Thursday, October 11, 2007

That Old Feeling

Recorded October 14, 1957
Track Time 2:47
Written by Sammy Fain and Lew Brown
Recorded in Los Angeles
Louis Armstrong, vocal; Oscar Peterson, piano; Herb Ellis, guitar; Ray Brown, bass; Louie Bellson, drums
Originally released on Verve
Currently available on CD: Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson
Available on Itunes? Yes

My Itunes shuffle must have had one eye on the calendar today as it picked a song from an album made almost 50 years ago to the day. The album is Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson and dare I say it, but I feel it to be the most underrated album in the Armstrong discography. I know some very well-respected people who were close to Armstrong and they’ve told me how they do not enjoy this album. Also, John A. Tynan of Down Beat only gave it two stars when it originally came out. And Oscar Peterson himself never wrote a single word about it in his own autobiography…heck, he never even mentions Armstrong’s name!

Why the lack of respect for the collaboration? I think some people just have it in for Peterson: too flashy, too busy, never lets the music breathe, unsuitable to Pops. And for those who love Peterson’s work, the pianist doesn’t take a single solo on the album. Also, there’s a lack of trumpet. Of the 12 tunes that made up the original album, Pops only plays on five of them. And for those who love the New Orleans repertoire, there just might be too many atypical standards for an Armstrong album.

All of this, naturally, adds up to nonsense for me! Full disclosure: I’m a pianist and I’m the type who marvels at Peterson’s virtuosity. Sure, he sometimes sounds like a machine but not on the Armstrong album. I think he’s a tremendous accompanist and often, his backing notes and phrases on albums with the likes of Billie Holiday, Roy Eldridge and Lester Young, stick in my mind as much as the offerings from the soloists. And I can’t deny it: I like music that swings. Hard. And the Peterson trio with Herb Ellis on guitar and Ray Brown on bass personifies swing. Throw in the great Louie Bellson and really, what’s there to complain about? The quartet is lush and subtle on “How Long Has This Been Going On,” they’re foot-pattin’ on “I Was Doing All Right” and they really push Armstrong’s trumpet to great heights on “Just One Of Those Things” and “Moon Song.” Hell, on that last song, Pops was so inspired, he took an extra, unexpected trumpet chorus so he must have enjoyed it! Of course, he was already familiar with the other musicians since they backed him up on the two collaborations with Ella Fitzgerald (Buddy Rich on drums the first time around). Those records, too, get a bad break from certain camps but I love them. Another time…

As for the Armstrong trumpet, he’s in great form, sounding much stronger than he did on his previous Verve dates with Russell Garcia’s orchestra. Three takes survive of “Let’s Fall In Love” (though the first two are only available on an out-of-print Verve Elite Edition compilation). On all three, Pops basically sticks to the melody but he phrases differently each time out and he sounds remarkably strong in the upper register (dig that bridge!). But on “You Go To My Head” and “Sweet Lorraine,” he turns in two of the best ballad performances of his career. Have you ever really sat down and listened intently to the trumpet solo on “Sweet Lorraine”? I’ll admit that for a while, I knew it was a great solo, but I never really gave it 100% concentration until taking a Jazz Historiography course with Lewis Porter at Rutgers. Dr. Porter played the solo as an example of Armstrong’s emotionally deep playing in his later years and it hit me hard. As he said when it was over, “He out-Mileses Miles on that one!” Real deep stuff…

And really, why would anyone complain about the choice of material? Granz had exquisite taste and in an era when Pops was getting crucified by the critics for playing the same songs every night, it’s refreshing to hear him tackle so many songs he had never played before (though his big band did broadcast “Blues In The Night” and he surely must have played “Sweet Lorraine” at some point in his younger days). So Armstrong sings more than he plays on the album. Who cares? I find his singing tremendously affecting on the Peterson album, especially on the two duets, “What’s New,” backed by Peterson’s piano, and “There’s No You,” backed only by Ellis’s guitar. At one of my Institute of Jazz Studies lectures on Armstrong’s later years, Phil Schaap made a comment that Armstrong never exuded 100% pure emotion in the vocals of his later years, always hiding behind a smile or a funny aside to keep things light whenever matters were becoming too serious. I disagree when listening to the Peterson collaboration. I think Pops sings the shit out of those two songs I just mentioned, without a hint of levity, and the same came be said for the tender caressing of “You Go to My Head” and “How Long Has this Been Going On.” What Dan Morgenstern once wrote about “There’s No You” applies to all the ballad vocals on this album: “If this doesn’t get you, please go away and don’t come back!”

So after such a big buildup, I now come to the song that’s the subject for today’s entry and honestly, there’s not too much to write about it! “That Old Feeling” is a great opening track, full of breezy swing and a charming vocal. The song was written by Sammy Fain and Lew Brown in 1937 and first appeared in the film Vogues of 1938. Many singers enjoyed singing it as a ballad, including Frank Sinatra, Billy Eckstine, Anita O’Day, Helen Humes and others, but Armstrong and the Petersons take it an ideal medium tempo, reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald’s earlier version. The Peterson trio takes a perfect introduction (you can hear Pops clear his throat) and Armstrong enters with the vocal over tasteful backing by Bellson’s brushes. Ellis sticks to Freddie Green comping while Ray Brown plays a lilting two-beat. Peterson stays out of the way, though every block chord he hits is quite beautiful. Pops sings the first chorus fairly straight and then a wonderful moment occurs: Brown kicks the bass into 4/4 time, Peterson plays a nice single-note line, Pops growls out a “Yeah,” and begins a second chorus in full swing. The change of momentum works beautifully, as it did my favorite version ever of “I Get a Kick Out Of You,” an Armstrong and rhythm section feature from Ella and Louis Again (included on the Verve C.D. reissue of the Peterson album). With the rhythm section now swinging lightly and politely, Armstrong loosens up a bit, changing the phrasing where he sees fit, throwing in a “Mama,” a “baby” and some neat scatting. Peterson’s accompaniment is note-perfect throughout and the little arranged coda is a nice touch. Pops comes back to repeat the final line and the album has officially begun with a track guaranteed to leave the listener smiling (in fact, this is one of my mother’s most-loved Armstrong tracks!).

Thus, there’s no need for a lot of detailed blow-by-blow description of “That Old Feeling.” It’s just the kind of track that doesn’t attempt to change the world, but does make you appreciate how effortless Louis Armstrong and the Oscar Peterson rhythm section make this music appear. And let’s give the Peterson trio some props. The Armstrong album was done in one day (Pops also completed his work on the Porgy and Bess album earlier in the day, turning in a spine-tingling vocal on “Bess, Oh, Where’s My Bess,” one of his most emotional vocal performances). Armstrong left the Los Angeles studio that day and probably played somewhere that evening but the Petersons were locked in Granz’s studio for a full week. Ever look at a Verve discography? Check out this week:

October 10, 1957 – The trio backed up Stan Getz on a classic album
October 11, 1957 – The trio with drummer Stan Levey backed up Roy Eldridge and Sonny Stitt. That same day, Eldridge recorded an album of ballads with Russ Garcia’s orchestra. Then Peterson sat out and Ellis recorded an album under his own leadership with Brown, Levey, Eldridge and Getz!
October 12, 1957 – Getz returned to record an album with Gerry Mulligan, backed by Ray Brown, Stan Levey and Lou Levy on piano.
October 13, 1957 – Day off!
October 14, 1957 - Pops
October 15, 1957 – Ella Fitzgerald opened the day with an album with Frank DeVol’s studio orchestra. Then the Peterson trio and Levey backed Ben Webster on one of my favorite albums, Soulville.
October 16, 1957 – The Peterson trio, with Alvin Stoller now on drums, recorded two more albums, one backing Coleman Hawkins and one with Hawkins “encountering” Webster.
October 17, 1957 – The Peterson trio and Stoller returned once more to record five tracks for Ella Fitzgerald’s Duke Ellington songbook album, with Ella, naturally, and one more appearance by Ben Webster.

What a week! And two days later, Granz lugged his recording equipment into Chicago’s Opera House to record album after album of classic liver performances by the likes of Roy, Hawkins, Ella, J.J. Johnson, Getz, the Modern Jazz Quartet, the Peterson trio and a Jazz at the Philharmonic jam session with Lester Young. In summary? God bless Norman Granz!

It’s a shame that the Oscar Peterson collaboration as Armstrong’s last album for Granz. For all their faults—loose routines, tired Pops, boring Garcia arrangements—Armstrong’s Verve recordings still contain some of his most challenging work on records. And if you’ve bypassed the Peterson date, give it another shot. Especially rewarding is the 1997 Verve reissue, which adds the Armstrong features from the second Ella Fitzgerald album plus, as a hidden bonus track, the first three breakdown takes of “Blues in the Night.” I’m not sure that it’s an essential album but there are some essential moments and I still feel that it’s the most underrated album in the entire Armstrong discography. Enjoy it!

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