Thursday, November 15, 2007

Poor Old Joe

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 18, 1939
Track Time 3:07
Written by Hoagy Carmichael
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Bernard Flood, Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, trumpet; Wilbur De Paris, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Rugert Col, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Joe Garland, Bingie Madison, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Decca 3011
Currently available on CD: Volume six of the indispensable Ambassador series
Available on Itunes? No

It’s back to the Decca big band days today for one of the few tracks in the Armstrong discography that required a “do over.” The song is “Poor Old Joe” and was written by Armstrong’s good friend, Hoagy Carmichael. Armstrong was no stranger to Carmichael’s tunes and during the Decca big band period, he recorded a number of them, including “Lying to Myself,” “Jubilee,” “Ev’ntide,” “Rockin’ Chair” and “Lazy Bones.” Decca must have liked the Armstrong-Carmichael connection, so they dug up an earlier Carmichael composition, “Poor Old Joe,” which was recorded by Fletcher Henderson in 1932, and had Armstrong record it on June 15, 1939. Unfortunately, “Poor Old Joe” came off somewhat sloppy sounding and would be remade later in the year, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to discuss both versions.

That June date caught Armstrong in peak form. He concludes “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” with about a minute and 20 seconds of pure, powerful improvising and on the nostalgic “Shanty Boat on the Mississippi,” he unfurls a supremely relaxed opus, starting out in his lower register and taking two wonderfully executed breaks before building to a spine-tingling climax, topped by a sickeningly high Eb, the type of note you see coming but you really don’t think he’s going to make it. When he does hit it right on the nose, with that angelic tone, it’s enough to cause the listener to cheer. Don’t believe me? Click here and listen to it for yourself.

Not bad, eh? Like any other Decca side not named “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Swing That Music,” “Jubilee” or “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” it’s another one of those Armstrong tracks that has flown under the radar for almost 70 years but I love it. But now that you’ve heard it, you can hear that Pops’s chops were in top form that day. But when you listen to the first attempt at “Poor Old Joe,” I think you’ll realize that something was lacking. Click here to listen.

The arrangement isn’t that great, beginning somewhat stiffly with some hokey alto saxophone lines over stomping trombone blasts. Pops comes right in with the lyrics, which weren’t exactly Carmichael’s shining hour. He sings them well, but it’s a pretty lackluster outing as Pops adds nothing new to what’s written. A tenor saxophone interlude is next over stop-time chords, though the rhythm sections continues swinging along (Joe Garland had taken over as music director in early 1939 and he plays tenor on the track but it sounds to my ears like the solo might emanate from the band’s other tenor player, Bingie Madison). After the tenor spot, Pops enters but again, it’s another lackluster outing, 16 bars of almost pure melody that never rises above the middle register. Of course, Armstrong was the master of interpreting melodies (see my last entry on “You’ll Never Walk Alone) but “Poor Old Joe” isn’t exactly “Stardust.” After brief trumpet solo, the reeds play a harmless unison passage before Armstrong reenters to sing another chorus with different lyrics. The lyrics are somewhat humorous, but again, Armstrong, after an exciting entrance, sounds like he’s reading the lyrics for the first time. In fact, he almost sounds confused when Carmichael’s first set of lyrics doesn’t rhyme. He manages to end with some enthusiasm but when the band reprises the record’s introduction, it’s time to start looking at the elapsed time: 2:20 has gone by and there’s nothing to show for this record! Perhaps sensing this, Armstrong’s favorite drummer, Big Sid Catlett, plays a furious fill, setting up Armstrong’s repeated note entrance. Big Sid’s at his finest, dropping backbeats on only the second beat of each of the first three bars before breaking up the time and dropping bombs like crazy.

(“Wait a minute, I thought that started with bebop and swing era drummers only kept time?” says the young modern jazz enthusiast. “Listen to Big Sid,” says I.)

Armstrong’s repeated notes are exciting, but when he begins to get hot and ratchet up the intensity of his playing, he falters a bit, cracking the one highish note in his run at the 2:29 mark. He then retreats back to the lower end of his horn, perhaps not sure of his upper register. But finally, heading into the last 16 bars, Armstrong hits his stride, hitting a high note that turns into an extended downward gliss. He begins to take the melody up an octave but when he gets to the highest note of his solo, a quick high D, he grazes it, not hitting it flush. He tries to recover with a quick gliss and a strong final three notes but overall, it’s kind of a sloppy offering. In fact, the first time I ever heard this take, I was driving somewhere and when it was over I thought, “Yikes, I’m surprised they even released that.” It truly sounds like a run-through that could have used a couple of more rehearsals. As it turned out, this take was only released in Argentina (how does that even happen?) as even Pops probably knew he could do better and he sure did on the remake session in December. You can listen to it here.

First off, because it was the originally released take, the master of “Poor Old Joe” survives in crystal clear sound so one can really appreciate Sid Catlett’s drumming on this record. The record starts off as almost an identical twin to the first attempt as even Pops sings the first chorus in a similar fashion. Even the tenor saxophone spot almost sounds exactly the same. But then Pops hurls himself into his 16-bar trumpet solo and it’s like he’s a new man. Instead of just playing the melody, he improvises from the start this time, opening with a string of exciting quarter-notes, backed by Catlett backbeats. He still sticks to the middle register but he sounds like he wants to keep going after the 16 bars, though he catches himself and let’s the reeds do their unison bit. But when Pops sings that second chorus, look out! I guess after perhaps a few months of performing it live, Armstrong got familiar with the lyrics and worked out some fun business for the remake, half-speaking some of the lines, guffawing after the lines about the devil and wine and women and offering an affirmative “yessir” after singing about “long, lean women.” Just those few asides and additions make the vocal on the master take come alive. And finally, the trumpet solo is much more poised. Catlett stops with the bombs and instead offers more powerhouse playing on two-and-four. Armstrong responds by coming out of the gate supercharged, working out a neat two-note motive for eight bars. And when climbs into the upper register, he sounds much stronger, hitting that high D clearly without it sounding like a squeak. He ends solidly, without any sloppiness or forced glisses and in the end, creates a very fine record.

It was just the beginning of a great day for Armstrong. He produced super-human efforts on “You’re a Lucky Guy” and “You’re Just A No Account” and on “Bye and Bye,” he turned another spiritual into a New Orleans jazz romp much as he did with “The Saints” the previous year. In fact, “Bye and Bye” was coupled with “Poor Old Joe,” a record that received a favorable review in Jazz Information. “In spite of some poor arranging, ‘Bye And Bye’ has some of the vigorous enthusiasm we expect from Louis' records with his large orchestras,” the reviewer stated. “Higginbotham and Catlett are featured in trombone and drum solos. ‘Poor Old Joe’ has even more of the same. These are Armstrong's best sides since his series of old-timer revivals last year.” Thus, “Poor Old Joe” might not be an Armstrong classic of classics but by comparing the two takes, it gives a terrific glimpse into how Armstrong could tighten up a performance and mold it into something much more effective after he became more familiar with the material. And as always….check out those big band Deccas! S’all for now…

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