Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I've Got the World on a String

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded January 26, 1933
Track Time 3:16
Written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Keg Johnson, trombone; Scoville Browne, George Oldham, alto saxophone, clarinet; Budd Johnson, tenor saxophone; Teddy Wilson, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; Bill Oldham, tuba; Yank Porter, drums
Originally released on Victor 24245
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Today’s entry will focus on another one of Louis Armstrong’s wonderful Victor big band recordings. This is one of my favorite periods of Armstrong’s recording career because I feel his trumpet playing is at the peak of its powers during these 1932-1933 sessions. To read more about my feelings for Armstrong’s Victor work, look up my October entry for “There’s a Cabin in the Pines.” Otherwise, I’d like to focus solely on the song today and it’s a classic.

“I’ve Got the World on a String” was written by Howard Arlen and Ted Koeler for the “Cotton Club Parade of 1932” where it was introduced by Aida Ward. Cab Calloway was in the show, as well, and he’s credited with the first recording of the tune, done in late 1932. A standard was born and soon enough, many of the major stars were recording their own versions (in fact, Bing Crosby recorded his version the same day as the Armstrong one). Armstrong’s January 26, 1933 Victor date was the first he did for his new label with his touring band. His previous two sessions featured the Chick Webb orchestra and a Philadelphia theater band, but now he had his own men behind him and he sounds very happy throughout the session. Care to listen along? Click here.

“I’ve Got the World on a String” begins informally with Pops counting the band off. On the next song recorded that date, “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” (another Arlen tune, by the way), Armstrong opened up with a little monologue. He does this on a few more later Victor sides, as well. The label clearly wanted to showcase his entire personality and not just his musical side and I think it works. Even counting off, Louis swung!

Armstrong’s young pianist, Teddy Wilson, takes a typically sparkling introduction that could have easily been played by Earl Hines. As mentioned before, this was something of a raggedy band and you can hear guitarist Mike McKendrick hit one chord on his guitar before he stops, realizing he wasn’t supposed to come in until after the intro. When the band does enter, they swing with a hearty bounce courtesy of bassist Bill Oldham, a strong player who got stuck playing strictly tuba on some of Armstrong’s later Victor dates. The reeds simply play pads of harmony behind Armstrong, not offering anything fancy, but then again, that wasn’t their job.

Armstrong’s reading of the melody is dazzling. It’s kind of a wide-ranging melody, like “Lazy River” but the only time he plays the opening phrase as written is at the start of his first muted chorus. After a few bars, the variations begin, starting with some quiet little asides played in the cracks of the melody. By the second eight bars, he’s improvising around the melody, keeping it present but refracting through his floating rhythmic feel. The repeated Bb-C riff towards the end of the second A section is very soulful. The bridge to the tune is very wordy, though Armstrong combats that by reducing it to its essential pitches, relaxation personified. He climaxes it with a gliss to an A, which carries over to another, shorter gliss to begin the final eight bars. I always love the juxtaposition of Armstrong free-form rhythmic phrases followed immediately by swinging quarter-notes on the beat, which is what happens at the 58-second mark. Totally in control, he tosses off the final phrases of the melody in the upper register like it’s the easiest thing in the world to do.

Wilson plays an interlude to allow Pops to step up to the microphone and when he does, it’s even more magic. He dispenses with the complicated melody, singing the first four notes all on a single pitch. The melody does test the lowest ranges of Armstrong’s voice, but he passes with flying colors. When playing the melody on the trumpet, Armstrong began his second eight bars with a bluesy feel and he does same exact thing in the same exact place with his vocal. He then sings all of Koehler’s lyrics but their relation to Arlen’s written melody is fourth cousin at best. As already mentioned, the bridge is wordy but Arlen must have written it with Armstrong in mind. It consists of almost nothing but repeated notes and since that’s what Armstrong might have sung anyway, he feels no need to change a thing. Heading back to the final eight bars, Armstrong’s reading of “I’ve got” is, to me, the definition of swing. By the end of the vocal, he’s practically bubbling over with enthusiasm and, with all due apologies to Mr. Koehler, he makes mincemeat out of the final line, “What a world, what a life, I’m in love,” instead turning into a wonderful excursion into scat.

With the vocalizing accomplished, Wilson once again plays a bit to let him get his chops together. The band, probably playing a Zilner Randolph arrangement, rephrases the melody by playing it in two-note phrases almost like a shuffle (dotted eigth note-sixteenth note combinations), which sounds incessant compared to Armstrong’s calm, assured response that ends on a high C. As the band takes over for four more bars, you can hear Armstrong yelling in the background, clearly enjoying himself. For his next response, Armstrong works out the same Bb-C pairing he played in the first chorus, but now he does it an octave higher to thrilling effect. Again, he shouts during the bridge, which is played by the band (watch that intonation, saxophones!). He leads the way into the final chorus with a perfectly hit high C. He swings out the last few bars of melody, holding an A before glissing to a final high C. It’s wonderful playing but only a warmup to what would be one of the best days he would ever have in a recording studio—and that’s obviously saying a lot! He recorded six tracks that day and is in prime form for all of them but I personally adore, “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” “Sittin’ In the Dark” and “High Society.”

“World on a String” disappeared for years, but reappeared for Armstrong’s 1957 Verve collaboration with Russ Garcia’s orchestra, titled, of course I’ve Got The World On A String. I wrote about the Garcia dates for my very first blog entry on “We’ll Be Together Again” but it bears repeating that Armstrong’s chops were in rocky shape during these dates. He still contributed some beautiful moments on remakes of “When Your Lover Has Gone” and “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” and hearing him blow through the pain on “Stormy Weather” is masochism at its finest. But on a number of songs, Pops chose not to blow and alas, there is no horn on the remake of “World on a String.” However, this is Louis Armstrong we’re talking about and I’ll never argue about an Armstrong vocal. Verve’s C.D. reissue of the set contained false starts and a somewhat slower alternate take where Pops gets a little confused with the arrangement (and I think he says the tempo was “dragging,” which it is). On the master take, Pops sings the melody fairly straight for a while, even singing the “I’ve got the world” opening phrase as written, which he didn’t even approach in 1933. For a fine example of Armstrong’s maturing style, both vocally and with the horn, listen to how he sings “I’ve got” directly after the bridge. I already mentioned that it was the definition of swing in 1933, but here, at a more relaxed tempo, he puts more space in between the words, sounding more free, if less exciting but the end result still swings and that’s all that matters.

After the first relatively straight chorus, the band takes over for four bars, repeating the idea behind the 1933 arrangement. Again, I’m only guessing here, but I’m sure Granz and Garcia would have loved to have Pops play responses instead of singing them, but with the chops not there, he had no choice. Fortunately, here’s where he really deconstructs the melody, reshaping it in his own fashion, throwing in a “lookie here” and a “mama” and a snatch or two of scat. The extended coda ending is a joy and I love how Armstrong’s voice goes up to hit that “What a world” at the end. He gives his all and at the very end, can’t resist chuckling at his own efforts.

“I’ve Got the World on a String” still lingers today, 75 years after it was originally recorded. It’s a standard of standards and even modern crooners like Michael Buble have covered it on their albums. I have many favorite versions of the piece, but really, do you expect me to choose from any other besides the 1933 Victor record? Ain’t gonna happen!

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