Last week, I went on a rant during my “Darling Nelly Gray” entry about the dearth of unissued Armstrong being released on CD. While it is true that some prime Armstrong material isn’t being issued on CD or is nearly impossible to find, I really should have taken the time to applaud Storyville for the wonderful job they’ve done with the four volume Louis Armstrong In Scandinavia series. After a bit of a delay due to a change in ownership, Storyville finally released the fourth and final volume. Even better is the new four-disc box set of the entire series, retailing for only $40. Because August 4 would have been Armstrong’s 106th birthday, why not put aside the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens and “What a Wonderful World” and dig into this set? The great price of $40 should do it, but if it doesn’t, here’s 40 more reasons:
1. The soundtrack to the 1933 Danish film appearance – I’ve seen this footage hundreds of times but listening to it in such clear sound is a revelation (listen to the drummer’s cymbals on “Dinah”).
2. Speaking of those tracks, “I Cover the Waterfront” must be one of the greatest jazz vocals of all time
3. History, folks! Three live tracks from a Stockholm concert in 1933, constituting probably the first live concert recordings ever.
4. Of those live rarities, I love “Chinatown.” Armstrong takes the same path he took on the studio recording, but he takes a little more time, making that climb to the climax a tension-filled ride (one that’ll end with you shaking your head as Pops blows progressively higher and higher with each passing stop)
5. A wonderful solo on “On the Sunny Side of the Street” from the live 1933 concert, one year BEFORE he recorded it in the studio. There’s subtle changes but the solo is just about the same as the later record, further proof that Armstrong worked out his solos even as a young man…and if they’re this good, why the hell not?
6. A live, 1949 version of the always fun “Twelfth Street Rag,” a tune Armstrong hadn’t taken serious since his 1927 deconstruction of it with the Hot Seven. Yes, there’s some clowning but Pops’s horn is scorching (listen to the opening phrase!)
7. The almost complete Stockholm concert from 1952, featuring a rare appearance by a short-lived All Star, Bob McCracken
8. “Indiana” in 1952 – most people scoff at this, saying Armstrong played the same solo every time…well, listen to this one! Armstrong had been playing it for almost two years at this point and it’s almost completely different from that one that would indeed gel into something of a set solo around 1956.
9. Armstrong the Quoter – He pioneered this and was later criticized for it (though boppers like Bird and Dex were lauded for it). I have about a dozen versions of Armstrong doing “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans,” but only on this one does he quote, “That’s My Home.” Fitting, eh?
10. Trummy Young joined the band only a month earlier and he stirs up a JATP atmosphere on “Coquette.” Armstrong’s hot as hell on this one, too.
11. Louis and Velma bomb! I LOVE Velma and she does a great job but it is funny to here some of her and Armstrong’s vaudeville patter bomb on the foreign audience. Armstrong mentions a former wife from Maine. “Bangor?” Velma asks. “I didn’t even….” Armstrong responds, breaking into mumbles and laughs. The audience is silent but it’s a good-natured gag. Besides….
12. Even if you don’t care for Velma, listen to the Armstrong horn on “Lover come Back” and “Can Anyone Explain,” the latter a rare live reading of a song Armstrong originally recorded with Ella Fitzgerald.
13. Moving on to Volume 2 which opens with a very hot “New Orleans Function.” Jack Teagarden is my favorite trombonist of all time but I like Trummy better in the All Stars. Just listen to the spark he lights in the rideout chorus of this one (Cozy Cole, too, give Pops his favorite backbeat).
14. Perhaps the highlight of the four volumes: a sumptuous ballad reading of “Pennies From Heaven” that matches and maybe even tops the more celebrated version from the 1947 Town Hall concert. It’s a pity Pops didn’t play this one more often.
15. “Muskrat Ramble.” That’s all that has to be said. Whenever Armstrong called this one it meant that he was feeling in particularly fine shape (dedicating it to “all the musicians in the house”) and he always turned in a sparkling performance of it during the All Stars period.
16. Trummy inherited Teagarden’s feature on “Basin Street Blues” and he would continue to feature it until The Glenn Miller Story was released, at which point it became Armstrong’s property again. Nevertheless, this version is notable for Trummy’s solo where he quotes Armstrong’s entire, classic 1933 solo from the original Victor recording. Young always said he used to copy Armstrong trumpet solos off records and during this concert, he demonstrated that they still stuck with him.
17. An absolutely terrific version of “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” done as a slow ballad. Marty Napoleon’s comping pleases Pops, there’s a nifty double-time bridge in the vocal and a heroic trumpet solo where Armstrong repetition of two notes at the end causes chills. One month later, the All Stars played it in Italy as an uptempo jump number. The point? Don’t take the All Stars for granted as they could always approach a number differently on a performance-to-performance basis.
18. 11 numbers featuring the classic Armstrong-Trummy Young-Edmond Hall front line in all their glory. Hall had just joined the band at the end of September (just in time for “Mack the Knife”) and this concert comes from early October. It’s amazing how well he fit in, the best clarinetist in the history of the All Stars.
19. Armstrong loved “The Gypsy” and played it constantly from 1954 to 1956. This 1955 version is one of the best as the concluding solo features some different ideas (including a perfect downward phrase that unfurls in slow motion to its logical conclusion).
20. “Pretty Little Missy” from 1955 is a romping performance. Based off of a figure Billy Kyle used to play on “Perdido” (both tunes share the same chord changes), Armstrong and Kyle wrote this contrafact that Armstrong would continue to perform on-and-off until the very end. In fact, the last trumpet solo he would ever take in a studio was a 1969 version of “Pretty Little Missy.”
21. “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” always cooked but this one especially burns thanks to the presence of Edmond Hall and the drumming of Barrett Deems. Deems is a little overmiked but it’s not a problem as it allows the listener to really feel the power of a drummer Armstrong obviously loved having in his band (even if the critics scoffed).
22. Other highlights of the 1955 show: a tremendously exciting “Saints Go Marching In” and a burning “St. Louis Blues.” This piece had been the property of All Stars pianists since 1948 but Armstrong reclaimed it after recording it for the 1954 album of W.C. Handy tunes. On the record, Armstrong played it around 132 beats a minute but in Sweden, it jumped up to about 160, creating a pretty thrilling atmosphere (especially with Deems getting heated during the rideout choruses). However, even Armstrong must have realized this performance was a little to fast as it was back to the old medium-rocking groove at a Barcelona performance just two months later. Still, this Sweden one has to go down as one of the most exciting versions of “St. Louis Blues” Armstrong ever recorded!
23. “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” disappeared for a while around 1954 and really wouldn’t permanently come back until the early-60s, so it’s nice to get this 1955 souvenir from it by the Hall and Young edition.
24. Okay, moving onto 1959. The reliable Mort Herbert is now on bass and Danny Barcelona, almost completely unknown at the time, was onboard to provide the kind of drumming Pops craved (he would last for 13 years). Peanuts Hucko is now on clarinet and listening to these performances makes me really miss Edmond Hall, especially in the ensembles, where Hucko sounds bored some of the time. However, 1959 was a prime year for Armstrong and the Scandinvia series captures some of his best blowing. Such as….
25. “I Get Ideas” is wonderful. It, too, disappeared from the All Stars book throughout the mid-fifties, returning during a late 1957 tour of Buenos Aires, where Armstrong announced it by its original tango name, “Adios Muchachos.” Armstrong’s the whole show here, with the lovely vocal and explosive trumpet interlude. I wish he played it more often but at least we have this version to enjoy.
26. Armstrong didn’t always call the medley of “Tenderly” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” but when he did, audiences listened. He plays nothing but lead melody on these two songs and it’s enough to bring tears to your eyes.
27. “Old Man River” is a real treat and more proof that Armstrong didn’t even rest when featuring his sidemen. This was a feature for Mort Herbert’s bass but right in the middle of the performance, up to the mic steps Pops to give a lesson in how to sing and swing the venerable showtune at an uptempo clip. And for good measure, he even goes up high to play the melody on the trumpet later on. No, no, no, Pops never coasted.
28. In that same vein is Hucko’s Goodman-esque feature on “After You’ve Gone” where Armstrong completely overshadows the clarinetist, even during the encore choruses, where he quotes the old Hot Five “Lonesome Blues” and glisses up to a high Bb he holds long into Hucko’s next chorus. Smoking!
29. Like “Muskrat Ramble,” “Ole Miss” was the other tune Armstrong would dedicate to all the musicians in the house. It’s interesting to compare it to the version 1952 (volume 1 of the Scandinavia series) as Armstrong no longer soloed on it in 1959. However, his lead was strong as hell and during a rare encore of this piece, he bends a gliss that lasts about five seconds, a pretty impressive feat for any trumpet player, never mind one that was pushing 60 at this period in his life.
30. The fourth volume opens up with the third version of “Basin Street Blues” heard in this series and it’s completely different. In 1952, it stayed in a slow groove. In 1955, it began medium-up and turned into a fast romp. And now, in 1959, it starts off in the old, slow-groove and ends up medium-up. Confused? Don’t be, just take it as further proof that even if a song stayed in Armstrong’s live repertoire for years, it didn’t mean he always approached it the same way.
31. “TIGER RAG”!!!! I could write a master’s thesis on this performance alone. I have well over 20 Armstrong versions of “Tiger Rag” in my collection but none tops this one. It’s as if he woke up in January 1959 and thought it was 1932 again. Usually, the band would play it, complete it and maybe Pops would call one more encore. Not this time—he calls FOUR! And each time, he improvises something fresh and exciting, shooting out ridiculously high notes with abandon. It’s a jaw-dropping performance and if you don’t feel like buying this box set (which means your brain isn’t functioning properly), at least buy this 9 ½ minute version of “Tiger Rag” for 99 cents on Itunes.
32. Armstrong always liked to oblige requests and does so in volume four with a medley of “Black and Blue” and “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans.” It’s a great medley but most interesting is how Armstrong changed the lyrics in “Black and Blue” from “I’m white/ inside” to “I’m right/ inside.” He was singing “I’m white” in 1956 but (and this is just a hunch), the Little Rock incident occurred in 1957 and soon after, Armstrong began singing about being “right” instead of “white” inside. Do you see a connection? I think it’s very possible.
33. Another great opening “Ko Ko Mo” solo. Many people fluff this one off as just one of Velma’s silly features but Armstrong almost always improvised in his opening trumpet solo (done over a vamp). In this one he quotes “When You and I Were Young, Maggie,” among others.
34. Speaking of Velma, volume four has Armstrong and Velma singing “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” obviously running through what they were doing in the Denmark film, Kaerlighedens Melodi (the soundtrack was recorded the day after this concert). It’s a short performance but it’s fun.
35. Volume four concludes with a handful of tracks from July 1967. Armstrong was just getting back on his feet after a long battle with pneumonia and though the All Stars sound as fine as ever (with Tyree Glenn, Danny Barcelona, Marty Napoleon, Buddy Catlett and brand new member, Joe Muranyi), Pops sounds weakened. On “Back O’Town Blues” he can’t hit the high notes he once hit as part of his set solo, a solo he was still wailing less than two years earlier. Still, he manages to play a real down home, bluesy solo, even without the high notes, maintaining his dignity to the end.
36. This 1967 concert also has an extended version of “Cabaret.” On this European tour, Armstrong decided to jump the tune a bit and stretch out. This Copenhagen concert was from July 25 and other versions of “Cabaret” exist from Armstrong’s two days at Juan-Les-Pins, France on July 26 and 27. It’s interesting to hear all three back to back as Armstrong plays less and less with each day but what he plays sounds stronger each time. He was sadly beginning to confront his own limitations as this was the same sad tour when his once virile set solos on “Indiana” and “Muskrat Ramble” were scrapped in favor of just playing the opening and closing ensembles. The range might have decreased and the chops might have diminished but damn, that tone still shines through.
37. On this European tour, Armstrong also began singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” introducing it as “a message for ya.” Marty Napoleon’s introduction is basically a quick reading of the melody of “Tenderly,” a nod back to the wonderful medley of the 50s, heard so well on volume three. Well, maybe he couldn’t sustain “You’ll Never Walk Alone” with the trumpet anymore but he still had his voice and his vocal manages to imbue the piece with the same emotion and feeling of his horn. Some people cringe at the song because of its Jerry Lewis connotations, but Armstrong really sang the shit out of it. His 1967 studio record of it should be much better known, especially seeing how “What a Wonderful World” has become so omnipresent these days (and don’t forget, Armstrong would begin dedicating “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to all the Vietnam soldiers and their families…Iraq anyone?)
38. To get away from the music for a minute, reason number 38 has to call attention to the wonderful liner notes written by international Armstrong scholar Gosta Hagglof, the man behind the essential Swedish Ambassador series that reissued Armstrong’s Decca big band recordings properly (still waiting for such treatment in America).
39. And while I’m on the notes, the pictures in all four volumes are priceless. Itunes is a beautiful thing but you won’t get the wonderful images unless you order the actual CDs.
40. And finally, reason 40 for spending $40 and ordering the Louis Armstrong In Scandinavia box set from Storyville Records – IT’S LOUIS ARMSTRONG MUSIC! And really, what more do you need to know than that? But on top of that, it’s rare Armstrong music and it provides an amazingly comprehensive look at Armstrong’s career, particularly the All Stars period. There are few doubles and which ones there are exist in different interpretations (including the aforementioned “Sunny Side of the Street” from 1933 and 1952, different “Indianas” and “Basin Street Blues” from 1952, 55 and 59). There’s a bunch of versions of “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” but I’m not complaining! But for those who complain about the limits of the All Stars repertoire, look at what’s NOT here: “Jeepers Creepers,” “C’est Si Bon,” “La Vie En Rose,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Someday You’ll Be Sorry,” “West End Blue,” “Rockin’ Chair,” “When You’re Smiling,” “Lazy River,” “Blueberry Hill,” “Hello, Dolly” and so many others. If you think you know everything about the All Stars period, check this set out. And if you just plain love Louis Armstrong and want some fresh material, look no further.
So kudos to Mona Granger and Anders Stefansen for keeping up the legacy of Storyville founder Karl Emil Knudsen with a release that surely would have made him proud. And if anyone else needs 40 more reasons to purchase this set, just drop me a line at Dippermouth@msn.com or leave me a comment here and I’m sure I can come up with a couple of hundred more. Happy Birthday, Pops!