The Torch With
The Blue Flame
Are you in search of an Exotica record for romantic candlelight dinners? You want this record to be coherent and the perfect aural background for a warm night at the balcony, porch or terrace? Go with multi-talent Jackie Gleason (1916–1987), or to be more precise, take his #1 LP on the Billboard Charts of 1957, The Torch With The Blue Flame, into account, as it is solely dedicated to the devotion for women and all about the perfectly phantasmagoric evening with your better half or loved one. The torch part of the title obviously refers to the red hair of the lady as depicted on the front artwork, but it evokes a hot-blooded independence that is nowhere to be found on this release. Gleason's album of 10 streamlined string renditions and two compositions written by him is so coherent that it is hard to review each song and view it on its own, for the ingredients, moods, tempos and instruments remain the same, with only the occasional scent of a surprise wafting through the compositions. As the old saying goes, "once you know one track, you know them all." And indeed is this perfectly applicable to Gleason's dreamy album. It can be subsequently linked to the Exotica genre thanks to its prominent inclusion of eight (!) marimbas and a vibraphone, all of them well embedded in the superstructure of violin washes, piano accentuations and double bass backings. All featured songs are downbeat examples, each and everyone of them lets the listener submerge into a moonlit tropical scenery. There's one particular thing that makes The Torch With The Blue Flame so intriguing, and that is the lack of clichés. Sure, the strings are saccharine and provide the stereotypical background for an amorous meet-up, but the marimba really does work as a kitsch-preventing device. It augments both the mystery and mellowness of the release to great success. You basically get the idea of this album in the opening paragraph already, but if you want a little more details plus an insight about two highly unsuspected surprises featured on the last two compositions, you'll find them below.
Let's Face The Music And Dance. That's the plea of Irving Berlin, and Gleason makes sure that the message is properly understood on The Torch With The Blue Flame as well. But first he launches the track with an unexpectedly eerie vibraphone-guitar couple whose spectral sound waves meander solemnly. And the level of surprise rises even farther, for this song doesn't change at all and remains in splendidly blue-tinted nocturnal realms of coziness. The strings underline the trembling marimba mellifluousness, and wonderful piano sprinkles are juxtaposed to the silky trombone of Lawrence Brown. Gleason's rendition is so successful because it works in an entirely different way: none of its ingredients takes over, he truly creates a flat wall of sound that faces the listener without any protuberances. The ghostly atmosphere is maintained throughout the track, and even though this is neither a grim nor dusky take, its mystique and mellowness make it a wonderfully dreamy offering. The following Just In Time by Adolph Green, Betty Comden and Jule Styne remains in quiescent territories in Gleason's hands, but boosts the romance. The vibraphone glints are floating in adjacency to warm strings, marimba waves, a melancholic trombone melody and iridescent piano accompaniments. It's a soothing ballad that is rounded off by gentle double bass backings. It cannot get much more smoother than this, and yet again do the instruments mesh well together. While James Van Heusen's and Johnny Burke's But Beautiful brings the strings and marimba sparkles a bit more to the forefront and completes them with glockenspiel twinkles and scattered acoustic guitar twangs, Love Letters by Edward Heyman and Victor Young offers simply more of the same enchanting affection and dreaminess thanks to its heart-warming balm of horns, marimbas, strings and pianos. The coherence is indeed so strong that this composition doesn't make a difference, since it really offers "more of the same," a sentence fragment feared by any reviewer, but oh so true here. My Heart Reminds Me, originally written by Al Stillman, Camillo Bargoni and Paul Siegel, offers at least two unique nuances; the introductory strings are firstly as ghostly as they are on the opener Let's Face The Music And Dance, and secondly more prominent on this piece. In addition to the glockenspiel glints, they encapsulate the listener in a warm syrup of comfort. The last track of side A, Again by Dorcas Cochran and Lionel Newman, is specifically warm due to the cleverly set string waves, but also succeeds due to the bolder-than-usual vibraphone spirals that illuminate the track into a bright blue due to their traces of iciness.
Side B offers six additional pieces of romance. Alan Jay Lerner's and Frederick Lowe's I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face places Brown’s trombone in front of the strings in Jackie Gleason's version, using the same old trick again, but expands this formula with gorgeously shimmering marimba streams whose colors glow even brighter than on side A. It's little changes like this which can be distilled via close listening sessions. This one is for the marimba fans. Careless by Dick Jurgens, Eddie Howard and Lew Quadling is again keen on revving up both the use of the tremoling vibraphone and the acoustic guitar-dependent base frame with cascading notes at the end of the song, and My Silent Love by Dana Suesse and Edward Heyman – the second inclusion of a piece co-written by him – pulls the trombone into the spotlight while relying on the already well-known mélange of marimbas and strings. The last rendition consists of Fermo Dante Marchetti's Fascination, and what else can I say other than that it's a dreamy piece by the numbers, although the strings play in lower regions and provide a deeper surrounding than usual for the smooth trombone and the piano whirls. The last two tracks of the album provide a bit of excitement in the end, for both of them present the writing talent of Gleason: Alone In The Crowd is co-written by him and Cy Coben, while the final track Time is solely written by Gleason. Alone In The Crowd provides a rather short but huge surprise indeed, for it features a rising harp motif at one time of the song, thus presenting an instrument that was heretofore unfortunately neglected throughout the album. The rest of the composition is based on additional vibe whirls and soft trombone patterns. Time, on the other hand, is mostly about the strings that seem to have grown in power and vibrance and are even more lush than before. And what the heck, didn't I spot the short eruption of an accordion at the very end of this album? Why wasn't it featured anywhere else? This lullaby of an album leaves me pondering; since this wasn't planned by Gleason, it is all the more valuable.
The Torch With The Blue Flame is tremendously dreamy and coherent. Describing the little changes, hidden ornaments and small wonders isn't an easy task, for most of the compositions could be replaced without me even noticing it. If there was a quiz and one of Gleason's compositions was played, I could possibly pinpoint their style to him – but naming the respective title? Almost impossible. And yet did the album grow on me over the years since I got to know it (around 2008, I'm sure). There are times where it is absolutely magical even if your honey isn't around, for instance during tropical nights, quiet evenings at the beach or your average sunset in the big city. The phantasmagoria is incessantly maintained, there are no shockers or creative outbursts; this aesthetic weakness is Gleason's strength. The mallet instruments are always played in the same tremoling-quavering manner, never is there an improvised section that presents a totally different style or mood in regard to either the marimba or the vibraphone. The strings are unexpectedly ghostly at times, thus enhancing the nightly aura, but they nevertheless become celestial sooner or later and glow brightly. As I've briefly mentioned in the opening paragraph, Gleason comes up with something that is harder to manage than you might think: the harmony of all involved instruments. No instrument is played over the top, every particle meshes well with the remaining ones, and although the result is likely to be a bland Easy Listening offering, Gleason's balmy interpretations are deeply satisfying due to their cohesive atmosphere. Exotica albums of all kinds are oftentimes exciting and depict wild rides or voyages through jungles, countries or even continents in a rapid string of glitz. Gleason stands for the dreamy side of the spectrum. It is hence all the more surprising that his own compositions at the end of the album provide the shortest traces of previously unheard instruments such as the harp and the accordion. These would have injected the much-needed variety in most of the tracks, but who knows if the dreaminess then had been established in the same manner. If you don't fear the romantic side of the genre, you will enjoy Gleason's renditions. It's definitely not for those who insist on exotic percussion, birdcalls and eclectic mallet instrument improvisations. However, since it's completely kitsch-free in my opinion, despite its sugar-sweet track names and romantic setting, fans of Nelson Riddle, Les Baxter and Axel Stordahl shall approve.
Exotica Review 097: Jackie Gleason – The Torch With The Blue Flame (1957). Originally published on Jul. 28, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.