Thursday, December 13, 2012

85 Years of "Hotter Than That"

Recorded December 13, 1927
Track Time 3:05
Written by Lil Hardin
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Lonnie Johnson, guitar; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8535
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes

If you pardon me, an oldie but a goodie. I wrote about "Hotter Than That" two years ago but today is the 85th anniversary and I think everything I said holds up so I've dragged it out of mothballs and re-posted it below (though if you're interested, click here for the original post, which featured some excellent comments, especially by John Wurr). Enjoy!

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"Hotter Than That" comes from the final session featuring the original Hot Five group of Louis, Kid Ory, Johnny Dodds, Lil Hardin Armstrong and Johnny St. Cry (plus an added special guest, as we'll discuss in a minute). The next time Louis fronted a "Hot Five" group in a studio, the personnel would be completely different, though with the same epic results. The team of Louis and Earl Hines would prove to make some pretty landmark recordings in 1928.

Arguably, Louis had outgrown his colleagues in this first edition of the Hot Five. These were all great musicians but none of them had the solo brilliance of Pops, whose towering solos and virtuosic ensemble playing led him to dominate almost all of the early Hot Fives. When listening to those recordings today, Ory, Dodds, Hardin and St. Cyr have their moments but really, it's the Louis Armstrong Show. But when George Mitchell sat in for a session in 1926 (released under the name The New Orleans Wanderers), the whole group seemed to relax and teamed up to make some truly rocking New Orleans ensemble work. Louis--playing nightly with Erskine Tate's "symphony orchestra"--was growing by leaps and bounds and the old-fashioned New Orleans-styled ensembles were no longer enough to contain him.

But man, did this edition of the Hot Five go out with a bang! After a detour through the recordings of the Hot Seven, the original Hot Five returned in 1927 to record nine more songs between September and December, waxing classics like "Put 'Em Down Blues," "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" and "Once In A While." After recording that last number on December 10, the Hot Five welcomed a very special guest into the studio in the form of New Orleans guitarist Lonnie Johnson. Johnson, who was two years older than Louis, had been a tremendously popular OKeh recording artist, cutting 130 tunes for the label between 1925 and 1932 (checking my Itunes, Louis recorded 190 songs for OKeh during that same period, including work as a sideman and alternate takes...not bad!).

Teaming Armstrong and Johnson was a brilliant move. Today, Johnson is primarily known for his blues work and sure enough, he contributes mightily to two blues he recorded with the Hot Five, "I'm Not Rough" and "Savoy Blues" (as Marty Grosz once pointed out, Johnson more or less invented rock and roll guitar playing with his stinging triplets on "I'm Not Rough"). But Johnson was also a tremendous jazz musician. I absolutely adore Eddie Lang but the unabashed claims that Lang was the first jazz guitar virtuoso give me pause. Lang was right there around the same time as Johnson but I'd give the edge to Lonnie, who was really tearing out on his guitar in the mid-20s with some dazzling single-string work. It's a shame that Johnson has been pigeonholed as being just a blues musician. The man could do it all.

And that talent definitely can be appreciated on "Hotter Than That," one of the most joyous recordings in jazz history. The song was credited to Armstrong's wife of the time, Lillian Hardin Armstrong, but there's not too much of melody present. Instead, it's more or less a jam on the chords to "Bill Bailey." As I've pointed out before, it's also the same changes as "Tiger Rag," but Louis played "Tiger Rag" in a different key; it wasn't until I spoke to other musicians on the scene today who told me that in this key, it's "Bill Bailey" changes and that's good enough for me. (Besides, they only jam on the "chorus" strain, leaving out any of "Tiger Rag's" earlier strains.)

I've had the audio posted for a few days but if you haven't heard it, here it is again (and if you have heard it, really, is there a better way to spend three minutes and five seconds?):

From the opening eight-bar introduction, the band sounds completely warmed up, like they had been playing this tune for 20 minutes. It's all hands on deck for the intro, with Johnson's single-string lines contributing another unique voice to the polyphonic ensemble. But once they get into the main strain, Louis takes over, I guess playing Hardin's melody, but who knows how much of this was improvised (apparently, there is a lead sheet at the Library of Congress but I have never seen it). Once Louis takes over, he's blowing over a very pushing rhythm section. Lil's idea of comping was four-chords-to-the-bar, which Louis once wrote was the way they did it in New Orleans and that his wife was very good at it. But on top of Lil's work, there's the duel strings of Johnson's guitar and St. Cyr's banjo, each also going four-beats-to-the-bar. It's not exactly Freddie Green and the Basie band but they do keep things exciting.

Louis is so damn relaxed and flowing during that first chorus as he never stops swinging for a second. His break is perfectly executed and rhythmically, he's both daring and completely logical. What more can be said? Johnny Dodds takes over, opening with a somewhat angry note before launching into a hot solo (notice he's only backed by Lil as the strings take a breather). I love Dodds, even though I can admit that his lines didn't exactly swing. But his sound is great and there's a spiky urgency to his playing that always makes it plenty hot and plenty exciting.

But Dodds's outing is simply the appetizer before the main course. Do you perchance have a friend who doesn't really know what scat singing is about? Or have you ever heard a pop performer and an "American Idol" contestant break out into the weird scat escapade to the roar of the crowd's approval? Well, grab that friend or pay attention to yourself because Louis Armstrong is about to give a scat singing clinic. Never mind that each of his syllables is perfectly chosen; what makes his work particularly genius is the rhythm. It's one of his most hornlike scat solos, up to and including the break. But nothing quite prepares you for the tension of Louis's phrasing after his break; he's almost singing to a different tempo but everything still fits beautifully. Just a remarkable outing.

And I haven't even mentioned Lonnie Johnson yet! Do you see what I mean? The man's a guitar monster. Pops's scatting is the main event but if you were able to silence it and just focus on Johnson's guitar playing, he's contributing a helluva solo, full of single-string ideas that would influence guitarists for generations. And his free-form "conversation" with Louis is alone worth the price of admission (and if you had to pay to listen to this, I hope you're getting your money's worth!). Just listen to how Johnson bends his guitar strings to mimic Louis's moans or how Louis's little "rip" in his last break is expertly answered by Johnson's slashing guitar.

However, this tempo-less interlude comes to an abrupt ending with the sound of Lil's pounding piano setting the tempo for a short outing by Kid Ory that pretty much defines his classic style. But think of Ory's solo as where jazz has been; then listen to Louis's break and hear where it was going. It's a dizzying upward ascent that leads to a series of simple sounding, yet demanding high-note pairings. My goodness, the man is pretty much inventing the Swing Era with those two little beeps; how many trumpet sections would borrow such phrasings? It's every tub from that point on with everyone pitching in equally but I don't know how you can focus on anything but Louis's lead, which really explodes during a stop-time section towards the end of the chorus. Louis and Lonnie then engage in one more exciting conversation, both virtuosos tossing phrases back and forth with ease. Louis was always inspired on the Hot Fives and Sevens but when he really had someone of his stature to prod him, stand back. We heard that with Sidney Bechet, we're hearing it now with Johnson and goodness knows we'd hear it with Hines in the following year. Just a wondrous recording from start to finish.

30 years later, Louis revisited "Hotter Than That" for his triumphant "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography" album for Decca. To me, it's a highlight of that remarkable box but it's never mentioned with numbers like "When You're Smiling" or "King of the Zulus." And I think I know why: on those songs, Louis (I think) surpassed his original versions. I'm going to start right off by saying that the 1957 "Hotter Than That" does not surpass the 1927 version. But it's still a remarkably exciting recording and Louis is in astoundingly good form from start to finish, as are the All Stars. Give a listen and see what you think:

See what I mean? If the 1927 version wasn't so towering, I think more people would be flipping for this one, and that's perfectly understandable. But based on its own merits, I think the later version is wonderful. For most of the "Autobiography," drummer Barrett Deems was restricted to playing a closed hi-hat but on "Hotter Than That," he got to open it a bit more and in effect, was allowed to really drive the band. This is the famed Armstrong-Trummy Young-Edmond Hall edition and no small group in this history of this kind of jazz was hotter, says I (and Dizzy Gillespie, who once told Deems just that, according to my friend Phil Person). The opening of the 1927 record was exciting but this one, in today's parlance, simply kicks ass.

Like the original, Louis takes the first chorus by himself and it's a great example of Louis's playing at this tempo in this period of his life. The 1927 Louis played more notes and quicker runs and contributed a lot of jaw-dropping feats of dexterity that 1957 Louis could no longer do. But later Louis had the chops, he had that power, that unbelievable upper register, not to mention ferocious swing and an ability to improvise like he was telling a story. Every note of the 1957 solo is perfectly placed and can be hummed back without a problem. And the sheer power of that high note break...wow. More proof that there is more than one kind of virtuosity; fast fingering is nice and all but don't miss the pure sound of his upper register.

Edmond Hall's up next and he scores with a typically agitated solo, building down at the start before turing up the heat after his break. For the scat chorus, Louis comes up with something entirely fresh and again, something that reflects the Louis of 1957. The daredevil repeated motif from 1927 is gone but what's replaced it is still terrifically swinging. Louis grew more melodic over the years and that's readily apparent here, to the point where he almost sounds like he wants to start singing words at one point.

And how about a hand for guitar great George Barnes. Barnes's lemony electric guitar tone might sound like a odd fit in what supposed to be a recreation of music from the 1920s, but there's no denying that Barnes was a great on the instrument and he compliments Louis very well. The conversation works well, too, as Barnes expertly repeats just about all of Louis's phrases to the guitar. Everything sounds so natural coming out of Barnes's axe that it's just further proof that Louis invented the language for ALL instruments!

After a short interlude by Deems, Trummy Young uncorks an exciting half-chorus that defines his style as much as Ory's did his on the original. Then Louis amazingly climbs that spiral staircase again, replicating the form of the original break, if not repeating it note- for-note. He follows the pattern of the original with those two-note concert Bb pairings but takes a different path during the stop-time section. Whereas younger Louis phrased his improvisation as if on a tightrope, Louis just bludgeons the listener with pure power and swing. For one thing, he hits a higher note than he did on the original right before the break but even during the break, he swings a series of quarter notes (not easy to do) before capping it off with another singable phrase ending on a high note.

The only big difference between this version and the original comes at the end where the remake gets rid of any last minute trading between the trumpet and guitar. Instead, it's a full-blown All Stars ending of the period and I think it's a exciting way to end such a blood-pumping performance, Louis ending with a sky-high Eb that he didn't touch back on the original, holding it and shaking it to prove that he had a lot of life left in that old horn of his.

Okay, I think it's time to call it quits for "Hotter Than That." I hope you enjoyed this timeless, truly hot music...preferably listened to in an air conditioned room! Nothing will ever hotter than that, huh?

1 comment:

"Jazz Lives" @ WordPress.com said...

Those records don't bother me. The 1957 recording is a wonderful lesson on how a great artist could lovingly reinvent himself . . . In my science-fiction alternate universe, Tommy Rockwell insists that Louis and Lonnie go into the studio for duets: four blues -- slow, medium, and fast / four traditional songs: IN THE GLOAMING, WHEN YOU AND I WERE YOUNG, MAGGIE, HOME SWEET HOME, and AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL, and four pop songs: TEA FOR TWO, MUDDY WATER, ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND, and HOT TIME IN THE OLD TOWN TONIGHT. Step into my dream, as Scott Robinson has written.