Sunday, July 29, 2007

Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child/Muskrat Ramble

It's a rainy Sunday here in New Jersey and I can't think of a better way to beat the rainy day blues than by watching footage of Louis Armstrong. YouTube is the greatest invention in the world and there are tons of wonderful Armstrong videos but this one is my favorite:



Are you properly stunned? That comes from the January 1, 1960 episode of NBC's Bell Telephone Hour. The first part is "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child, originally recorded by Armstrong in 1958 on the album Louis and the Good Book. On that album, Armstrong is only backed by a choir arranged by Sy Oliver. In three minutes, that particular performance conveys everything that's magical about Louis Armstrong: the trumpet solo is filled with haunting emotion and an intense blues feeling while the vocal is infused with tremendous sorrow and passion. And for good measure, Armstrong adds some laughs at the end, joking with Sy Oliver that he's not hungry because he just had black-eyed peas and rice! It's a little bit of everything that makes Louis Armstrong special (much like "Tight Like This" from 1928).

Flash forward to this performance from 1960 and I think it's breathtaking, perhaps the most chilling footage of Armstrong ever captured. He's 100% serious during "Motherless" and he shows what a great actor he was through his facial expressions and hand gestures. When the famous smile comes at the end, it's like looking at the sunshine. As Armstrong himself said about this broadcast, “That’s the first time I played ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’ and even those cameramen and everybody was wiping their eyes.” Armstrong continued, saying, “Well, that song’s right in that feeling. I can see myself in that church sitting by my mother when I was a little old boy. You feel them things.” It was watching a performance like that one, of Armstrong on television, that Iola Brubeck knew she wanted to write a musical for him. The project, of course, turned out to be the wonderful Real Ambassadors. And I have shown this clip to people who don't really care for Armstrong and even they have to admit, it hits them pretty hard.

But again, just like the studio version, one can't wallow in sorrow all day as right around the corner is a happy, free-wheeling version of "Muskrat Ramble," always one of my favorite Armstrong performances during the All Stars years. The church choir is okay (they couldn't hire a bassist?) but the real surprise is Armstrong answering them with scat phrases of his own. When he picks up the horn, he improvises a while, throwing in some nice glisses (the choir throws 'em right back) before he finally kicks in with his set solo for the final two chroruses, one he worked on and refined for years until he got it just right...and he sure as hell did as every time he played it, it was always a cause for jubilation. And yes, for those scoring at home, that's a high concert E at the end...and this was just about six months after the illness in Spoleto, Italy and only about five months after he started touring regularly again. Yeah, Pops, I can watch this video all day...

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Darling Nelly Gray

Recorded April 7, 1937
Track Time 2:45
Written by Benjamin R. Hanby
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Harry, Herbert, Donald and John Mills, vocal; Bernard Addison, guitar
Originally released on Decca 1245
Currently available on CD: On Ambassador 1903, "Louis Armstrong Vol. 3, 1936-1936)
Available on Itunes? Yes.

Louis Armstrong signed with Jack Kapp's Decca label in 1935 and immediately commenced a series of recordings of pop songs and jazz favorites backed by Luis Russell's big band. Towards the end of 1936, Kapp began mixing and matching Armstrong with other Decca labelmates including a session with Jimmy Dorsey's orchestra, a recording of tunes from the Pennies From Heaven soundtrack with Bing Crosby and Frances Langford and two, count 'em two, Hawaiian-themed sessions, one with The Polynesians and one with Andy Iona and His Islanders. In April of 1937, Armstrong was teamed with the very popular Mills Brothers. Originally billed as "Four Boys and a Guitar," the brothers Mills suffered a serious setback the previous year when guitarist John Jr. passed away. Their father, John Sr., joined the band and for a short time, jazz guitar great Bernard Addison filled in on guitar.

The combination of the Mills's hornlike voices and the mellowness of Armstrong's tenor during this period proved quite natural and the combination would be repeated three more times in the Decca studios, as well as on numerous radio broadcasts. What's odd about their first pairing was the choice of material: "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny" and "Darling Nelly Gray," two songs that harkened back to the days of slavery. "Virginny" was written in 1878 by James A. Bland, a black man, and contained lines such as "There's where this old darkie's heart does long to go" and "There's where I labored so hard for dear ol' massa." I know...yikes. The folk music period was just getting off the ground and this were clearly thought of as a folk song but having two of the most popular black acts in America cover it was pretty risky. Fortunately, Armstrong tramples over it immediately with a perfect scat break and manages to swing it throughout in double time, changing phrases where he sees fit ("dear ol' massa" becomes "old master") and contributing a swift, relaxed trumpet solo.

As for "Darling Nelly Gray," the subject of this blog, it was written in 1856 by Benjamin R. Hanby, a white man, and tells the emotional tale of two slaves whose love affair is ended one one is sold. According to the website "Owen Sound's Black History," "It is believed this little song was a major force in shaping public opinion on the issue of slavery, leading to the great Democratic victory of 1860 and the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States." (http://www.osblackhistory.com/nellygray.php) The song is only 16-bars long but that never stopped Armstrong (look at what he did with 16 bars of "Mack the Knife"). Two charming takes survive and it's amazing how similar they are (I write this with my wife staring at me in disbelief as I have one headphone from my Ipod in my left ear playing take 1 and one headphone in my left ear, playing take 2!).

"Darling Nelly Gray" starts out with one of my favorite lost sounds in jazz: the acoustic guitar, here played by Bernard Addison. The Mills then sing the melody fairly straight, sounding as lovely as ever. Then Armstrong comes in, also sticking fairly close to the melody, with an added emphasis on the word "they" and a perfectly placed "oh babe." Behind him, the Mills hum on the first and third beats of every measure, a technique often employed by the horns on some of Armstrong's earlier big band recordings (think "Stardust" behind his trumpet). The trumpet solo is a model of relaxed swing, with the brothers effectively backing him with more hornlike rhythmic punctuations. The Mills's start singing again while Armstrong keeps blowing, starting with five repeated concert C's. Not technically an obbligato, it sounds more like Armstrong continues soloing over the vocal. Finally, he puts down the horn and says, "Now boys, what you think of this?" He then infuses the final chorus with infectious spirit, finally ditching the written melody and creating something much more swinging. The scat break is Armstrong 101 and he even has fun with the lyrics, changing it from "I'm sitting by the river and I'm weepin' all the day" to "I'm sitting by the river and I'm all in a shiver." The cherry on top is a scat cadenza where Armstrong's first phrase is exactly the same as the one he sang during his break just a few seconds before (if it works, it works!). The break grows increasingly more complicated as one can hear the Armstrong horn push the same phrases out. The Mills Brothers might have sounded more like an actual horn section, but no one could swing out trumpet licks with his voice as Armstrong! The closing scat takes up 29 seconds and I would gladly pay to hear it go on for a few hours.

Another take was made and as I already wrote, the similarities are striking even if the tempo is a shade slower. There's a slight difference in Armstrong's vocal phrasing with a pause after the phrase "And I'll never" and an added emphasis on the first syllable of the word "darling." Remembering his repeated C's on his second trumpet chorus on take one, he begins his solo on the alternate with six C's. Otherwise, the rest of his first chorus is almost identical to take one, right down to the little blown asides and even the closing phrase before the Mills reenter (featuring an Ab over a C chord, a nice use of a flatted 13th). When the Mills come back in, he added a little pause after the first two C's, setting up a little tension and then plays more of an obbligato this time. Otherwise, when he reenters vocally, Armstrong repeats what he did on the first take, even singing the scat cadenza exactly the same note-for-note! It's a toss-up, but I actually like take 2 a little better, though there's nothing wrong with the originally issued first take.

Okay, flash forward to 1940. The coupling of "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny" and "Darling Nelly Gray" was a something of a hit for Armstrong and the Mills Brothers (Virginia adopted the former as its state song in 1940) so Armstrong began featuring "Nelly Gray" with his big band. Fortunately, a broadcast from the Cotton Club on April 9, 1940 survives, even though the sound is far from pristine. It opens with the sound of two guitar chords so obviously the arrangement carried over the guitar introduction, though most of it isn't heard on the issued version. Where the Mills Brothers once sang, the band now plays the melody fairly straight, with some simple responses by the reeds (you can hear Armstrong's lead in the beginning). Armstrong humorously says, "Poor Nelly, I feel sorry for poor Nelly, that's right, Gate," before singing. Now the reeds emphasize the first and third beats much as the Mills did on the original. Armstrong takes two trumpet solos and they're a delight. The solos borrow liberally from both of the original takes, with the repeated C's, the same ending phrase of the first chorus, and a nice high Ab that originally served as part of the obbligato to the Mills's reentry. Armstrong's swinging vocal chorus is much the same as the original, right down to the scat cadenza...that cadenza worked so why would Armstrong bother to change it?

Okay, if you're still with me, you're probably salivating to hear these recordings and form your own opinions. However, that's nearly impossible and it's a damn shame. A Jazz Archives disc with all the Armstrong-Mills Brothers performances is out of print, as is volume 3 of the indispensable Ambassador series (though used copies can be found on Amazon). You can download take 1 on Itunes but good luck finding take 2. And as far as the live recording goes, that was part of Volume 10 of the Ambassador series, "Live at the Cotton Club 1939-1942." This CD was released just last year and I think it's one of the most important Armstrong releases in decades. Completely unreleased performances of tunes Armstrong never recorded like "You Don' Know What Love Is" and "As Time Goes By." There's pre-recording session runthroughs of "I Never Knew" and "Cash For Your Trash." There's different arrangements of "Basin Street Blues," "Song of the Islands" and "I Surrender Dear." And finally, a smoking version of Chappie Willet's arrangement of "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" that is just as good as the classic Decca record. Unforunately, it's almost impossible to find. Type "Louis Armstrong Live Cotton Club" on Google and you'll get plenty of references to Armstrong fronting Seabastian's New Cotton Club Orchestra but nothing about this CD. Go deeper and add the words "Ambassador CD" and you'll get a few listings of the CD but it's only available on Italian, Spanish and German websites. Amazon has never listed it. As for me, I had to order it through Tower Records's Dublin website, paying almost $40 when all was said and done.

On top of that, a recording survives of Armstrong and the Mills Brothers performing "Darling Nelly Gray" together live on the "Fleichmann Yeast Show" from a little over a month after the Decca recording. Armstrong's tremendously important "Fleischmann Yeast Show" performances survive and were transferred and remastered by Director of the Louis Armstrong House and Archives Michael Cogswell but his previous deal to get them out on CD fell through and now their future release is uncertain. Has Louis Armstrong become so disrespected that previously unissued, important live recordings of the 1930s and 1940s aren't worthy of issuing in the United States? I absolutely love Monk and Mingus and Bird and Miles and every year, major labels bend over backwards to release some unearthed concert or box set by one of them (like the recent Mingus Cornell concert). I think if Sony had a recording of Miles ordering breakfast, they'd release it but full Armstrong concerts Columbia recorded in the 1950s continue to gather dust in the Sony vaults. When rare broadcasts are issued, as on the Cotton Club set, they're impossible to find and when other rare mementos are found, such as the Fleischmann broadcasts, they're impossible to issue. I think it's nonsense. I didn't set out to get so heated in this entry (poor Nelly Gray, indeed!) but I think a sort of complacency has grown around Armstrong and it's just not fair. His entire career should be treated the same as Monk's and Bird's and Miles's and Mingus's because without Pops, there wouldn't have been any of them. Now let's get some of more of that unreleased material out!

(Slight glimmer of optimism: Armstrong's set at the 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival will be released on August 21...1958 was a vintage year for Pops and I have high hopes!)

Monday, July 23, 2007

I Will Wait For You

Recorded March 26, 1968
Track time 3:17
Written by Michael Legrand (English Lyrics by Norman Gimbel)
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Jimmy Nottingham, trumpet; Tyree Glenn, trombone, Joe Muranyi, clarinet; Marty Napoleon, piano; Everett Barksdale, guitar; Art Ryerson, banjo; Buddy Catlett, bass; Danny Barcelona, drums; with unknown mixed choir, Dick Jacobs, conductor
Originally Released on the Brunswick LP "I Will Wait For You" (Brunswick BL 754136)
Currently on CD: "The Best of Louis Armstrong," a foreign cheapie from German that's almost impossible to find but it IS on Itunes.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on "The Best of Louis Armstrong Volume 1" (Details later)

Hooray for the Itunes shuffle for picking this gem! After "Hello, Dolly," Armstrong and the All Stars continued touring at a frentic pace, with Armstrong and the guys in the band putting on a helluva show night after night. Unfortunately, record companies didn't know what to do with Armstrong after the success of "Dolly" so they began making soundalike records, right down to plugging a banjo into the All Stars. Armstrong's Mercury recordings are a mixed bag and his forgotten Brunswick 45s range from the ridiculous (a cover of the Lovin' Spoonfull's "Daydream") to the sublime (a rare, latter-day original co-composed with Marty Napoleon, "Louie's Dream"). In August 1967, Armstrong recorded Bob Theile's "What a Wonderful World" and though it wasn't much of a hit at the time (at least in the U.S.), at least it presented an alternative to the "Dolly" sound (though Armstrong had sung ballads over orchestras with strings and a choir years earlier...Gordon Jenkins, anyone?).

In October 1967, Brunswick hired arranger Dick Jacobs to arrange an album of movie songs for Armstrong to record. Armstrong's health declined in early 1967 and his trumpet playing, though still there, was becoming less and less a part of the show. On the entire Jacobs-arranged album, Armstrong plays a total of 40 bars of trumpet. His voice is in fine form but he's constantly tripped up by poor material ("I Believe"....yecch) and hideous arrangements such as "The Happy Time," perhaps the worst record of Armstrong's career mainly due to the disgustingly sweet choir that makes the listener want to blow up his or her listening device within the first six seconds. Jacobs had no feel for this music and by augmenting the All Stars with a banjo, guitar AND Everett Barksdale's weirdly popping electric bass guitar, he managed to overcrowd the rhythm section to the point where all they could do was plod and bounce in an incessant two-beat. When I asked Joe Muranyi about Jacobs, he summed him up in one word: "Schmuck."

The bulk of the Brunswick album was recorded in 1967 but needed three more tracks to complete it, Armstrong reentered the studio on March 26, 1968. 1968 was the last great year Armstrong, at least until September when he fell ill and had to shut it down for 1969. Waiting for him was Michael Legrand's "I Will Wait For You," taken from the acclaimed 1964 French musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Armstrong's performance is an example of good triumphing over evil. Try as he might to cover up Armstrong's genius with a cloying choir, annoying electric bass and a soul-destroying two-beat, Jacobs can't keep Armstrong down on "I Will Wait For You," undeniably a highlight of Armstrong’s twilight period. The stirring opening trumpet cadenza over minor chords is a throwback to his younger days. The opening phrase is one of his favorites, lifted verbatim from the way he used to close Arvell Shaw's bass feature with the All Stars, "Russian Lullaby" (it's also faintly alluded to in his break on Jewel Brown's feature "Jerry" in the 1962 Goodyear film). The descending run that follows is very characteristic and the whole thing is played with that kind of free-floating rhythm that had been his hallmark since his youth. The vocal is a gas, if you permit me to fall into 1957 lingo for a minute. He sounds like he's having a ball, even giving the choir an enthusiastic, "Yeah!" when they enter and shit all over the bridge. But after a modulation, Armstrong reenters with some of the most joyous, infectious singing of career and yes, I know that is saying a LOT. Here's the way he sings the first two lines after the bridge:

If it takes forever, MAMA, I will wait for you..hehehe, YEAH
For a thousand summers, BABY, I will wait for you...ohhhhhhh yeah

At the end, he creates a vocal cadenza to match the opening trumpet statement, repeating the word "sharing" four times and when he comes to the final words, "your love," he substitues a slightly different two-word phrase: "hot mama!" I don't have my copy of Satchmo nearby but I know Gary Giddins pointed out that it's the only version of "I Will Wait For You" where you know what the singer has in mind when the girl he's waiting for finally returns! And for good measure, Armstrong scats one of his favorite minor-key phrase to close the record, the same one he ends his duet with Ella on "Summertime."

Listening to the vocal, replete with added “babe’s” and “mama’s” is further proof that his singing remained unchanged since the 1920s and in fact, was actually better in his later period. And again, the opening trumpet cadenza harkens back to his youth. A big part of my research is my steadfast determination to destroy the popular idea that there were two Armstrongs: the young artist and the later entertainer (1929 onward). Now is not the time to go into details (I left my soapbox in the trunk of my car), but the truth is Armstrong always managed to combine art and entertainment (slight pause while some readers clutch their chest at the mere thought) as he always mugged onstage, winning rave reviews for it in Chicago newspaper reviews of the mid-20s. And for every "West End Blues," there's a "Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa." And even when Okeh started giving him pop songs in the 20s and when Decca started giving him film songs in the 30s, it was no different than hiring him to dress up "I Will Wait For You" and "Talk To The Animals" in 1968. I urge you to go on Itunes and listen to "I Will Wait For You." Try to get past the choir, the rhythmic clunk and the lame arrangement and listen to Armstrong himself. Listen to the trumpet, listen to the vocal and try to tell me that's not the same soul as the 1928 edition. Sure, his chops weren't what they used to be but it's the same musical spirit that pervaded his entire career. There was only one Louis Armstrong and thank God for that.

(Note on the Itunes source: you can find "I Will Wait For You" on Itunes on an album simply titled "The Best of Louis Armstrong Vol. 1." It's a reissue of a three-disc German release that I paid heavy money for a while back and can't be found on CD in America. All three volumes are available on Itunes and can be spotted by the vertical orange title on the left side and a black-and-white photo of Armstrong on the right. Here's the really weird part: all the tracks on the album are credited to Arthur Johnston (?) but they're all Armstrong, trust me! Volumes 1 and 2 contain Armstrong's entire Mercury output and the complete I Will Wait For You Brunswick LP. And though it's not marked that way, Volume 3 has the ultra-rare alternate take of "Wrap Your Trouble In Dreams" from 1931. Enjoy!)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Because of You

Recorded September 17, 1951
Track Time 3:17
Written by Arthur Hammerstein and Dudley Wilkerson
Recorded in New York City
Louis Arrmstrong, trumpet, vocal; Charlie Holmes, George Dorsey, alto saxophones; Harold Clark, tenor saxophone; Dave McRae, tenor saxophone, bariton saxophone; Don Abney, piano; Everett Barksdale, guitar; Frank Goodlette, bass; Jack Parker, drums; Sy Oliver, arranger, conductor
Currently on CD:"Satcmo Serenades" (Verve 543 792-2)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Sorry Kelly Clarkson fans, this "Because of You" is not the same song the American Idol superstar currently has a hit with. Written in 1940, this "Because of You" didn't explode until a young Tony Bennett recorded it in 1951. The record became a number one hit for ten weeks. Enter Decca and Louis Armstrong. In 1949, Armstrong's producer at Decca, Milt Gabler, came up with the idea to team Armstrong's voice with Gordon Jenkins's lush strings to record a couple of pop tunes. The resulting 78 ("Blueberry Hill" backed by "That Lucky Old Sun") was a hit and Decca now had a formula: Armstrong + Pop Song + Studio Band = Hit.

Truth be told, the formula didn't exactly work as Armstrong's early fifties Decca records didn't produce as many hits as Gabler and Armstrong's manager, Joe Glaser, would have hoped for. Some broke through and continue to resonate on grocery store loudspeakers or during romantic comedy climaxes (such as "La Vie En Rose" and "A Kiss to Build a Dream On") but the rest became more or less forgotten. Few of the songs entered Armstrong's live repertoire with his sextet, the All Stars, and hardened jazz critics raised hell about the mere prospect of Armstrong recording pop songs. At the time of these Decca recordings, disc-jockey Frenchy Sartell wrote, “My blood is boiling, my ire is aroused. How dare they do it to my favourite jazz ‘great’? How dare they bury him in commercialism?” Of course, this is crazy talk. If Armstrong did indeed go commercial it wasn't in 1951, it was in 1929 when he started making standards out of pop tunes for Okeh. Or if you want to go back earlier, to when he was featured on Noel Coward's "Poor Little Rich Girl" while a member of the Vendome Orchestra. Armstrong always loved making great jazz out of pop songs, regardless of the quality, something that he shared with many other New Orleans musicians.

So with Tony Bennett tearing up the charts with his versions of "Because of You" and "Cold Cold Heart," Milt Gabler brought Armstrong into to the studio to record his own renditions of these two disparate songs. Veteran arranger Sy Oliver was brought in to arrange the two performances, placing Armstrong's voice and trumpet on top of a cushion of reeds, four to be exact. "Cold Cold Heart" is a harmless record, but "Because of You" is magic, right from the stirring notes of Armstrong's opening trumpet cadenza (how many crooners could play that?). It's only 10 seconds, but the gorgeous opening cadenza brings back reminders of such earlier Armstrong recordings as “West End Blues” and “You’ll Wish You’d Never Been Born.” The rhythm is locked in the two-beat feel but it’s in a more Jimmie Lunceford-style, bouncing instead of plodding.

Armstrong’s vocal is lovely, delivering the pretty lyrics with contagious joy. Yet the most interesting aspect of the record is the trumpet obbligato behind the vocal delivered by none other than Armstrong himself! Two years later, George Avakian would have Armstrong overdub himself playing and scatting over his vocal on “Atlanta Blues” and this is usually credited as one of the earliest examples of the practice in the recording industry. But truthfully, Armstrong had done it first on “Because of You,” though even he admitted it wasn’t such an easy thing to do: “I did a gimmick bit for Decca with ‘Because of You,” he told Variety, “and let me tell you, Pops, I won’t go through that again."

Besides the overdubbing gimmick, the true highlight of the performance is Armstrong’s trumpet solo. Whatever the Decca studio brought out in him might never be known, but Armstrong did some of his best trumpet work on these pop sides from the early 50s and “Because of You” is one of his best. As he had done on his old version of “When You’re Smiling,” he plays the melody an octave higher then would be expected. It's the kind of song that once you realize what he's doing, you almost become worried, thinking, "Geez, this thing is going to get pretty high...I hope he makes it!" Of course he does, with a string of high concert Ab’s, topped off by very high concert Bb. He then delivers a stirring double-timed break, so logical in its choice of notes yet so perfectly executed it’s a marvel then the song didn’t become one of Armstrong’s best known. And listen carefully for his delayed vocal entrance after the trumpet solo. He's so far behind the beat, it almost sounds for a second that he forgot to resume singing. But, relaxed and asssured, he catches up. Then pausing to let the saxes play a bit of melody, he again catches up with a perfectly phrased reading of the lyric all reduced to one pitch. It's one of my favorite Armstrong vocal moments. Add in the scat coda and final, "That's the end" and you have a just plain wonderful record. If this is commercial music, then I'm proud to consider myself a fan of commercial music.

Unfortunately, "Because of You" did not become part of Armstrong's regular repertoire but he did perform it live with the Les Brown big band at a December 1951 concert in Pasadena. Fortunately, it's available on Itunes (and on a GNP-Crescendo CD) as part of "Louis and His Friends." It's definitely worth listening to for the differences in the opening trumpet cadenza and in the phrasing of the vocal. Hilariously, Armstrong forgets the lyric, "The moon and stars will say you're mine," substituting it with, "And Mama...made you mine," drawing some laughs from the other musicians in the band. Armstrong's scat break on the live version is particularly crackling. The trumpet solo follows the pattern of the studio recording to a tee, taking it up an octave higher and ending with a completely different but no less effective break. In the vocal reprise, the delayed, behind-the-beat reentrance is gone, replaced by a humorous, "I only live, mama, for your love and your kisses," laughing a bit at his own way of spinning the phrase. He then holds an "Mmmmm" just long enough until he finds the perfect spot to drop in the next part of the lyrics. What a genius. So don't worry about the commercial B.S. This is great music and it's truly one of my favorite Armstrong records...and it kicks the hell out of Kelly Clarkson!

Monday, July 16, 2007

A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody

Recorded between May 19-June 5, 1944
Track Time 2:59
Written by Irving Berlin
Recorded at the Trianon Ballroom, South Gate, CA
Louis Armstrong And His Orchestra: Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Jesse Brown, Thomas Grider, Andrew "Fats" Ford, Lester Currant, trumpet; Taswell Baird, Adam Martin, Larry Anderson, trombone; John Brown, Willard Brown, alto saxophone; Teddy McRae, tenor saxophone, conductor); Dexter Gordon, tenor saxophone; Ernest Thompson, baritone saxophone; Ed Swanston, piano; Emitt Slay, guitar; Alfred Moore, bass; James Harris, drums.
Currently on CD: Nope, it's out of print but it is on Itunes!
Available on Itunes? YES! On "Masters of Swing: Louis Armstrong"....Thank God for Itunes....

This is a wonderful track from what's usually viewed as Louis Armstrong's dark period....World War II through the formation of the All Stars in 1947. After a Decca session on April 17, 1942, the record industry suffered through a recording ban that lasted through 1943. Armstrong wouldn't record for Decca until 1944, a three-tune session that wouldn't be released until the LP era and in 1945, he only cut two total sides for the entire year. So because he released so few studio recordings, many are led to believe that this period isn't very important to Armstrong's legacy. Fortunately, Armstrong, more popular during this period than some books would lead you to believe, was a conspicuous presence on radio and many broadcasts survive (I have well over 100 Armstrong songs taken from broadcasts between 1941 and 1945).

Studying what the Armstrong big band played during this period is fascinating. There's pop songs one wouldn't expect Armstrong to tackle ("You Don't Know What Love Is," "I Couldn't Sleep A Wink Last Night," "As Time Goes By"). There are updated arrangements of jazz classics such as "Basin Street Blues" and "Dear Old Southland." There's novelties such as "I Lost My Sugar In Salt Lake City" and popular R&B numbers from the time such as "Caldonia." And, in this case, a genuine, old favorite, Irving Berlin's "A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody," written for the 1919 Ziegfeld Follies and about to be embraced all over again in Paramount's 1946 screen biography of Berlin, "Blue Skies." This broadcast comes from 1944 and features a mainly anonymous band except for trumpeter Fats Ford, who later played in Duke Ellington's trumpet section (and sometimes went by his real name, Andres Meringuito...why would he go from Andres to Fatso?), drummer James "Coatsville" Harris and a tenor saxophonist by the the name of....hold on, let me see if I got this right....Dexter....hold on, I want to make sure I spell it properly...Dexter Gordon! Yes, Long Tall Dexter was in the band for about six months and can be heard soloing on a few broadcast performances.

He's not heard on "A Pretty Girl," which is an Armstrong tour de force from the start, opening with another vocal that highlights Armstrong's vocal range. In preparing for their 1961 collaboration, "The Real Ambassadors," Dave Brubeck listened to a number of Armstrong recordings and determined that he had an impressive range from a low C to a high F. On this one, Armstrong opens even lower, with a Bb and by the end, sings a D, a tenth away. The way he sings "It's in your memory" is example 6,042 of his wonderful phrasing. But the main event is a chorus-and-a-half of trumpet playing that ranks with his finest work of the 40s. There's so many riches, it's not worth describing every note. Now I don't work for the Apple people, but there are far worse ways to waste a buck than dropping 99 cents at Itunes to hear and appreciate this for yourself. Highlights: the perfect opening break; the sudden drop into the lower register at 1:31, as if he's answering his own phrases; the motive he works over so logically from 1:39 to 1:44; the way he falls back on the melody, infusing it with his own sense of rhythm....and that's only the first chorus! With a dramatic modulation, Armstrong's upper register leads the charge into the final chorus, over his favorite backbeats from drummer Harris (shades of Big Sid...I'll have more on Armstrong's love of the backbeat in later posts). Armstrong goes low when you expect him to go high but it's just a delayed ending until he hits and holds the final high Bb. Absolutely beautiful.

It was Armstrong's last clarinetist, Joe Muranyi, who really hipped me to the glories of this performance during an afternoon visit to his apartment. Muranyi made an incredible point that I think bears repeating. During the mid-40s, Armstrong's big band changed under the musical direction of Teddy McRae to a more modern, brassy, LOUD sound, while Pops remained Pops. At the time, he was criticized for not changing with the times, but listening back, it's amazing how those mid-40s Kenton-esque Armstrong bands sound so dated while his own playing and singing sound just as fresh as every. Now dig around your couch, come up with the 99 cents ($1.06 with tax) and check this one out...this chick was never prettier than the way Armstrong plays (and sings) her melody!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Cuban Pete

Recorded July 7, 1937
Track Time 3:09
Written by Jose Norman (Joseph Norman)
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong And His Orcestra: Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal, Shelton Hemphill, Henry "Red" Allen, Louis Bacon, trumpets; George Matthews, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombones; Pete Clarke, alto saxophone' Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone, clarinet; Albert Nicholas, Bingie Madison, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Bleair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums.
Released on Decca 1353 (Backed by "She's the Daughter of a Planer From Havana")
Currently on CD: Ambassador 1903, "Louis Armstrong Vol. 3, 1936-1937"
Available on Itunes? No (A crime!)
Red Hot Jazz Archive: http://redhotjazz.com/Songs/Louie/lao/Cubanpete.ram

I know what you're thinking...my name is Ricky Riccardi, one letter away from Ricky Ricardo, the immortal television character portrayed by the immortal Cuban bandleader, Desi Arnaz, who, yes, is invariably associated with "Cuban Pete." Just in case you're wondering, I'm not a Cuban bandleader (though I am a pianist), I did not marry a Lucy (hello, Margaret!) and I will not sing "Cuban Pete" for you. But I love Armstrong's almost completely neglected recording of this rhumba. This was one of the great Decca big band recordings of the 30s, a series that has never received proper attention on United States CDs. The above CD listing is from the incredible Swedish label, Ambassador, all of which should be sought out on Amazon as they offer a complete picture of this fruitful period in the Armstrong discography.

"Cuban Pete" might sound like an odd choice for a Louis Armstrong record, but Decca was adept at throwing him all sorts of eclectic material (just four months earlier, he had recorded two chraming Hawaiian songs with Andy Iona and His Islanders). On the same day he recorded "Cuban Pete," Armstrong cut another Latin specialty, "She's the Daughter Of A Planter From Havana," featuring a wonderful muted trumpet solo. On that performance, the band played in a pretty convincing rhumba style but on "Cuban Pete," they swing from note one. Unfortunately, Armstrong doesn't enter until almost one minute in (approximately, note 108). The arrangement features the band playing a straight version of the melody, sounding like almost any other commercial band of the period, except few bands had as propulsive a rhythm section as the one in this band. As you may or may not know, Armstrong front pianist Luis Russell's orchestra for the bulk of the 1930s. Russell's band made some tremendously exciting records in 1929 and 1930 and the rhythm section of Russell, Lee Blair, Pops Foster and Paul Barbarin, deserve a lot of credit for transforming the somewhat stiff, two-beat rhythm sections of the 1920s into the more streamlined, four-to-the-bar swing of the 1930s and beyond. Foster's bass had a huge, popping tone, heard to good effect on "Cuban Pete."

Okay, one minute in and here comes the other Pops, Mr. Strong, and he's muted. He sticks pretty close to the melody but he accents certain phrases ahead of the beat to turn the somewhat clunky tune into something infinitely more swinging. The bridge is a beaut with Armstrong playing a phrase at 1:16 that's right out of his bag of licks (it comes back during his mind-blowing 1960 "Avalon" solo with the Dukes of Dixieland, to name one example). Finally, he starts improvising during the final eight bars and one wishes he did it for three minutes. But instead we get an uncharacteristically gruff vocal. Armstrong's voice in the 1930s softened into a charming tenor with a dash of gravel (not quite the sandpaper gurgle of later years), but he barks out the lyrics of "Cuban Pete" with some rasp, though he effectively sings the "chick chick-a-booms" on one note. The band takes eight bars, Barbarin takes a drum break and Armstrong modulates into a higher key for thet final spot of trumpet blowing. He's still playing the melody almost straight, but there's a great little slow motion descend at 2:50 (my, my, my what he could do with time). Then another break leads into another modulation and Armstrong's now wailing in the upper register of his horn, ending on a triumphant high D.

Like many of Armstrong Decca recordings, "Cuban Pete" didn't change history like "West End Blues." But not every record had to do that. It swings, Armstrong gives another lesson into how to take a banal melody and make swinging jazz out of it, he barks out a fun vocal and at the end, makes one shake his head in amazement at his trumpet prowess. What else can one want from such a great artist? If you still believe Armstrong's post-1928 recordings are a waste of time, you're missing some wonderful music. And if you only know "Cuban Pete" through Desi Arnaz, Ricky Ricardo or Jim Carrey in "The Mask," check out Armstrong's recording to see how the "king of the rhumba beat" could swing like hell, too.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Don't Get Around Much Anymore

Recorded April 3, 1961
Track Time 3:31
Written by Duke Ellington and Bob Russell
Recorded in New York City
Accompanied by Duke Ellington, piano, Trummy Young, trombone, Barney Bigard, clarinet, Mort Herbert, bass, Danny Barcelona, drums
Released on the Roulette LP "The Great Reunion"
Currently on CD: "Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: The Complete Sessions"
Available on Itunes? Yes (The rehearsal is available only by purchasing the full album)

It's day two of this blog and I'm already kind of fudging things a bit. I pressed shuffle on my Ipod and the Armstrong-Ellington collaboration on "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" came up, a fine track by all means. But the 2000 Routlette CD issue of these recordings included a 10 minute, 43 second rehearsal of this performance that really adds to the experience of the master take, so I've decided to cover this track as well. This was from the first of two days of recording, a period when Armstrong was battling a cold. Now I know, Armstrong's vocal quality would never be mistaken for Johnny Mathis, but the cold does add a slightly nasal, deeper husk to his voice. Nevertheless, Ellington didn't bring any new material to the dates, which mainly consisted of Armstrong's All Stars, with Duke on piano instead of Billy Kyle, jamming on many of Ellington's most famous compositions. Thus, it's no surprise upon listening to the rehearsal that the musicians almost completely nail "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" on the first try.

The potent duo of Armstrong and trombonist Trummy Young open the tune with a full chorus of melody, Armstrong staying in the middle register in the final eight, where he would go up higher on the master take. The vocal's a good one with fine support by ex-Ellingtonian Bigard on clarinet. A highlight is Armstrong boiling the descending melody to one note after the bridge. Duke's piano solo is a gem. His beginning sounds almost wrong, like he perhaps thought they were going right to the bridge. But he soon turns it into a motive, getting downright in Monkish is places (and kinda Dukish the rest of the time). Armstrong's trumpet picks up the last A section with a strong break and a nice high concert C towards the end. One problem: nobody knows how to end it! Armstrong starts to go into a typical ending and then realizes it's futile and asks Duke about making an ending. Armstrong's efforts, played a capella, are beautiful examples of the hugeness of his tone. Duke comes up with a simple ending for Barney and Trummy to play and they're off for another take.

The next time around is aborted after only one chorus. Armstrong gets bluesy in last eight bars and also breaks out of the middle register. Armstrong cracks his last note and the tune breaks down. It's hard to hear, but I think Duke jokes about spoiling "them good solos, like Cat, man," a reference to Ellington trumpeter Cat Anderson. Armstrong responds about "the one Duke plays with, he made a mistake," leading Duke to drop the name of another member of his trumpet section, "Willie Cook wouldn't stand for that." In a rare moment of humanness, Armstrong botches the opening phrase of the melody on the next take. Restarting yet again, Armstrong puts together his best opening solo yet. I love listening to these things gel. Armstrong's trumpet solo builds so logically, it's to marvel at, the vocal retains the one note phrasing, Ellington plays a more motivic, somewhat riff-based solo, really digging into the bridge. Armstrong's trumpet reentry is slightly delayed, but the solo contains another dramatic high note (a Bb, though, instead of a C). Only the ending still needs work. Armstrong climbs up high and holds a note, while Trummy and Barney botch the ending phrase, coming into to late. Duke and Pops scat how it should sound but on the master take, it's omitted completely; Armstrong hits the high note and the performance just ends, somewhat unresolved but it works.

The master take smooths out all the rough edges from the rehearsals. I love the interplay between Pops and Trummy. Often, the All Stars sounded like a quintet anyway when Barney was in the front line, as he would be drowned out by the trombone and trumpet. You don't even realize he's not playing on the opening chorus. Armstrong's trumpet chorus is textbook. It starts with just the melody, gradually improvising on the turnarounds before rhythmically rephrasing the bridge and bulding logically into the high register for the final eight bars. And let's give some credit to the rhythm section. Mort Herbert and Danny Barcelona were often unfairly criticized because they didn't gave gaudy "all star" names but they swung effortlessly and they wouldn't have lasted so long if Armstrong didn't approve. Herbert's bass lines are particuarly effective behind the vocal. And Ellington uncorks yet another delicious piano solo on the master. The bridge is so relaxed, yet swinging at the same time, it's irristable. Pick up the complete sessions and you won't be disappointed....oh, just pick up anything from Armstrong and you won't be disappointed!

Friday, July 13, 2007

We'll Be Together Again

Recorded August 14, 1957
Track time: 4:06
Written by Carl Fischer and Frankie Laine
Recorded in Los Angeles, CA
Accompanied by Russell Garcia and orchestra (Paul Smith, piano, Alvin Stoller, drums, among others)
Arranged by Russ Garcia
Released on the Verve LP "I've Got The World On A String"
Currently on CD: "I've Got The World On A String/Louis Under the Stars"
Available on Itunes? Yes

This track comes from the undervalued series of recordings Armstrong made for jazz producer and empresario Norman Granz's Verve label in 1956 and 1957. Almost everyone is familiar with Armstrong's Verve duet recordings with Ella Fitzgerald (Verve has resissued them in about 67 different CDs and I think they'll be repackaged and rereleased yet again before the year is up). But Armstrong also made two recordings backed by a studio orchestra arranged and conducted by Russell Garcia, as well as a collaboratio nwith Oscar Peterson's trio (plus Louie Bellson on drums) that's quite wonderful. The Garcia sessions are a mixed bag: the material is quite excelent and Granz and should be applauded for throwing such challenging material Armstrong's way. Unfortunately, Garcia's arrangments, though harmless, are also quite bland. On top of that, Granz never was able to record a completely rested Armstrong and on the day of this session, Armstrong was recovering from the previous day's work: a performance by the All Stars and the recording of five tunes for the second collaboration with Ella.

Armstrong showed up at the studio with a tired lip but managed to turn in a darkly-hued, mellifuous solo on a remake of "When Your Lover Has Gone," not near as daring on his 1931 original, but a good example of his mature, later style. "We'll Be Together Again" was up next and Armstrong caresses the bittersweet tone of the lyrics (Armstrong admirer Frankie Laine was credited with co-writing the song). It's a good example of his range, too, as he reaches down to a low a C and up an eleventh to a D without any straining. Oddly, he doesn't deviate much from the written melody but he sings with warmth. The trumpet solo also doesn't stray from the written melody, but is quite lovely. He starts quite strong but sounds a tad weak going into the second eight bars, recovering with a bluesy Eb (echoed nicely by pianist Paul Smith). The bridge might be my favorite part as Armstrong answers the string section's playing of the melody with a perfect obbligato, with some nice, dark, low notes. He sounds like he's playing along with the radio (perhaps a Jackie Gleason record). Then comes a moment of great dignity: Armstrong emerges from the bridge in dangerous waters, his lip sounding like it wants to give out. He pauses, leaving some silence, and bounces back for a full F. Trumpet concludes the performance, once again answering the melody as played by the strings, before a subdued coda.

Overall, it's a charming performance and a great example of how hard Armstrong pushed himself in those later years, managing to create performances of great beauty even when not in 100% great shape. For a real example of that, check out the various takes of "Stormy Weather," the very next tune recorded that day. Again, Garcia wrote the arrangement to include Armstrong taking a full chorus trumpet solo but knowing he wasn't in peak form, the bridge was handed to Smith's piano. After one of the runthrough takes, you can hear Armstrong say, "That bridge--takes a whole lot of weight off me, man." Armstrong's later years sometimes get taken for granted but he never stopped giving 100%.

Introduction to this Blog

Hello! My name is Ricky Riccardi and you can learn more about me in the (you guessed it) "About Me" section of this blog. I just wanted to take a second and discuss what this blog is all about. There are tons of Armstrong videos on YouTube and in my Itunes, I have 2,408 Armstrong songs arranged in chronological order. I plan on hitting "shuffle" on my Itunes and whatever Armstrong track comes up first, I will discuss it. I'll provide the musicians, the writers, the soloists, I'll give some analysis of the recording and I'll even tell you where you can buy it or listen to it. On some days, I'll post a YouTube video and do the same. You're more than welcome to comment and offer your own opinions or disagreements to whatever I write. There's really no order to anything, just a (hopefully) daily celebration of Armstrong's music! Enjoy!