With a name as ridiculous as Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica, it’s not unfair to expect ridiculousness from the Boston-based band. And in their 22-piece form, Orchestrotica frequently plays up the kitsch factor in the late-’50s “exotica” trend, which fused lounge-pop with pseudo-tropical (often Hawaiian) music. But the quartet version that performed at Bohemian Caverns on Sunday night was a serious one. They still blew up the genre’s world-music pretension, but without irony; instead, the Orchestrotica injected it with the genuine artifact, plus jazz and classical elements.
Their choice of instruments reflected that blend. Geni Skendo, whose main axe was bass flute, doubled on the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute. Shane Shanahan played bongos and tambourine but also triangle, cajon and frame drum. (Additionally, Jason Davis played bass, with the leader, Brian “Mr. Ho” O’Neill, on vibraphone — exotica almost invariably had vibes on its front line.) And their repertoire was anything but straightforward. O’Neill’s “Autumn Digging Dance” featured everyone on his primary instrument, and in a tuneful atmosphere, but it was surprisingly dark and moody — and, O’Neill revealed afterward, based not on Pacific Island music but Bulgarian rhythm. It was Balkan rhythm, along with baroque music, on the even moodier (if playfully titled) “Would You Like Bongos With That Fugue,” and “Ritual Mallet Dance” was a mash-up of a Spanish ballet, Latin jazz pioneer Cal Tjader’s signature “Soul Sauce,” and a fierce rhythmic duel between Shanahan (on cajon) and O’Neill (on one of Shanahan’s bongos). There were lighthearted moments, such as O’Neill bellowing Tjader’s chant “Wachi wara!” when playing his theme; still, this was not your father’s lounge music.
O’Neill discussed many of these mixings with between-song explanations that tended to be long and involved; on the one hand, it helped parse the complexity of their ideas, but on the other hand it took a lot of time and was a bit heavy for a lay audience. This was especially true before the band’s take on Gershwin’s three Preludes for Piano — O’Neill gave a full rundown of the concepts he’d put into each prelude’s arrangement.
Yet the preludes were a pinnacle of the set. The second, in particular, was a delight: going from slinky lounge-jazz to a funny rendition of “Siamese Cat Song” (from “Lady and the Tramp”), then into free jazz that O’Neill described as the sound of “Ornette Coleman shaking a cat.” The most exotic thing on this stage was Orchestrotica’s collective imagination.
West is a freelance writer.