Saturday, January 19, 2008

When Your Lover Has Gone

When Your Lover Has Gone
Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded April 29, 1931
Track Time 3:08
Written by Einar Aaron Swan
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; unknown, trumpet; Preston Jackson, trombone; Lester Boone, alto saxophone; George James, alto saxophone, clarinet; Albert Washington, tenor saxophone; Charlie Alexander, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; John Lindsay, bass; Tubby Hall, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41498
Currently available on CD: The Big Band Recordings, a two-volume set on the JSP label that collects Armstrong’s OKeh big band material from1930 to 1932
Available on Itunes? Yes

Okay, it’s been almost a month, but I think it’s about time I resurrect the original format of this blog: no-details-spared examinations of individual Louis Armstrong performances. Today, I hit the shuffle on my Itunes it landed on “When Your Lover Has Gone,” a haunting song that Armstrong definitely had a hand in making it the jazz standard it has long since become. The song was written by alto saxophonist Einar Aaron Swan, who played with popular dance bands such as those led by Sam Lanin and Vincent Lopez and even wrote some arrangements for Fletcher Henderson. “When Your Lover Has Gone” would prove to be his best known composition (though he also wrote “In The Middle Of A Dream” for Tommy Dorsey in 1939). The song was written for the James Cagney-Joan Blondell film Blonde Crazy, a fun slice of pre-code Warner Brothers mayhem. The film premiered on November 14, 1931 but the song’s publishers must have been hustling the piece while the film was still in production since it had already been the subject of numerous records before the film was even launched. (A previous Cagney film, Public Enemy, memorably featured “I Surrender Dear” in the background of one of its scenes.)

Perhaps the earliest version of “When Your Lover Has Gone” came from a Charleston Chasers record with a vocal by Paul Small (stage name anyone?). Ah, the days of the band vocalist. Small’s from the Chick Bullock/Seger Ellis school…a university that went bankrupt around 1934. Please, though, listen to his vocal because when we get to Armstrong, the difference is frightening. Oh, and also listen to the work of a few slouches with names like Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and Dick McDonough. This comes from February 9, 1931 (and though the song is on the Red Hot Jazz Archive, I’ve chosen to use a YouTube version of it for the lovely pictures of Jean Harlow…she had nothing to do with the song but it’s better than staring at a RealPlayer!).

For a torch song, it’s pretty jaunty, but it’s a nice period performance. I’ve always loved the verse to this song and, like many records of the day, it’s buried in the middle, after the vocal, a nice change-of-pace strategy that’s rarely employed today.

The very next day, February 10, 1931, Columbia tried the song out on Ethel Waters (the Charleston Chasers record was released as Columbia 2404-D; Waters’s is 2409-D). Waters’s record is quite lovely, in my opinion. The tempo isn’t exactly a dirge, but it is slower than the Charleston Chasers record. Waters starts in with the verse and really gives the lyrics the feeling of despair that they cry out for. However, in the instrumental interlude, the band begins swinging a bit, if not like Basie, with a steady, shuffling chug, which causes Waters to feel the spirit and start taking chances with her phrasing. Waters’s voice soars on the phrase “Life can’t mean anything,” which, as written by Swan, is a perfect climax, very suitable for trumpet playing, as we shall see. But for now, again, courtesy of YouTube, here’s Waters’s recording of the tune:

Now just because YouTube is chock full of good stuff, here’s another 1931 version of “When Your Lover Has Gone” (don’t know the date) from a British dance band, Henry Hall and His Gleneagles Hotel Band. This is pure dance band fun and if you’re a hardened jazz lover, please skip ahead. But I enjoy this kind of stuff, right down to the stiff-upper-lip vocal (though please pay attention to the transition immediately after the vocal as we’ll be hearing it again very soon). Here goes:

Okay, so now off to Pops. Louis Armstrong’s record of “When Your Lover Has Gone” was the final one he made during a tremendous month of April. Armstrong made three sessions for OKeh in April 1931, waxing classics such as “I Surrender Dear,” “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” “Blue Again” and “You Rascal You.” He was backed by his working band, arranged and led by trumpeter Zilner Randolph (I wrote more about this band in my older entry on “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams”). This was no great orchestra but it was a happy band fill with New Orleans homeboys and they often gave their leader enthusiastic, if a little pitchy, support.

The band recorded four songs across two sessions on April 28 and 29. The session on the 29th opened with a swinging romp on “Them There Eyes,” a song that would be associated for years with Pops (Chick Webb loved to hear him play it and Billie Holiday more or less aped Armstrong’s vocal on the tune for her famous recording of it). Armstrong was clearly in good blowing form that day and the band was more than ready to tackle “When Your Lover Has Gone.” They couldn’t have been playing it for long since the song was brand new, but they had enough of a handle on it to bang out the master take in one try. This is classic stuff. Listen for yourself by clicking here.

The record begins with the always perfect combination of Louis Armstrong and a minor key. The arrangement, presumably by Randolph, opens with a somber, modulating eight-bar introduction that alludes to the verse, which soon follows. Armstrong plays it brilliantly, but the work of the reeds kind of gets in the way. Armstrong plays it fairly straight for eight bars before the reeds take the baton, only to pass it to Preston Jackson’s lone trombone. A modulation then leads to the vocal…and what a vocal.

Mind you, Swan’s lyrics, as the title implies, aren’t exactly optimistic. In fact, I can think of few songs in the Armstrong discography that emit such despair. As already heard, Waters’s version is a downer and later performances by the likes of Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra can wring tears from the listener’s eyes. But not Pops. He was too young and too vivacious to instill such an emotional lyric with the quiet passion it deserves. No, to the Louis Armstrong of 1931, lyrics were just words, notes to be swung and on “When Your Lover Has Gone,” he swings with ease.

He immediately opens by changing Swan’s melody, which is heavily centered on the major seventh. Armstrong sings it in G and as written, it simply descends, F#-F#-F natural-E. Pretty, but not good enough for Pops, who turns it into five notes, F#-F#-D-F#-E. However, from there, he stays pretty straight, offering no scatting or anything, but not exactly sounding doleful (you can hear him smile on the word “alone”). He even gets tripped up briefly by one of the lyrics, “There is no sunrise,” singing it as “There is no sun, sunrise.” However, this quick slip-up is immediately followed by the highlight of the vocal. Armstrong leaves a few beats of space, allowing the clarinets to shine through with a sad, but pretty, statement. Armstrong then only has to sing the title phrase. Once isn’t good enough for the young genius, so he repeats it three times. The first time is on a high D, all on a single pitch. He then drops to the D an octave lower and moves up to the neighboring E for the word “gone.” And for the third repetition, he starts at the G right smack dab in the middle of the D’s and ends on an F#. The whole thing has a sing-song quality that just plain swings, though again, I think any phrase could have sounded as good and not just the sad titular phrase (try “When the liver is done”).

Halfway there, Armstrong begins the second 16 bars in a straight fashion, almost like an impish prankster who knows he’s gone too far with his frivolity. But the trickster in Armstrong can’t be suppressed so he just can’t help winking at the listener and singing the word “hours” as “how-ers,” perhaps adding a subtle British tinge to his voice (like the “cahn’t” in “Put ‘Em Down Blues”). He’s having fun; he sounds like he’s happy his lover is gone (wasn’t Lil on the outs by this point?), but all kidding aside, his tenor voice sounds quite lovely in its upper register, especially on the words “Like” and “Life.”

Then after singing “Life can’t mean a thing,” Armstrong attempts to set the record for the most repetitions of the syllables “bay” and “bee” in the span of about three seconds. As my ear hears it, he sings, “Life can’t mean a thing, bay bay bay bee,” followed by a soulful “Oh, baby, bay bay, When Your Lover Has Gone.” First off, the written lyric is “Life can’t mean anything,” but Armstrong felt the need to edit down to just “a thing.” And as I’ve written before, I think Armstrong’s “baby’s” during this period reflect Bing Crosby’s “Boo-boo-boos.” But just listen to the bluesy way Armstrong sings the final “When Your Lover Has Gone,” without hitting any blue notes, just by merely rearranging the melody. Is it wrong to feel so joyful after hearing such a tragic song?

Now if you listened to the Harry Hill hotel band version from above you should have heard some familiar stuff in the Armstrong version. First, the clarinet backings I mentioned briefly above are lifted straight from the Hill record but the biggest steal is the trumpet modulation from the end of the vocal (in G) to the start of Armstrong’s trumpet solo (in Bb). Jos Willems has the trumpeter listed as “Unknown,” but it must be Zilner Randolph. Whoever it is, he plays the same part that can be heard on the Hill record. Now, whose record came first? That’s a good question and because I don’t know the answer, it’s possible that Hill took these elements from the Armstrong record but more simply, I believe both Armstrong and Hill were working off stock arrangements. However, the Armstrong stock was a little more suited to its leader, as we shall hear during the magnificent trumpet solo.

Armstrong the trumpet player often showed the humorous qualities as Armstrong the vocalist, usually in the use of quotes, but Armstrong was also able to maintain more of a straight-face behind his horn and thus, was able to instill his trumpet solos with some of the serious passion that is often missing in his vocals (not a complaint of course. Listen to the “When Your Lover Has Gone” vocal again…who needs serious passion when you have THAT?). But regardless of whether he was singing or playing, Armstrong was born to swing and there’s no better illustration of that than in the opening of his “When Your Lover Has Gone” solo. Here’s a song with a melody tailor-made for pure lead playing but Armstrong decides to edit it, only keeping the most important notes. And what phrasing! Please, tap your left hand to the steady 4/4 of the song, then tap your right hand every time Armstrong hits a note at the start of his solo. When you listen to it, it sounds so daring and complex but look at how many of those opening notes land squarely on the beat. I marvel at it every time I hear it.

Armstrong continues in a very flowing mode, jumping up to a singing high G, then tumbling down with some casually tossed-off ruminations. In bar 7, he hits on a double-timed, double-note motif that reminds me of the opening cadenza of “Blue Again.” This immediately segues into the famous Armstrong calling card: Bb-G-Bb-G-D. There’s nothing more I can add to the next eight bars. He opens with pure melody, but throws in a few extra notes that would have easily been “baby’s” if he was singing instead of playing. Then, right where he repeated the title phrase during the vocal, he employs a similar tactic, repeating three notes, F-G-A (“When Your Love”) three times, which really grabs the listener’s attention. The slowly spiraling phrase he resolves this motif with is full of tricky rhythmic turns.

Then, leaving a little space for his solo to breathe, Armstrong returns with the most passionate moment of the record. Here’s where Randolph probably doctored the stock arrangement, giving Armstrong something that he always loved to blow over during this period: the reeds churning out notes on the first and third beats of the bar. As written, the melody would be A-A-Ab-G. Seeing the motif of the melody, Armstrong blasts out a high A, waits, hits the Ab, then G, then repeats the three notes, slightly faster, then again, in and around the beat, then once more even faster, catching up with the beat, before holding the Ab, skipping the A and ending this part of the solo with the G. Have I used the word genius lately? This segment is pure passion and conveys the message of the song better than the any of the lyrics could possibly do. It’s as if Armstrong’s screaming, “Please! Don’t! Go! Please Don’t Go! Please Don’t Go! Please! Don’t! Go! Please…Go!” It brings me to my knees every time.

Armstrong then reverts to the middle register to do some conversing because screaming didn’t do the trick to lure his lover back. He plays a few arpeggios before a quiet low phrase that almost sounds like mumbling. He doesn’t even allude to the melody in this section but since the written line has such a strong ending, Armstrong can’t resist passionately playing melody in the final eight bars. It’s a beautiful moment but just when you think he’s going to end way up high, he resorts to the middle register again to end the 32 bars, bending his next-to-last note to emphasize his melancholy mood. Instead of ending right there, there’s a quick coda, with Preston Jackson’s moaning trombone seemingly telling Pops, “Keep your chin up, pal.” Armstrong answers, still in the middle register, with repeated Bb’s and G’s before heading up for a triumphant final high Bb. A magnificent record.

Unlike the other song recorded that day, “Them There Eyes,” which was a staple of Armstrong live performances for the next decade, “When Your Lover Has Gone” looks like it disappeared. There are no broadcasts or concert versions of it and no mentions of it in period reviews from the 30s and 40s. When the Autobiography project came around in 1956, Armstrong remade “Them There Eyes,” but left out “When Your Lover Has Gone.” But the following summer, in August of 1957, Armstrong recorded two albums for Norman Granz’s Verve label, both featuring big band and string arrangements by Russell Garcia. On this occasion, Armstrong decided to tackle a few more songs of his youth, including “I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues,” “I’ve Got The World On A String,” “Home” and yes, “When Your Lover Has Gone.” Unfortunately, like most of Armstrong’s Verve work, he was never completely rested for a Granz session, always having performed the night before. On an August 1 session with the Oscar Peterson Trio and Louie Bellson, Armstrong’s trumpet sounded in fine form on a warm-up “Indiana” and on “Willow Weep For Me.” But by the time of the final Ella and Louis Again session of August 13, Armstrong’s chops must have been hurting because he didn’t pick up his trumpet once during the five-song session.

Unfortunately for Pops, Granz had much more planned for August 14, 15 and 16, the Garcia dates, which would result in Armstrong recording four songs the first day, six on the second and a ridiculous eight on the final session. These sessions contain some of Armstrong’s most “human” playing, especially on “Stormy Weather,” where you can just hear the pain in his solo. In 1999, Verve issued this material on two discs, with plenty of alternate and breakdown takes that illustrate just how much difficulty Armstrong was having blowing the horn during these sessions. Fortunately, Granz took a day off on August 17 and what a difference a day made as Armstrong’s trumpet sounds quite wonderful on the Porgy and Bess sessions of August 18 and 19.

But back to the Garcia sessions. The very first one began with “When Your Lover Has Gone” in a treatment that couldn’t be any more different than the 1931 original. Instead of casting the song in a swinging light, Garcia saw it for the brooding tune it is, with grumpy horns moaning throughout. The tempo is slow and stately and Armstrong responds.

Unlike the original, Armstrong sings the remake in the key of F, down a step. The tempo’s slow, but it’s not a dirge; the rhythm section, with Paul Smith on piano, swings lightly and Armstrong seems to dig the feel. He sings the first chorus almost unusually straight, giving the tune a lot of respect. You can still hear him smile here and there, but really, it’s a pretty solemn reading from a man many critics spent the summer of ’57 calling a clown and an Uncle Tom (of course, Little Rock was only a month away). It’s a very mature vocal and though it doesn’t have the contagious enthusiasm of the original, it effectively conveys an entirely different, lowdown mood.

The same goes for the trumpet solo, which is one of my favorites from Armstrong’s later years. While listening to Armstrong play “Sweet Lorraine” in one of my Rutgers Master’s classes, Lewis Porter commented that on that solo, from another Verve session with Oscar Peterson from October 1957, Armstrong “out-Mileses Miles!” I’ve always loved that expression. For all the heart-pounding enjoyment I get out of Armstrong wailing away in the upper register, hitting those sickeningly good high notes, I always love his more reflective playing. Who knows, perhaps Armstrong would have approached the song differently if his chops were in better shape, but I love the feel and the tone of this version of “When Your Lover Has Gone.”

You can always tell when Louis Armstrong’s lips were bothersome by listening to how much he futzed with his horn, constantly noodling behind other musicians and drum solos before he would step into the spotlight. Grans’s recording engineer captures a great moment as you can hear Armstrong’s lip flutter quietly in his mouthpiece as he places the trumpet to his lips, followed by a quick flicker of the valves. He starts out by quietly pushing out the first four notes of the melody, with that slightly burnished glow of his lower register playing. He leaves the requisite space before going for himself. He sounds so relaxed—there are some nimble little phrases buried in all the soul—and I especially love how he holds that low E in the fourth bar before resolving it to two D’s. The next bar is pure Armstrong but then he rips out that short, descending chromatic phrase, pausing to squeeze out that Db, sounding very hip and a little like Red Allen—or is it the other way around?. In fact, if Red Allen and Miles Davis had a baby, it would probably play a solo like this one.

Unfortunately, and probably because of chops trouble, Armstrong only plays a half-chorus solo, but what’s there is hauntingly beautiful. Armstrong continuously throws in snippets of melody in between all these slithering phrases. Rhythmically, he’s floating and harmonically, he’s pretty modern. There’s a complexity to this solo that I find irresistible, though it might sound somewhat subdued and simple at first or even second hearing. But really, dig this one out, and play those 16 bars a few times and I guarantee you, you’ll be surprised.

With the blowing down, Armstrong then sings another full chorus, this time rephrasing the song to fit his needs. This is good stuff. He’s not as impish as in 1931, but he truly does create a new melody and I particularly like his phrasing on “the magic moonlight dies,” separating it into two phrases, “the magic,” pause, “moonlight dies.” Instead of a hundred Bing-like “Baby’s,” Armstrong places once solitary “Baby” at the 3:21 mark and the result is mellifluous. Then, in a throwback to the 1931 original, Armstrong sings the title phrase three times, this time singing each one on the same pitch, a C, before humming a lower D-F-E, turning the hum on the E into a righteous “Yeah.”

Heading into the final 16 bars, Armstrong reverts back to the melody, leading into some of the phrases with an “Oh” or a raspy grumble. When he gets to the climax of the final eight bars, Armstrong goes up, as he did in 1931, on the line, “Life can’t mean anything,” before singing a high “Oh yes,” that lands on a high F. It’s the same spot where his trumpet solo climaxed and clearly, he felt the need to make the most of it. After the “yes,” Armstrong scats a closing cadenza before singing the title phrase once more, holding the final “gone” for an impressive nine seconds.

As always, choosing is no fun. I’d have to go with the 1931 original because it’s long been one of my favorites. That vocal is all over the place (in a good way) and the passion of the trumpet solo gets me every time. But do not forget about that 1957 remake because I think it’ll surprise you if you haven’t heard it in a long time. Pardon my language, but there’s some deep shit on that record.

Okay, with the juices flowing once again, I hope to be back in a couple of days with yet another song that Armstrong recorded in the early 30s, only to remake with Garcia on the same August 14, 1957 session: “I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues.” Til then!

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