Friday, November 21, 2008

I've Got My Fingers Crossed

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded November 21, 1935
Track Time 2:30
Written by Jimmy McHugh and Ted Koehler
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken, Louis Bacon, trumpet; Harry White, Jimmy Archey, trombone; Henry James, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Bingie Madison, Greely Walton, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Originally released on Decca 623
Currently available on CD: Both 1935 takes are available on the first volume of the indispensable Ambassador series. Check out www.classicjazz.se for more information.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on various issues

As usual, I can never just set right in with an entry without a few preliminary announcements...especially as it’s been ten full days since my last posting. After breaking my record for most posts in October, I fell off the wagon in November, but it’s all for the greater good as I’ve been working on the book a lot for the past week, whittling my research down to something manageable. Two nights ago, I went up to Birdland with my agent to finally meet my terrific editor with Pantheon, Erroll McDonald, and sign the contract. Ain’t no turning back now...the story of Armstrong’s later years is officially on!

So that’s exciting piece of news number one. While there, I talked to Dan Morgenstern for a while and he let me in on some more recent developments in Pops-land. Namely, the good folks at Mosaic Records are preparing a box that might be out in the next year or two that collect Armstrong’s complete Decca recordings from 1935 to 1946! This is tremendously exciting news for Pops fans. Coincidentally, earlier in the day, while complaining to my agent about the lack of respect Pops gets in the jazz world these days, I specifically griped about the fact that Armstrong’s big band Decca records have never been issued in complete form in the United States, a travesty. Well, now Mosaic is going to right that wrong with Dan doing the liner notes for what will be a seven-disc set.

Until then, as I’ve written about a thousand times, Gösta Hägglöf has done a heroic job with his Ambassador label, currently the only way to hear this material in complete, chronological form. I still urge all serious Armstrong fans to continue seeking out the Ambassador label (see the above-mentioned website) as Gus’s discs feature great sound and a number of rare, live broadcasts that really demonstrate the kinds of trumpet acrobatics Armstrong continued to display during his live shows of the period. The Mosaic set won’t feature these broadcasts, which is why it’s two discs shy of the Ambassador series, and it will only feature one new alternate take, “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” from 1938. But Mosaic always does a beautiful job with the packaging and booklet, especially with the photos and the notes. With Dan doing the notes, it’s going to be an indispensable set for Armstrong scholars and hopefully it’ll finally bring some long-deserved justice to this almost completely bypassed era of Armstrong’s career.

And speaking of which, the Itunes shuffle just can’t get enough these days and it chose “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed” from Armstrong’s second Decca session after his European sabbatical. As discussed before, Armstrong returned from Europe, hired Joe Glaser, signed a contract and began fronting Luis Russell’s band in New York (he originally played with a band organized by Zilner Randolph in Chicago but union problems prevented them from making it to New York and they never had the chance to record).

Decca immediately began pumping Armstrong full of the day’s pop hits and movie songs. Right off the bat, Armstrong recorded “I’m In The Mood For Love,” “You Are My Lucky Star,” “La Cucaracha” and “Got a Bran New Suit” in his first session Armstrong was at least allowed to bring two original compositions to his next session, “Old Man Mose” and “Was I To Blame For Falling In Love With You,” but he still had to record two numbers for the 1935 film King of Burlesque, “I’m Shooting High” and today’s song in question, “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed.”

Both tunes were written by Jimmy McHugh and Ted Koehler, two popular songwriters whose work Armstrong was more than a little familiar with. Armstrong had already sung Koehler’s lyrics on “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” “Wrap Your Troubles in Drams,” “Kickin’ the Gong Around,” “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” and “I’ve Got the World on a String,” while he recorded McHugh’s music to classic tunes like “I’m in the Mood for Love,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Exactly Like You,” “Blue Again,” “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me,” “I Must Have That Man” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street.”

King of Burlesque is a harmless backstage-musical film starring Warner Baxter, Alice Faye and the always-fun Jack Oakie. For most jazz fans, the film is essential for one of the the few film clips of Fats Waller in his prime. Waller also recorded a killer version of “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed” for Victor (one week AFTER Armstrong’s version) but for now, you can enjoy this very fun performance from the film, courtesy of YouTube (that’s Dixie Dunbar doing the hoofing):

We’re fortunate in that two takes survive of Armstrong and the Russell band doing “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed.” On volume one of the Ambassador series, Gösta Hägglöf speculated that the two versions came from two different sessions because the sound balance of the group changed and the session(s) also featured two completely different arrangements of “Old Man Mose.” It’s a good guess but Armstrong discographer Jos Willems did his research using MCA’s original files and he concluded that everything was done on one date, November 21, 1935. Regardless, both takes have their differences, the first one demonstrating that even Armstrong had his human moments...while the second, issued take is more proof that Pops was anything but human! So here’s take one:


And now take two:


Take one is slower, adding 19 seconds to the running time of the master. It gets off to a fine start with a very effective Armstrong vocal, including the righteous “yeah” at the end of the bridge. Armstrong sticks very close to the written melody but he still sells it beautifully. After a couple of time-killing saxophone breaks, Armstrong begins his solo, very relaxed. The first eight bars are lovely but he hits is first snag in the second eight, garbling one note for a second. The band then takes over for the rest of the chorus, playing lightly and politely before a short interlude section that Armstrong must have forgotten about because he comes in wailing with a high note only to disappear, slinking away quietly to let the band do its thing.

Perhaps knowing the take was ruined, Armstrong continued blowing to see work on some ideas. He still sounds great, opening his attack with a few piercing jabs. In the second chorus, he takes the melody up an octave, sounding like he just thought of it on the spot, hitting the high D beautifully but slightly cracking a note on his way down. He recovers for a perfect bridge but a strutting final eight-bars, complete with a quote from “I Got Rhythm.” Unfortunately, he almost completely botches his break before the humorous, whole-tone ending. Clearly, another take would be needed.

Take 2 is jumping, almost where Waller tackled it. Again, Armstrong pays the melody a great deal of respect though he rephrases it differently here and there (the “yeah” is still a killer in the bridge). Armstrong now plays muted during his first solo for contrast, delaying his entry, creating tension in the process. He opens by dipping a few toes in the pool before, liking what he feels, diving right in to a swinging half-chorus solo. Very relaxed playing, very flowing. The band then takes over right into the short interlude, which Pops abstains from the second time around!

Armstrong’s closing solo is, to my ears, a gem from the period. It’s got all the intricate rhythmic mastery we’ve come to expect from the master, taking chances left and right, swinging throughout but playing all sorts of phrases of various shapes and sizes, always something unexpected, whether a quick triplet or a short gliss out of nowhere. In the second eight, he takes the melody up an octave again but this time with more confidence, hitting the high concert D without any apparent effort. And dig the way he gets out of those second eight, with that repeated, almost angry triplet, before the life-affirming playing in the bridge, Armstrong dancing across the bars like Dixie Dunbar (hmmm, there’s something I never thought I’d ever write!). He doesn’t play any clams in the closing break, the whole tone passage comes without a problem, as does the standard chromatic ending. Bravo!

And that’s that for this Decca gem, currently available on the Ambassador label and about to be released in the next year or two on Mosaic Records, a label that I feel I own stock in since 31 Mosaic boxes line my shelves. The Armstrong renaissance is upon us, my friends...and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

1 comment:

keithrivers said...

Who owns the publishing rights or the license to this I've got my fingers crossed?? I tried searching EMI, but can't find any contact information. Please help! hollywoodasap@gmail.com