Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Swing You Cats: 80 Years of Louis's January 1933 Victor Sessions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Track Time: 2:39
Recorded January 28, 1933
Written by Zilner Randolph
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Keg Johnson, trombone; Scoville Browne, George Oldham, alto saxophone, clarinet; Budd Johnson, tenor saxophone; Teddy Wilson, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; Bill Oldham, tuba; Yank Porter, drums
Originally released on Bluebird 10-225
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

We've reached the end! I sincerely thank anyone who was with me from day one of this little festival and hope you found it worthwhile. We end with one of the lesser known Armstrong recordings from this period, one that even Victor wasn't so sure about, holding it for release until 1939 and even then, putting it on their cheaper Bluebird label. But how can you not love a tune with a title that sums up Louis Armstrong's musical message in three succinct words?

"Swing You Cats" is from the pen of trumpeter Zilner Randolph, who had been dutifully organizing bands for Louis and playing second trumpet since 1931. When Louis returned from Europe in 1935, Randolph put together yet another band for Louis's comeback in Chicago, but they were soon supplanted by Luis Russell's Orchestra when Louis hit New York and that was the end of Randolph's days with Louis. Louis did bring one remnant of Randolph with him when he joined Russell: his composition, "Old Man Mose," which became a huge Swing Era hit. They remained friends for decades; Randolph appears on a few of Louis's home-recorded tapes in the 1950s and I believe can be spotted in a home movie taken at Louis's house in the early 60s during a birthday party for Luis Russell.

Randolph had been in the section watching Louis record one pop tune after another, turning many into future standards. It seems like a nice gesture for Louis to throw his straw boss a bone and record one of his tunes, helping him to get a little taste from ASCAP. This wouldn't be the last time he'd do such a thing; in April, he'd record his then-drummer Harry Dial's "Don't Play Me Cheap" and in later years, made records of compositions by bandmates Luis Russell, Joe Garland, Sid Catlett, Billy Kyle, Marty Napoleon and others.

Randolph might have written the tune but the title definitely comes from Louis. Not only did he popularize the use of the word "swing" with musicians, the title refers to a specific incident that occurred in London the previous year. Louis liked to tell the story of a performance during that first European tour of 1932 when he had to do an engagement with a group of local musicians. The way he told it, when they were ready to rehearse their first number, an amped-up, gregarious Louis launched his body towards them and shouted, "Swing, you cats!" And the musicians, not knowing what the hell he meant and scared of the way he approached them, actually jumped back in horror and ran off the stage! Once they realized he wasn't mad at them, everyone got along fine, but it gave him a story to tell for decades.

So enough backstory, let's listen to Louis closing out these epic January 1933 sessions with Zilner Randolph's "Swing You Cats."



There you have it. Overall, the song's changes are fairly basic for the period but the first chord seems to be of an B+5/whole-toneish variety and the B-natural inherent in that chord is enough to give the song some harmonic flavor. After an introduction that's equal parts swinging and mysterious, the band takes a full chorus, the reeds really carrying the melody in a call-and-response pattern with the brass. The bridge is of the "Honeysuckle Rose" variety but it, too switches to a +5 for the last chord to change things up a bit. Overall, it's an attractive little riff melody.

Louis finally enters 50 seconds in but he sounds like he comes in perhaps a tad early because he's all by his lonesome for his first note. Gunther Schuller called this piece "underrehearsed" and for once, I have to agree with him. Louis's entrance comes in an interlude that sets up the song's verse, which Louis carries on top but again, something seems to be clashing below him.

However, once he gets into the main 32-bar section, it all comes together. A string of quarter-note G's gets the motor running but dig his note choices in the breaks; Dan Morgenstern wrote that Lester Young must have known this number. Alas, it wasn't issued in the US until 1939 (England did get to it first on HMV) but I know what Dan's saying as Louis's lines do have a Lestorian feel. (If Lester didn't hear it, Red Allen sure as hell did.)

As he goes forward, Louis seems to be digging it but his chops do seem to let him down slightly here and there. This might sound like nitpicking as there's no outright clams but a few notes are slightly cracked and he doesn't seem like the same Superman that just created one for the ages on "Mahogany Hall Stomp." Perhaps he emptied the tank on that one.

But imperfections aside, it's still a terrific solo, one that's very different from almost anything else he played in this period. I mean, listen to his last eight bars: it's melodic, yet surprising, there's some eighth-note playing we don't normally associate with Pops....he's still on fire and still swinging like, showing off a more "modern" side for 1933.

A blustery Budd Johnson handles a modulation from Eb to F and then Louis reappears, at first almost tentatively part of the section before he blasts forth with a break that ends with a gliss up to a high concert C. Randolph's arrangement and Louis's harmonies continue in their more modern way (especially the way Louis lands on that A and shoots down to another A an octave lower).

Then Randolph's flying range execute a tricky part heading into the bridge but it's all rather busy. What follows is a great lesson because after the somewhat forced moments of the arrangement, Louis just floats up high on top of the bridge; if you could block out the rest of the band, it sounds like Louis is listening to another tempo in his mind. Needless to say, that cat is swinging and the repeated F-to-A's at the end of the bridge are exciting way to get into the final A. Louis keeps his composure over the trilling saxophones, his phrasing made up of pure swing before the final stop-time climb back up to high concert C.

And with that final high note, Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra's ridiculously busy three sessions of 80 years ago came to a conclusion. With 12 songs in the can, Victor had more than enough material to start releasing into the marketplace. Well, at least until April, when they had Louis record ELEVEN more songs in TWO sessions!

Does that mean I have to go through this again in April? Time will tell but though there's still some legendary moments (you KNOW I'll be back for "Laughin' Louie"), the April sessions don't have as many peaks as the January dates so I might sit those out. Or not. If you enjoyed this series, leave a comment or drop me a line because it's always feedback from my readers that keeps pushing me onward after five years and now 500 (!) posts. Thanks for reading and enjoying Louis's January 1933 Victor sessions with me. Upward and onward....SWING YOU CATS!


4 comments:

LOUIS said...

You've made my week with these posts. I started each day by listening to the tunes and reading your words, and enjoyed it all the way through. My ears being not as acute as yours, I can't hear any rough note in these recordings, only great music made one of the (if not THE) greatest entertainers of all times.
Thanks for these, and I'am already looking forward to April...

Sahfen said...

Thank You very much for this beautiful travel in the 1933 music of Louis. I've always loved this period of his long career and your analysis of the man and his art, so deep and accurate, make me appreciate more and more good ol' Satchmo, even if he's been my idol ever since!
I'll wait for more posts!
My congratulations and best wishes from Italy,

Nicola Ardenghi

Sahfen said...

Thank You very much for this beautiful travel in the 1933 music of Louis. I've always loved this period of his long career and your analysis of the man and his art, so deep and accurate, make me appreciate more and more good ol' Satchmo, even if he's been my idol ever since!
I'll wait for more posts!
My congratulations and best wishes from Italy,

Nicola Ardenghi

yvesfrancois said...

... this has always been one of my favourite records Louis has made. I feel that, whatever slight imperfections on his solo may have, there is a joy to this recording, and the feeling of the band playing live at a gig is so much on this one. I LOVE the notes he chooses on the solo, superb (note the chrmatic decending line after the break, or the stabbing of one note, akin to Newton's "Pigfoot" solo w Smith) - a lot of where both Frankie Newton and Red Allen came from is represented by this recording, remember they heard Louis live, so they could catch this without hearing this recording (imagine seeing Louis live on a weekly basis in the early 30's Ricky).I consider this a desert island record, and, since you are a pianist, did you ever notice that the A section is a rather turned around Basin Street Blues? Good post!! A bientôt