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Lounge Music

Lounge Music

Lounge music first arose in the United States in the 1950s. In its initial form, the genre referred to the kind of relaxed, low-key music played in hotels and trendy cabarets. Like exotica and space age pop, kindred styles from which it has borrowed freely, lounge music now encompasses a range of styles under the easy listening banner. After the success of its first wave of artists (Les Baxter, Juan Garcia Esquivel), lounge re-emerged in the 1990s, with artists like Pink Martini and Stéphane Pompougnac lending it a more contemporary appeal.


In the tradition of swing and big band, lounge is characterized by jazz-inspired songs with rich yet accessible writing and arrangements. With roots in the easy listening songs that were popular in the 1950s – typically based on light, sophisticated and tuneful instrumental melodies – lounge also benefited from the advent of stereo and the ensuing popularity of new sound technologies.

Among the era’s leading artists were Henry Mancini, composer of the legendary Pink Panther theme, and Burt Bacharach, a songwriter who had a profound influence on popular American music from the 1960s. Bacharach has since written music for film, including the soundtrack for James Bond - Casino Royale. Also well worth mentioning are American trumpet player Herb Alpert and Brazilian musician Sergio Mendes, each of whom has borrowed freely from worldbeat and Latin rhythms, thus drawing closer to exotica.

Exotica and Space Age Pop

Exotica is a sub-genre of sorts, an audacious blend of easy-listening and lounge: Hawaiian, Cuban or Brazilian rhythms meet African percussion, xylophones and vibraphones. The musical hardware of exotica evokes carefree tropical exoticism, and the easygoing popular form held widespread appeal among the American public in the 1950s and 1960s.

Yma Sumac

Emerging as one of its groundbreaking artists was American composer and musician Les Baxter, whose numerous recordings included the 1951 album Ritual of the Savage. Other iconic figures of exotica include pianist Martin Denny and vibraphonist and marimba player Arthur Lyman – both Americans – as well as the incredible Peruvian singer Yma Sumac, whose vocal range spans more than four octaves.

Lounge also drew inspiration from space age pop – a second offspring of easy listening that integrated Latin rhythms and used the sound and vocals effects offered by stereo to the fullest, thus lending the music a futurist dimension. The albums Exploring New Sounds in Stereo (1958) and Infinity in Sound, Vol.1 (1960) by Mexican composer and pianist Juan Garcia Esquivel – a pioneer of space age pop – are prime examples of the genre. The duo Perrey-Kingsley also explored new electronic sonorities, distinguished themselves with The In Sound from Way Out!, a 1966 release.

The 1990s Revival

After languishing in obscurity for a few decades, exotica and space age pop came back into vogue in the 1990s. Esquivel enjoyed renewed success with See It in Sound, an album first recorded in 1960, and a handful of Martin Denny songs were remastered. Inspired by Esquivel, the American group Combustible Edison followed suit with several albums between 1993 and 1996. Also drawing attention with a soaring brand of ambient electronic music was the American group, The Gentle People.

Pink Martini

Since the success of its 1997 album Sympathique, the ten-piece American group Pink Martini has played a key part in the lounge revival, skilfully blending vocals with an instrumental variety that might include piano, trumpet, violin, vibraphone and congas.

The trend toward cosy elegance in music has also given rise to some popular compilations. Among the best known are the Buddha-Bar and Café Del Mar collections – the first for its world and oriental sounds, the second for its considerable variety: Paco de Lucía, Moby, Dido, and the list goes on.

The Hotel Costes album series by French DJ Stéphane Pompougnac offers a refined and sensual electro-lounge courtesy of such artists as Seven Dub, Tosca and Gotan Project. Lounge remixes of jazz standards and well-known pop and rock songs have also earned public favour, as has the Supreme Lounge compilation featuring film music and songs by the likes of Vladimir Cosma and Ennio Morricone. In Quebec, the Café Méliès series highlights Canadian artists such as Adam Chakra, Ramasutra and Bet.e & Stef.

Lounge clearly embodies a broad spectrum of styles. Be it electro, jazz or Latin in colour, or inspired by the down-tempo beats of chill-out, the genre’s continued appeal lies in the relaxing, finely-wrought musical ambiences that are its calling card.

Lounge at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal

In 1997, two legends of lounge – Yma Sumac and Herb Alpert – paid a visit to the Festival, with the Inca goddess bringing the crowd to their feet with her astounding vocal range and Alpert and The Tijuana Brass performing alongside Irakere and Los Van Van. Two years later, the American duo Thievery Corporation appeared at the Festival, performing electro-lounge tracks from their first album, Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi.


Best known for her work as part of a duo with Steph, Bet.e is now flying solo. For the Festival’s 30th, Quebec’s bossa nova diva presented the album Becoming – a suave blend of soul-infused lounge. Festival fans also had another chance to hear Argentinean Federico Aubele and his sultry blend of Latin rhythms with Spanish vocals, electro and guitar. Still in 2009, the trio Pacifika, founded by Peruvian-born singer Silvana Kane, performed pieces from their debut album, Asunción, an amalgam of flamenco, electro and new wave. And let’s not forget Pink Martini. After two hugely successful appearances in 2005 and 2007, the group was back in 2009, flanked by a 51-piece orchestra.

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