Sunday, October 7, 2007

There's a Cabin in the Pines

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded April 26, 1933
Track Time 3:19
Written by Billy Hill
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ellis W hitlock, Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Keg Johnson, trombone; Scoville Browne, George Oldham, alto saxophone, clarinet; Budd Johnson, tenor saxophone; Charlie Beal, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; Bill Oldham, tuba; Harry Dial, drums
Originally released on Victor 24335
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Finally, a tune from Armstrong’s Victor recordings of 1932 and 1933! I might as well as lead off with the hyperbole: with all due respect to the Hot Fives and Sevens and to the later recordings that make up the bulk of my Armstrong research, these Victor records capture Armstrong at the absolute peak of his playing powers. And as I’ve made abundantly clear, I’m a fan of every note that ever came out of the Armstrong horn. From week to week, I go through phases—maybe a week of Decca big band records, maybe a week of Earl Hines sessions, maybe month of All Stars live dates, maybe an hour of Dick Jacobs arrangements (I have my limits), but anytime I dig into the Victor sessions, they absolutely blow my mind like nothing else in the Armstrong discography. I think every trumpet player hits a prime period where they are in complete control of their instrument and can do no wrong every time they press their horn to their lips. For me, Armstrong hit that peak in 1932 and 1933, beginning with some of the final OKeh recordings, which include some of my all-time Armstrong favorites, including “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” “All of Me” and “Lawd, You Made the Night Too Long,” three songs that act as signposts towards the shape of jazz to come. But the Victor recordings are extra special for a number of reasons I hope to touch on here.

First, there’s the sound quality of the recordings. I love everything Armstrong did for OKeh, but the sound of OKeh’s Chicago studio pales in comparison with the brilliant work of Victor’s recording engineers in Camden and Chicago. These records are 75 years old, yet sound remarkably clean and vibrant (much like other Victor recordings of 1932, including sessions by Duke Ellington and Bennie Moten). Then there’s the material: standards such as “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” jazz favorites like “Basin Street Blues,” “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” “High Society,” and “St. Louis Blues” and some just plain funny showpieces such as “Laughin’ Louie” and “Sweet Sue.” Armstrong’s big bands often got knocked and sure this edition had some problems staying in tune and the tuba in the rhythm section sounds a little out of date, but any band with the likes of Teddy Wilson, Budd and Keg Johnson, Sid Catlett, Mike McKendrick, Scoville Browne and others can’t be that bad.

But naturally, the main reason I find the Victor period so irresistible is Armstrong himself. Vocally, he was the king (his vocal on “Some Sweet Day” might be in my list of top ten Armstrong vocals), but the trumpet work is what really pushes these recordings over the top. He is in absolute complete command of his instrument and he’s eager to show it off on every recording. The wild double-timing and quick flurries of notes associated with the Hot Fives and Sevens is still there (“Basin Street Blues” is remarkable) but he’s slowly entering the next phase of his trumpet playing career: more high notes, more drama, a more sure-footed style with operatic tendencies and no shortage of endurance. He’s harmonically advanced on “Swing You Cats,” he glisses with freakish power on “Right to Sing the Blues,” he bubbles over with enthusiasm at the start of “Dusky Stevedore,” he creates a typically beautiful opening cadenza on “You’ll Wish You Never Been Born,” he plays arguably the greatest solo he ever played on “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” and he shows off with abandon at the end of “Sittin’ in the Dark,” hitting high note after high note and topping it off with some giant glisses all for the sole purpose of making the listener marvel at the greatest trumpet player jazz ever produced (Sun Ra, by the way, was profoundly affected by that last record). Armstrong is at his peak and every solo he plays for Victor demonstrates it beyond a shadow of a doubt. By the time of the Decca records of 1935, Armstrong’s style had matured greatly, eliminating much the velocity of his playing while emphasizing melody, high notes and dramatic climaxes.

Why have the Victor recordings been given the shaft? Well, first off, I should say that they haven’t been given the total brush off—no, that distinction goes to Armstrong’s big band Decca recordings, which have never been issued in complete form in America (thank you Ambassador label!) and which most jazz critics and historians completely ignore. At least the Victor recordings were the recipient of a beautiful box set produced by Orrin Keepnews with essential liner notes by Dan Morgenstern. But even when that box was released, it didn’t get the publicity garnered by the later release of Sony’s Hot Fives and Sevens box. The sheer number of standards recorded and introduced by Armstrong has led to the OKeh big band recordings to receive a fair amount of notice, but those Victor big band records remain in the shadows of everything that came before them.

Again, why? I think there are multiple reasons starting with the aforementioned knocks about the out-of-tune big band and occasionally dated song choices. Armstrong’s greatness is all that stands out on some of these tracks; there’s no Earl Hines or Johnny Dodds to talk about in relation to Armstrong and certain songs, like “Snowball” and “Mississippi Basin” aren’t exactly “Stardust” or “Body and Soul.” Also, jazz’s resident tastemaker, Gunther Schuller, didn’t exactly wax poetic about the Victor records. He only devotes four pages to them in The Swing Era and though he finds praise for some of the recordings, he mainly complains about Armstrong’s high notes (“It was the tendency towards showy grandstanding cadenza-endings, imitating the worst of operatic traditions contrived by sensation-seeking divas and prima donnas”) and the playing of the band, calling some of the records “disasters.” And as it’s been for the last 40 years, whatever Gunther says, goes.

So now, we finally move toward to today’s entry on “There’s a Cabin in the Pines.” Schuller called the band’s playing on this record its “absolute nadir.” I think it features some of Armstrong’s best singing and playing of the 30s. I’ll admit that the subject of the song is overly sentimental, but composer Billy Hill made a living out of writing sentimental claptrap such as “They Cut Down the Old Pine Tree,” “There’s a Home in Wyoming” and “The Old Spinning Wheel in the Basement,” the latter, best known to me as being featured in the Laurel and Hardy short Them Thar Hills (“pum-pum!”). But Hill also wrote a number of songs that became standards, such as “Wagon Wheels,” “In the Chapel in the Moonlight” and “The Glory of Love,” so he obviously knew something about writing music. I’ll admit the lyrical content of “There’s a Cabin in the Pines” to be a bit saccharine but when Louis Armstrong’s singing, who cares? Hill also wrote the music and I really dig these very pretty chord changes and Armstrong’s trumpet thrives on them. But enough of me and Schuller battling it out. You can decide for yourself by listening to “There’s a Cabin in the Pines” by clicking here.

Okay, now that it’s in your ears, let me point out some stuff to listen for. The opening of the record is admittedly pretty cloying…is it me or do I here horse hooves clopping in the opening seconds? Obviously, not real hooves (I’m sure Victor didn’t want a horse in their studio) but perhaps drummer Harry Dial was making the sound. It only lasts about three seconds and it’s very feint, but knowing the types of cowboy songs Hill wrote, I wouldn’t rule it out. Anyway, one of Armstrong’s trumpeters (most likely Zilner Randolph) leads the band in playing the melody in a somewhat stiff and melodramatic fashion – is it tongue in cheek? Tough to tell, but it’s safe to say that if the rest of the record followed the pattern of the first 20 seconds, Schuller would be on to something. Fortunately, the warm, tenor voice of young Louis Armstrong is right around the corner to fix everything. “There’s a Cabin in the Pines” has sort of a sprawling melody and Pops must have respected it because he changes very little the first time through. There’s none of the one-note downsizing of, say, his “Lazy River” vocal. “Cabin,” thus, allows Armstrong to show off his range, hitting notes from a low C to a high D without a problem. The whole timbre of his voice changes when he goes into his low register—it almost sounds like two different singers! The way the song is written, the last word of each of the eight-bar sections falls on the first beat, always leaving Armstrong three beats to play with and the first time he inserts a typically effective “oh babe.” In the second A section, we got some patented Armstrong rephrasing as now he does sing the lyric “There’s a sweetheart in the pine” all on a single note. He sounds very passionate on this section, adding a perfect “baby” after the line, “I can read between the lines.”

It’s always a beautiful thing on an Armstrong record when he sings over the reed section playing the melody straight. On the bridge, the reeds play it as written while Armstrong totally begins taking chances, leaving a bit of space and rushing the phrase “Tell her that I’ll come back some day,” which perfectly flows into a daring, double-timed scat passage. After another pause, he humorously comes back in his deepest voice, not even alluding to the melody played by the saxes in the background. And after he sings the last line of the bridge, he practically defines the concept of swing with perhaps the most perfectly placed “oh babe” in the history of Armstrong vocals. In fact, if you want to describe the essence of Armstrong’s vocal genius, I think you can do it by using just two words: “oh babe.” It crops up everywhere but this is my favorite because of the rhythmic placement of the two words, the “oh” coming in between the first and second beats while the “babe” lands squarely on beat three. Out of such simplicity, genius is born. On the final A section, he again sings the melody fairly straight, charmingly stretching the final word, “Pines,” over three notes, Bb-C-Bb.

Armstrong then steps away from the mike to get his chops together while another trumpet, again, probably Randolph, leads the band in a short interlude that modulates the song from Bb to Eb. We’re a minute and 43 seconds in and so far, the band hasn’t committed any atrocities. The reed section might not have been the smoothest in the world but they backed the vocal nicely, and they sound even better behind the trumpet solo, as Scoville Browne and George Oldham both switch to clarinets. There’s a very relaxed feeling to their playing but if there’s one drawback, it’s Bill Oldham’s tuba. Fortunately, he plays 4/4 the entire time, but it does sound a little out-of-date. What’s especially odd is Oldham played some very swinging bass during Armstrong’s earlier Victor sessions but on the two Chicago sessions of April 1933, he stuck exclusively to tuba.

Whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter because in the foreground, Louis Armstrong blows a very emotional solo. As I said, he must have really enjoyed the very pretty melody as, just with the vocal, he doesn’t change much of it during the first eight bars. I just love listening carefully to all his slippery little phrases in his playing, such as the almost smeared descending line towards the beginning and the way he turns that single D into three gently massaged notes, all in the first four bars of his solo. And of course, there’s the beautiful responses to his own calls, such as the little run he plays to link the first and second A sections. This is followed by a gigantic gliss from a G to a high Bb, eliminating the individual notes of the melody while maintaining the arc of it to much more dramatic effect. But my favorite moment of the record comes from 2:15 to 2:19. He plays a snatch of melody and goes into a quick double-time run where every note fits like a charm, topped off by a single, solitary Ab that lands directly on the first beat of the next measure. The whole run is something to marvel at but it’s that Ab that gets me every time. It’s so relaxed and so perfectly placed that it never fails to make me shake my head and say, “Damn.” He takes a breath and continues onwards with more melody, ending the first half of the chorus with the same three-note idea he ended his vocal with (here it’s Eb-F-Eb). On the vocal, he took a lot of chances with the bridge but with the trumpet, he plays the melody almost straight, with just enough subtle inflections to make the thing swing, getting nice support from the dissonant clarinets behind him.

It all sets up yet another big gliss to a high Bb, the emotional climax of the solo, though it’s followed by two more wonderful moments. First up, is his ability to make quarter notes swing. He glisses to the high Bb and when he’s supposed to play the notes that correspond to the phrase “Cabin in the Pines,” he simply hits three straight G’s, each one right on the beat. To me, this is the textbook definition of relaxed swing, a feeling that’s almost lost in much of today’s jazz. It’s three quarter notes, boom, boom, boom. The tuba’s playing the same thing, but sounds stiff compared to the relaxed nature of Armstrong’s pure feeling. But just when you think he’s settling into a relaxed groove, he hits you with anotherer double-time passage, once again answering the melody with his own obbligato. He slows it down for the ending (foreshadowing the Decca years) and ends with one more gliss up to a high Bb for good measure. Beautiful, passionate playing by a genius in full command of his instrument. It’s all there: the strong melody statements, the double-timed runs, the on-the-beat phrasing, the sense of drama, the relaxed nature of it all. It’s Armstrong at the absolute top of his game.

So again, I don’t know what Schuller was listening to. He knocks the band’s entire performance of that April 26 day but I think they sound pretty good, swinging hard behind Pops on “St. Louis Blues,” executing a tricky passage for the reeds on “I Wonder Who” and finding a foot-tapping groove on “Don’t Play Me Cheap.” That last song was written by the band’s drummer, Harry Dial, and recorded by Armstrong as a favor. And of course, on “Sweet Sue,” Budd Johnson sings one in “the Viper’s language,” and even Budd later talked about all the marijuana smoke in the studio during some of these sessions. Everyone was having a good time, Pops was amongst friends like Randolph and the Johnson brothers, recording songs as a favors and playing at his peak. If you haven’t done so in a while, give the Victor sessions another spin because Armstrong’s playing will truly blow your mind.

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