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!

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