Friday, September 21, 2007

Wolverine Blues

Louis Armstrong and The Dukes of Dixieland
Recorded May 24, 1960
Track Time 4:20
Written by Jelly Roll Morton
Recorded at Webster Hall, New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Frank Assunto, trumpet; Fred Assunto, trombone; Jerry Fuller, clarinet; Stanley Mendelsohn, piano; Jac Assunto, banjo; Rich Matteson, bass, Helicon; Owen Mahoney, drums
Originally released on Audio Fidelity
Currently available on CD: “Limehouse Blues” on the Blue Moon label (though it’s slightly sped-up and is missing a few seconds, it’s all we’ve got)
Available on Itunes? No

Sorry, Decca lovers, but a glance at the personnel listed above will show that Itunes did not choose Armstrong’s wonderfully swinging 1940 big band recording of “Wolverine Blues” for this blog entry, but rather his 1960 version with the Dukes of Dixieland. That recording, with another great arrangement by Chappie Willet and powerhouse drumming by Sid Catlett would make for an entry by itself, but Armstrong blows some really incredible trumpet on his version with the Dukes so I’ll devote today’s blog to the lesser known, later record.

To begin, Armstrong’s sessions with the Dukes were made for the Audio Fidelity label and that’s a story in itself. After making some sessions for Decca in 1958, Armstrong’s contract with that label ended and Joe Glaser decided to make Armstrong a full-time free agent. Armstrong had a short stint on Victor in 1946 and 1947 and Glaser allowed Columbia and Verve to record Armstrong in the mid-50s, but Decca was truly Armstrong’s studio home from 1935 to 1958. But by 1958, Armstrong was more famous than ever and Glaser didn’t want to bother with contracts, instead opting to record for whomever would offer the most money. Because of that, Armstrong’s studio work slowed down greatly between 1958 and 1964. The days of recording pop songs in front of studio bands were over for now and full-blown All Stars dates also shriveled. Armstrong became co-featured on a number of records including a 1960 date with Bing Crosby (for Capitol) and 1961 sessions with Duke Ellington (for Roulette) and Dave Brubeck (for Columbia). Otherwise, Armstrong didn’t even enter a recording studio in 1962 and his only session of 1963 came in December, a date that resulted in “Hello, Dolly,” catapulting Armstrong into the last phase of his career at a new peak of popularity. While the All Stars continued making great music in live settings, Glaser’s greed deprived listeners of what surely would have been some classic albums, especially when one reads about Columbia producer George Avakian’s ideas to team Armstrong with the likes of Duke Ellington’s big band and Gil Evans, as well as continuing the songwriter series that had already resulted in two albums for the time capsule with tributes to W.C. Handy and Fats Waller.

But through it all, there was Audio Fidelity and though these albums have never received their due, they are responsible for some of the freshest playing Armstrong did during the All Stars years. Audio Fidelity was a smaller label run by Sidney Frey and its place in history revolves around the fact that they released the first commercial stereophonic record in 1957. A year later, Audio Fidelity became the first label in the United States to release stereo two-channel records. The Dukes of Dixieland began recording for Audio Fidelity and according to their website, their nine Audio Fidelity albums sold over a million copies combined. The band featured brothers Frank and Fred Assunto on trumpet and trombone, respectively, as well as their father, Papa Jac, on banjo and second trombone. In the summer of 1958, the Dukes shared a bill at the Illinois State Fair with Armstrong’s All Stars. “They’re home boys,” Armstrong said of the Dukes. “Whenever we’re playing in the same town, I go and sit in.”

In June of 1959, Armstrong suffered a heart attack (or pneumonia, as he persisted) in Spoleto, Italy. After taking a little bit of time off, he was back on the road by July and in August he made his first album for Audio Fidelity (Armstrong was paid $40,000 for each of his three Audio Fidelity sessions…maybe Glaser was on to something!). It made perfect sense to combine Armstrong with Frey’s sensationally popular group and the results were inspired. The material consisted of many songs the All Stars still played (“Back O’Town Blues,” “Someday You’ll Be Sorry,” “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It,” and others) but being placed in a new setting seemed to rejuvenate the trumpeter. Not that the All Stars didn’t do the same. In October of that year, Armstrong made another album for Audio Fidelity, this time backed by his regular sextet. The premise was stolen from one of George Avakian’s ideas and goodness knows Avakian would have done a better job: Satchmo Plays King Oliver. On paper, it’s a golden idea but of the album’s 14 songs, only four really had any connection to Oliver! “Frankie and Johnny”? “My Old Kentucky Home”? “Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight”? I don’t know who picked the songs but it’s a stretch to call the album a tribute to Oliver (though Armstrong himself slyly referred to this when he said Oliver “might have played them.”). On top of that, most of the musicians in the band didn’t know the songs and Armstrong had to spend a lot of time in the studio showing them the routines. It’s a testament to the professionalism of the band that the album comes off as good as it does. The whole band plays well but Armstrong’s at the top of his game, blowing with full power (what heart attack?) on “St. James Infirmary,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Snake Rag,” to name just a few. Fortunately, this is the only one of Armstrong’s Audio Fidelity recordings to receive decent treatment on compact disc (more on that in a bit) as Fuel 2000 reissued it a few years ago in a release that featured eight alternate takes in addition to the album’s original 14 cuts. It’s still available on Itunes but is unavailable on Amazon unless you want to pay a lot of money for a used copy (though—hint, hint—search for “Birth of Jazz” by Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, a two-disc set from Fuel 2000 that features the entire Oliver album as well as a disc by Jelly Roll and can be had for as low as $8.99 used!).

In May of 1960, Armstrong made his best album for Audio Fidelity, a second collaboration with the Dukes of Dixieland. The first day’s session of May 24 should go down as one of Pops’s best sessions as his horn work no “Avalon,” “Wolverine Blues” and “Limehouse Blues” is mind-blowing. Jeff Atterton, who was there, wrote, “The playbacks were perfect and after each, Pops shouted ‘Wrap it up, wrap it up.’” Armstrong’s publicist Ernie Anderson dropped by the date, done at New York’s Webster Hall, as did two very different trumpeters, Max Kaminsky and Dizzy Gillespie, along with Gene Krupa. With so much talent in the studio, Armstrong put on a helluva display. His efforts even caused Dukes trumpeter Frank Assunto to exclaim after the session, “The old man is too much.”

For today’s purposes, I’ll focus on “Wolverine Blues,” which fortunately exists in two takes. Immediately upon hearing Morton’s original introduction at the beginning of the record, we know we’re no longer in the swinging big band world of the 1940. Armstrong plays the line in unison with Frank Assunto over a very stiff two-beat Helicon backing by Rich Matteson. After listening to the way the All Stars swung, it’s night and day and still, every time I hear the introduction, I grimace a little bit. Fortunately, the rest of the record is a gem. Assunto plays the lead melody while Armstrong comes up with a nifty second trumpet part—shades of the King Oliver days! After one go-around, Armstrong plays the main strain’s melody, not really improvising a whole lot, though the rather subdued break comes off nicely. After the break, he tinkers with the phrasing a bit before Assunto comes back in to repeat the introductory line, this time without Armstrong’s help, though Armstrong gets the last word in, blowing a fat high concert F to set up Jerry Fuller’s clarinet solo. Fuller plays well but it’s hard to pay attention because Armstrong decides to back him with some simple riffs and phrases, opening with a “Shiek of Araby” motif. Armstrong’s backing is just as loud as Fuller’s clarinet (it’s almost a duet) and he gets more ornate as he goes on, though he’s thrown a curve in the last eight bars. Expecting to play the same eight-bar opening phrase Assunto played, Armstrong steamrolls over Fuller with the first two notes of the melody before awkwardly backing away to let Fuller finish his say.

Unfortunately, the Blue Moon C.D. with this song contains an awful edit at the start of Armstrong’s ensuing turn, resulting in 17-and-a-half bars of Armstrong’s original 32-bar solo! No worries though as what he survives on the disc is pretty fantastic. His chops were in great shape that day and he plays a quick gliss up to a high C with ease. In the final eight-bars, the Dukes give him a stop-time backing and Armstrong eats it up, floating over the beat with some very relaxed phrasing. Assunto and the rest of the band then return to the written eight-bar melody for the third time on the record. At this point, the song is over three minutes old and though it’s a very good performance, so far there’s nothing really to write home about (but obviously enough to write a blog about!). Fortunately, the highlight is just around the corner as Armstrong trades twos with Assunto’s trumpet, throwing down the challenge by quoting “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” with his first phrase. Undeterred, Assunto picks it up and responds with the obvious “Baby” line from that tune’s melody. Armstrong then gets funky, repeating an Ab, the dominant 7th and sounding pretty modern in doing so (remember, Dizzy was watching!). Assunto answers with some simple playing, not offering much of substance, but clearly content to be trading with his idol. However, Pops ends the friendly conversing and commences shouting, peeling off a string of high Bb’s that must have made Assunto need a change of clothing. Assunto bravely enters his upper register but doesn’t blow with the same force (it sounds like a different instrument), though he adds a very nice two-bar break. As nice as it is, Pops swallows him whole again with some more upper register blasts. Assunto answers back with more force but again Pops washes him away with a giant gliss to a high Db, the highest note he plays on the recording. They effectively continue trading before joining forces for one more rendering of Morton’s eight-bar phrase. A drum break leads to a powerful two-trumpet harmonized ending, Assunto sticking to a low D with Armstrong going way up to a high Bb.

The trading between Armstrong and Assunto is by far the highlight of this version of “Wolverine Blues” but fortunately, another take survives. In fact, many other takes survive (more on that later), found by Gösta Hägglöf in 1965 and later released on Hank O’Neal’s Chiaroscuro label. The alternate take very much follows the routine of the issued one except everything that comes out of Pops’s horn is different. He even comes up with new phrases to back Fuller’s clarinet solo (and he doesn’t wrongly come in the last eight bars of that solo as he did on the master, meaning this must be a later attempt). Also, because Blue Moon butchered Armstrong’s solo, it’s nice to hear him take a full chorus by himself, with stop-time sections at the start and in the middle of the solo. It’s very a relaxed, almost lyrical effort, though he still hits a magical high C to make sure the listener’s paying attention. Again, the highlight is the chorus of trading and this time around, it’s much more conversational. Armstrong begins again with the first three notes of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” but discards it in favor of pure improvising, with Assunto picking up the ball beautifully, continuing Armstrong’s line as if the two were sharing a single brain. The repeated low Abs are gone, replaced by what could be dubbed, “Fun with a D,” as Armstrong spends his four bars making interesting rhythmic statements out of a single note. Armstrong ends his third round of trading with one of patented licks, Bb-G-Bb-G-D, which a now aggressive Assunto picks up and hurriedly hurls back at Pops three times, reminding me of later Louis Prima. After Assunto’s break, Armstrong’s final two offerings feature some upper register work, but nothing like what’s heard on the master take. The alternate is valuable for featuring some brand new Armstrong improvisations, but I’ll take the passionate wailing on the master.

Now, if you’ve listened along as I’ve written about the alternate take, it must mean that you have a record player near your computer as it has never been released anywhere else except the old, aforementioned Chiaruscuro album. And if you don’t have the butchered, partially sped-up Blue Moon C.D. version of the master take, the odds are you probably didn’t follow along with me on that description either because that’s the only disc that contains it…and no, Itunes doesn’t offer it. All of this, then, can be summed up with one phrase: a crime!

Armstrong’s Audio Fidelity recordings are long overdue for reissue. The glory of these sessions is in how many alternate takes survive. Chiaroscuro released full LPs of alternates from both Dukes sessions as well as the Satchmo Plays King Oliver session with the All Stars. I have transferred these LPs to CD and thrown them into my ever-growing Armstrong Itunes playlist. I added up all the running times and it came out to 257 minutes and 20 seconds, or four hours, 17 minutes and 20 seconds. Thus, you could have a nice four-disc box set, each disc running about 65 minutes. Or you can have three 80 minute discs and add other treasures from the original tapes to fill out a fourth disc (Hagglof also remembers that Audio Fidelity basically let the tapes roll, catching much chatter including Armstrong telling stories, always priceless). Or 20 minutes could be cut and it could all fit on three full discs (though watch what’s cut or I’ll raise hell!).

The project screams out for the Mosaic Records treatment, either as a three-disc set or a four-disc regular box. In their storied history, Mosaic has only done one Armstrong box, and a great one at that, a collection of his 1950s Decca studio recordings. But in the same time, Duke, Miles, Monk, Eddie Condon, Jack Teagarden, Johnny Hodges, Count Basie, Sidney Bechet, J.J. Johnson and I’m sure a few others have all received multiple projects devoted to their work but the daddy of ‘em all only had one set, one that’s been out-of-print for quite some time. I’ve written to Scott Wenzel of Mosaic two times in the last two years and he’s admitted it sounds like a great idea and that he would run it by Michael Cuscuna but I’ve never heard any more about it. So let’s create a stir! Send an e-mail to info@mosaicrecords.com and suggest a box on Armstrong’s Audio Fidelity recordings. It would fill an important gap in Armstrong’s studio work and besides, it’ll allow you to hear these versions of “Wolverine Blues” that have become so difficult to find. One might not care for the Dukes’s backing or Assunto’s lounge-ish singing or the tune selection on the King Oliver album but Armstrong’s trumpet work cannot be denied and as long as this material languishes in a studio, some of his best trumpet playing of his later years will go unnoticed. And that’s a shame.

Next up: a classic All Stars concert review. Until then, have a great weekend!

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