Saturday, March 29, 2008

Armstrong Odds and Ends

It’s that time again, folks. Spring is here and it’s a lazy Saturday morning here in New Jersey so I can’t think of a better time to visit the segment on Louis Armstrong upcoming and recent releases that we like to call “Armstrong Odds and Ends.” I might as well begin with the rapidly dying compact disc industry, which is still finding ways to pump out new Armstrong discs (or at least, new discs of old material). The last time I did one of these columns in January, I previewed TCB’s Live in Zurich Switzerland 1949 disc, which I paid extra to order from Europe at the end of last year. That disc finally arrived in America in February and is now available used for nine dollars on Amazon. It’s a great evening with the Armstrong-Teagarden-Hines edition of the All Stars. Pops sounds inspired and there’s even some loose jamming on Velma Middleton’s blues numbers. Not really an essential, mind-blowing release but it’s definitely worth picking up if you’re an Armstrong fan as it really captures the band on a hot night (though I hate that TCB didn’t keep the original order of songs as they were performed that evening). Here’s the link and here’s a picture:

The Decca/Verve/Universal Music Group jazz reissue program has become a joke in recent years. In the mid-90s, they had an unparalleled two-disc series and in the late-90s, they released dozens of titles under the “Verve Master Edition” banner. But reissues soon dried up and even a cheaper, no frills LP replica series soon came and went without much fanfare (though that series gave me my cherished disc of the Dot album, Slim Gaillard Rides Again). The Universal people obviously did a study about what jazz albums sold and when the results came back in favor of stuff like Ella and Louis, A Love Supreme and Getz/Gilberto, they began reissuing those same albums seemingly on an annual basis while so many wonderful records started rotting away in the vaults. Well, they’re giving it another go with a batch of “Originals,” as they call them now, which were released just a few weeks ago. I’ve already picked up the terrific Oscar Peterson Plays Count Basie and Jazz Giants 58, which teamed up Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan and Harry “Sweets” Edison (man, Norman Granz knew how to mix and match), but the reason I’m writing about all this is this “Originals” series included an Armstrong disc, New Orleans Nights.

It’s a straight reissue of an old Decca LP that collected six, count ‘em, six performances, all featuring the All Stars. Four of them come from a productive 1950 date that resulted in Armstrong’s first recorded performances of “New Orleans Function” and “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.” Pops is in great form, turning in a series of hot breaks on “Bugle Blues/Ole Miss” and really tearing it up on “Panama,” where his solo showcases some very fleet-fingered playing. The other two tracks come from 1954 and feature the Trummy Young-Billy Kyle edition of the band. Kenny John’s on drums and those his tenure was short-lived, he sounds excellent on “Basin Street Blues” and “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” Somehow, even without any new material or liner notes, Universal’s still charging $11.98 for the disc. Do yourself a favor and just download it on Itunes for $5.99.

Finally, a gentleman by the name of Andrew Ford has been doing some interesting work for the European-based Pristine Audio label. They’ve normally just dabbled with classical music but have recently begun branching into jazz and blues with wonderful results. Mr. Ford knows his stuff and he goes into technical detail about how he digitally cleans up these old records and, though I don’t know what he’s talking about, I’m not going to argue with the results. He’s already tackled stuff like Charlie Parker with strings, the Bird and Diz Massey Hall concert, Ellington at Carnegie Hall in 1944 and the complete Robert Johnson output and now he’s tackled Armstrong. I’ve only listened to the one-minute samples on his website, but the sound is stunning. It’s a collection of Armstrong’s best early works, spanning 1923 to 1940 and I’ve never heard the early, acoustic recordings sound better. The CDs aren’t sold by American websites, but you download MP3s right off the website (prices are in Euros). Here’s the link.

Turning from audio to video, the beginning part of this year is shaping up to be a very exciting one in terms of Armstrong on DVD. The Hip-O people have always done nice Armstrong projects. The three-disc box An American Icon, with liner notes by George Avakian, is still one of the best overviews of Armstrong’s later years. More recently, they’ve done a nice job in putting out “greatest hits collections,” the single-C.D. Definitive Collection, and the double-disc Gold. On January 29, they released a DVD, Louis Armstrong: The Ultimate Collection. Now, as I wrote last week, my wife and I recently purchased a house and well, we’re going to be saving money like freaks until we close in June, so I, alas, have not picked up this release yet. In fact, I didn’t even know about it until a freak Amazon search led me to it. Hip-O did the same thing with Billie Holiday a couple of years ago and that release was widely reviewed and featured on jazz websites and magazines at the time of its release. The Armstrong disc has been out for two months and it’s almost impossible to find information on it, another sign of the unfair neglect Armstrong has received in certain sectors of the jazz community.

Reading the one review I found from the All Music Guide, it sounds like a lot of the usual clips—Soundies, 1933 Danish performances, some Timex stuff, the Goodyear material in color—with a great bonus: “Louis Armstrong Talks On TV,” which apparently is over 40 minutes from an interview Pops did on television in the late 50s. This, coupled with a booklet by Dan Morgenstern and the chance to see so many of these great clips in remastered form seems to make this disc a pretty essential purchase for Armstrong novices and for the series collectors. Here’s the link and a picture:

Also, while making my daily YouTube search for Armstrong this week, I came across the following trailer for another Armstrong DVD to be released on April 29. The title is Louis Armstrong In Australia 1964, which immediately dismayed me because it’s an error! The concert in question is actually from an Australian TV show from March 1963, and a few numbers from this show were already released on a Time-Life Armstrong box set from 2006. Anyway, here’s the trailer:

So yes, the 1964 bothers me, but who cares? It’s a complete set from the All Stars and it’s from one of the deadest years in Armstrong’s career, 1963. Armstrong did not stop touring that year but he only made a few television appearances and no studio records, while none of his shows were recorded, bootlegged or broadcast. Of course, 1963 ended with the recording of “Hello, Dolly,” and that was the end of THAT dry spell! But this one’s already available for pre-order on Amazon so check it out by clicking here.

Speaking of YouTube, good stuff continues to pop up all the time. I’ve blogged about Armstrong’s duet with Johnny Cash on “Blue Yodel Number 9,” but right before that historic event, Armstrong came out and sang two numbers from his country and western album. He looks so damn happy in that giant white hat and he really puts a lot of conviction into these songs. The actual album has a lot of fun moments but I like this medley of “Crystal Chandeliers” and “Ramblin’ Rose” better than anything on the record. As usual, the jazz protesters did not want to see Louis Armstrong in this light, but he really sings these songs with a lot of heart, winning some unprompted applause from the audience towards the end. It’s a beautiful performance and this clip is in much better quality than the old VHS version I own. Watch it back to back with the Cash clip (which has almost 400,000 views!) and you’ll see that ol’ Satchmo still had a lot of life left in him in October 1970…though not literally, as sadly, he would be dead within a year. Still, what spirit:

And finally, I received a lovely phone call this week from Dee Barcelona, Danny Barcelona’s widow. Danny was one of the nicest people I’ve ever talked to and over the course of several hours and many conversations, I managed to record a pretty thorough oral history of the man who spent 13 years of his life serving as Armstrong’s drummer. Danny died one year ago on April 1 and I still miss calling him up and hearing his happy voice. So to close and to pay tribute to the “Little Filipino Boy” (or “Hawaiian” depending on Pops’s mood), here’s Danny playing “Stompin’ At The Savoy” in 1959:

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