Jackie Gleason
Music Around The World






Hailed as one of the best actors, entertainers and arrangers of string-hypercharged interpretations of big band gems and symphonic standards, the music of Jackie Gleason (1916–1987) is usually not assimilable with the Exotica genre, even though his 1966 album on Columbia Records called Music Around The World offers one of the most convincing themes to put it in close proximity to Exotica climes. It is unsurprisingly a travelog album, with Gleason and his orchestra traveling all around the globe in eleven tracks. Depending on the background and geographic location of each listener, a few of the destinations are not particularly exotic, but the assorted variety is delightful, since Far Eastern lands and Polynesian isles are as prominently featured as the Mediterranean Sea and multitudinous countries of Old Europe.


The album's subtitle For Lovers Only, however, is a first hint of the things to come. Instead of assorted percussion aortas and cavalcades of foreign instruments, Gleason adamantly sets limits and relies on six basic ingredients only: a kaleidoscope of strings, a pair of brass instruments, classic percussion devices, a piano, a vibraphone and an accordion. There is anything else on board, no flutes, bongos or other mallet instruments. The magic of the travelog concept is thus strictly reduced, true, but these self-imposed limits turn into strengths otherwise. The mood is exclusively nightly and mellifluous without ever sounding all too kitschy. Once the translucent sinews of the strings are imposed on the listener, he or she falls prey to the magic. They sound so verdured, mauve-colored, saturated and warped that the comparably small amount of instruments does not distract from the sequential overtones but rather boosts their meaning and power all the better. The aesthetic price one has to pay is a strictly streamlined physiognomy, also known as the adage “if you know one song, you know them all.” Why this is for once not as devastating or bland as it may seem via the pixels of your reading device will be further carved out below.


The first (interim) destination Jackie Gleason and his orchestra plan for their trip is strikingly exotic, at least that is how it was back in the 60’s: Frank Loesser’s On A Slow Boat To China kicks off the LP, but as this is a Jackie Gleason record and he is not particularly known for true-bred Exotica works, there is not one archetypically Chinese tone on board the ship. What the listener gets dished up instead is a gallimaufry of thickly wadded Space-Age strings that are neither too warped nor too insipid. The lead melody is played on a trumpet, with the occasional appearance of an accordion; both devices create a soothingly nocturnal take that is further boosted by cautious vibraphone tones. Cole Porter’s I Love Paris follows where piano sprinkles and saxophone aortas firmly replace the omission of the mandatory accordion. Vraiment mesdames et messieurs, a French tune without this device is hardly thinkable on an Easy Listening album, especially so since it just appeared seconds ago in the opener, but Gleason decides to silken Porter’s tune, slowing its tempo down and letting the strings speak for themselves. Enchanting.


The next stop is India as envisioned by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Song Of India celebrates the resurrection of the harmonics whose piercing drones form the foundation for plinking tambourines and delicious Space-Age strings. Their besotted glissando finally justifies calling them spacey. Shawm-like trumpets evoke the Orient further, fir-green vibe globs freshen up the thermal ardor. This is surprisingly enough one of Jackie Gleason's most exotic takes due to the interwoven tricks. The following composition On Miami Shore may not be exotic per se for U.S. citizens, but Old Europe longed for Miami and does so to this day. Victor Jacobi’s and William Le Baron’s ballad is ameliorated by pristine piano prongs, a softly swinging rhythm and a prominent acoustic guitar which is partially outshone by the lead trumpet. Even though this tune seems to offer “more of the same,” the string washes are tastefully lilac-colored and the accordion as well as the piano inject mild doses of Jazz.


Jimmy Kennedy’s and Raul Ferrão’s epic April In Portugal follows, a tune that is often considered even by Exotica quartets. While the strings waft around spheroidal piano helixes, grow to elysian proportions and are in constant dialog with the moonlit brazen trumpet, Al Hoffman‘s, Charles E. King’ and Dick Manning’s Exotica gold standard Hawaiian Wedding Song is almost unrecognizable due to the mercilessly streamlined physiognomy. No edges, no jagged splinters, not even Hapa Haole ukuleles find their way into the scenery. Enchantment galore is the credo and finishes side A.


Side B starts with a curious inclusion: Charles Wildman‘s Swedish Rhapsody (Love Theme From “Madame X”) is neither linked to the Exotica genre nor the lofty travelog concept, but fits into the scenery to some extent, as Jackie Gleason grafts another dose of piano scintillae onto the arrangement. Unfortunately, the mood is too heavy and melancholic most of the time, even the shifts into more magical moments does not help it. Too much yearning in the complexion, I’m afraid. Europe is not left yet, for Carroll CoatesLondon By Night is next and returns to the romantic timbre supercharged with insouciance. The strings are as charming as ever, the lead trumpet keeps a lower profile than usual. By now, one would presume fatigue, but this is not the case. The strings are simply too glowing.


Whereas Norman Gimbel’s Canadian Sunset kisses Europe goodbye and is interpreted in the applicably melodramatic way with fiery horns and aqueous-reddish string erections, Ary Barroso sun-dappled anthem Brazil is stripped off its Samba rhythms and transmuted into a night-lit lowtempo mélange of melodious particles and ever-soothing auroras, with the finale Arrivederci, Roma by Pietro Garinei rounding the album off with a dose of Balearic rhythm guitars, iridescent cornucopias and polyphonic accordions next to the well-known string susurration.


I can’t help it. Stylistically, it comes down to this: once you know one Jackie Gleason arrangement, you know virtually all of them, regardless of whether you refer to his complete works or one specific album only. In regard to Music Around The World, all songs sound pretty much alike, with the exception of the mildly threnodic twilight tune Swedish Rhapsody. Usually, I would have to pan the album for this standstill. A lead trumpet, wraithlike strings and twinkling piano notes are the main ingredients of all tunes, with the occasional vibraphone droplets and accordion hues carefully augmenting the circumambience. The reason which prevents me – and probably a few other listeners as well – from neglecting Jackie Gleason’s Music Around The World is the wondrously enthralling atmosphere. This is one of those romantic kitsch albums that does indeed work and is much less chintzy than the overarching theme may suggest.


That this album is a travelog is only of partial interest, as it fails in this regard: there are no guiros or caixhas in Brazil, no accordion in I Love Paris (off all the tunes!), no ukulele woven into Hawaiian Wedding Song, all these songs become a blur if you do not dedicate your whole attention to every moment; play ten seconds of a song of your choice, and it is hard to pinpoint which one it is. That being said, Gleason’s orchestra does the coherence justice. Here comes one of the rare cases where I simply do not mind the omnipresent similarities, as the pool of textures is so downright soothing. The trumpet or saxophone is often too loud and vigorous, true, but the complete track list creates a fluxion of positive darkness, a moon-lit void of romance. Exotica fans will miss a lot of important ingredients, but Space-Age fans and those listeners who are fed up with the flood of related love motifs are in for a surprise. The strings make all the difference, and they are twirling and swooshing perfectly. The album has not yet been digitized or remastered, but will appear in digital music stores eventually. It simply has to. Music Around The World fails as a travelog, as every location offers exactly the same amount and style of instruments, but its hymnic strings do rectify the situation. A hidden gemstone.


Exotica Review 286: Jackie Gleason – Music Around The World (1966). Originally published on Nov. 30, 2013 at AmbientExotica.com.