Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Among My Souvenirs

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded April 17, 1942
Track Time 3:27
Written by Edgar Leslie and Horatio Nicholls
Recorded in Los Angeles
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Frank Galbreath, Shelton Hemphill, Bernard Flood, trumpets; George Washington, James Whitney, Henderson Chambers, trombones; Rupert Cole, Carl Frye, alto saxophone; Prince Robinson, tenor saxophone, clarinet; Joe Garland, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lawrence Lucie, guitar; Johnny Simmons, bass; Sid Catlett
Originally released on Decca 4327
Currently available on CD: It’s on the eighth volume (1941-1942) of the peerless Ambassador series
Available on Itunes? Yes, on three budget, no-name sets.

First off, let’s get the preliminaries out of the way: it’s a girl! Yes, my wife and I found out yesterday that we’ll be having a girl so little Ella Ann Riccardi will be arriving around April 15 (little? I’m 6’ 3’’ and my wife is 6 foot even so there won’t be anything little about her...she’s probably going to come out with a job!). So little Louis will have to wait until attempt number two...unless it’s a girl again. Then what, Velma? Lillian? Mayann? Mama Lucy? I don’t think I can get my wife to agree to any of those. (And if you think I, Ricky Riccardi, is going to name my daughter Lucy or Lucille Riccardi, you’re nuts!)

On to Pops. As promised, the Itunes shuffle landed on “Among My Souvenirs,” yet another somewhat unknown Armstrong big band record from the early 40s, never issued on an American C.D. (thank God for Gösta Hägglöf and the Ambassador label). It was recorded at Armstrong’s final Decca session before the recording ban kept him out of the studios until 1944. It was kind of a looking-back type of session as Pops, after waxing Fats Waller’s new composition, “Cash For Your Trash,” spent the rest of his time recording old standards from the 1920s, “Coquette,” “I Never Knew” and “Among My Souvenirs.”

“Among My Souvenirs” dated back to 1927. Here’s an early version by Paul Whiteman & His Concert Orchestra in a typically sprawling arrangement with a vocal by the King’s Men, courtesy of YouTube:


The song doesn’t seem to have been a favorite of many jazz musicians, though Benny Carter and Art Tatum took separate stabs at it. It’s the kind of standard that’s actually touched other genres of music other than jazz, with popular versions recorded from Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby to Connie Francis and country music star Marty Robbins. There are many versions of the tune of YouTube but I won’t bore you by playing them all here. However, one sticks out for Armstrong buff and I think it’s worth giving it a listen. It’s by B. A. Rolfe and His Palais D’Or Orchestra, recorded for Edison in 1928.

If you know your Armstrong, than Rolfe’s name should be very familiar. He was a virtusoso trumpet player who led a dance band in the 20s. He didn’t play jazz per se, but his music has a hot edge to it. Armstrong says he saw Rolfe play a tune called “Shadowland” an octave higher than it was written. It inspired him so much, he decided to try it out on his next recording session, playing the melody of “When You’re Smiling” an octave higher. Naturally, Armstrong killed it and he now had a new device to resort to for the sake of drama, something he continued to do for decades when the spirit hit him. I was expecting to hear Rolfe play this melody in such a fashion, but alas, he sticks to a short muted spot showcasing some fast-fingering and not much else. However, what blew me away about this recording is I finally think I identified one of Armstrong’s favorite licks, both vocally and instrumentally. The violins play it at the 30 second mark, soon answered by the horns about 45 seconds later as the simple phrase becomes a motif throughout the arrangement (it’s back at 2:30 for a while). Armstrong always included it in his playing and singing and when Jack Teagarden was in the band, he, too, would quote it frequently almost as a way of tipping his hat towards Pops. I always wondered what the heck it was and now I seem to have my answer:

Perhaps other songs used it as well, but this is the first recording I’ve ever heard to so prominently feature the lick and we know Armstrong loved Rolfe and “Among My Souvenirs” so that’s a good enough for me. There’s no Rolfe whatsoever in the MP3 world but there’s a fair amount on YouTube. I think I’ll do some more listening and see what else Pops got from this forgotten virtuoso of the trumpet.

Back to “Among My Souvenirs.” As clearly seen in the above discussion, Armstrong loved music, regardless of the genre, and he had a soft spot for dance bands who stuck to the melody. Well, no band did that quite as well as Guy Lombardo and Armstrong always drove the jazz cognoscenti mad when he went off on one of his Lombardo-praising tangents. After Leonard Feather played a Lombardo record for Armstrong during one of his “Blindfold Tests,” Armstrong responded, “Give this son of a gun eight stars! Lombardo! These people are keeping music alive—helping to fight them damn beboppers. You know, you got to have somebody to keep that music sounding good. Music doesn’t mean a thing unless it sounds good. You know, this is the band that inspired me to make “Among My Souvenirs.” They inspired me to make “Sweethearts on Parade”. They’re my inspirators!”

As far as I can tell, Lombardo never recorded “Among My Souvenirs” but perhaps they performed it live. Or perhaps Armstrong had Rolfe in mind and momentarily confused his record with one of Lombardo’s (not out of the question). How could he have done that? Well, remember what I said about Rolfe inspiring Armstrong to play melodies an octave higher? Here’s the Decca:


Now is that ending Rolfe enough for ya??? But before we get to the end, let’s go back to the beginning. It’s a very good arrangement and though I can’t say it for certain, I think it’s from the pen of Sy Oliver. I know for a fact that Oliver also did the arrangement for “I Never Knew” recorded the same day and some of the voicings sound similar, especially in the punch of the muted brass, so I think it’s a good guess. Regardless, the band plays it very tightly and the rhythm section is guaranteed to make your foot tap uncontrollably (this also might be restless leg syndrome, so be sure to see a doctor).

Armstrong sounds like he’s in heaven, blowing the pretty melody with such a relaxed feeling, his straight mute creating enough warmth to melt the polar ice caps (hmmm, did Armstrong contribute to global warming?). His vocal also captures him at his sweetest. There’s some of the soulful breathing at the end of certain phrases reminiscent of some of his OKeh big band vocals and he keeps it remarkably scat-free (excluding the “uhhh, uhhh” at the end of the bridge). Like yesterday, there seems to be a conscious effort to not get too gravelly...he sounds almost ethereal singing the high notes in the bridge. And he swells on the last syllable of “Souvenirs” like any good trumpet player would.

After the band takes over for a bit, Pops returns for the last eight bars and--you guessed it--he takes the melody up an octave higher, a la Rolfe. His tone is remarkably pure as tops out with those high concert Eb’s at the end. All in all, a lovely record. An alternate take survives that’s almost identical to the master except it’s faster. How much faster? Enough to shave about 15 seconds off the running time. It jumps a little more but I don’t think it works as well, especially as the band gets a little sloppy around the time of Pops’s final trumpet entrance. There’s nothing relaxed about it and the delicately loping feel of the master is gone. Give it a listen:


There are no other surviving instances of Pops playing “Among My Souvenirs” after this session but he clearly held it in high esteem, rattling it off to Feather over 10 years later. And with good reason...if I hit high notes like that, I’d remember it, too!

1 comment:

anthony coleman said...

You're close - but not quite there.The tune is from the Drdla Souvenir (Among My Souvenirs - Souvenir...get it?). Don't forget, in those days "Light Classics" were still a form of Pop Music, and Whiteman (for example) was always putting these kind of things together.It's one of the main Violin Showpieces, and another part of it shows up in lots of cartoons.