a variety of classic exotica instruments, including flute, vibraphone, celesta, harp and hand percussion.

Heller’s broad musical scope is heard in the original twists he gives to the exotica formula. Keith Barry’s viola and Drasnin’s reeds add unusual, but complementary timbres to arrangements that aren’t as heavily dependent on piano, as were Denny’s, or vibraphone, as were Lyman’s. While most of these tunes fall into island-oriented themes, the kinetic “Q 4/11” brings to mind the early experimental works of Ferrante & Teicher, and several pieces verge on the space-age instrumentals of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. The arrangements are hypnotic, with Heller’s piano adding low percussive notes and Mark Sherman’s flute floating above in its leads, but there’s also darkness in the viola and bass that keeps this from settling into pure background music. All quite fitting for an album whose title translates to “island of darkness.” [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

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