Sunday, March 16, 2008

Cold In Hand Blues

Bessie Smith
Recorded January 14, 1925
Track Time 3:17
Written by Jack Gee and Fred Longshaw
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, cornet; Fred Longshaw, piano; Bessie Smith, vocal
Originally released on Columbia 14064-D
Currently available on CD: It’s on various Bessie Smith compilations, as well as Fremeaux and Associates’s second volume in their recent Complete Louis Armstrong undertaking.
Available on Itunes? Yes

Dear readers of this blog, I hope you’ll forgive the entry-less week that just preceded the publishing of today’s work. As I wrote last week, my computer of less than two years died a senseless death, so me and the missus decided to change things up a bit by going out and buying a Mac. We had both used them periodically in college but this is a whole new world and I think we made the right move. The nightmare was transferring my documents and music from the old PC to the new Mac. I paid Best Buy $99 to do it and they said, “Here’s your stuff,” handing me 11 DVDs in the process (I had already paid them $200 to fix it, only to get no refund when they said, “It’s not worth fixing). But when I uploaded it all, my Itunes was still missing 11,000 songs! So I plugged in the old computer, which was so shot, the mouse no longer worked and over the next seven days I managed to rescue my entire Itunes library, burning it all on to DVDs (a hassle without a mouse). So the moral…thanks Best Buy! This is a family blog so I’ll refrain from using some of the language I’ve uttered around the house when describing them this past week…

But now, all 20,000 songs are back, as are my documents, so I should be able start rolling these entries out again with a little more frequency…then again, my wife and I just made an offer today on a new house to buy AND I have four gigs in the next six days sooooo….well, let’s see what happens!

But today’s a special day because it introduces the legendary Bessie Smith into the fold. For the best telling of the story of the “Empress of the Blues,” look no further than Chris Albertson’s masterly Bessie, which can be purchased on Amazon by clicking here. She was starting to take off at the time of her first session with Pops, who, too, was making his mark on the New York jazz scene with his work with Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra. During his two years in New York, Armstrong made a huge number of recording sessions, none under his own name, but rather with a number of studio pickup groups under the leadership of Clarence Williams, as well as a series of blues records that found the young cornetist mastering the art of the obbligato as he backed singers ranging from Maggie Jones and Alberta Hunter to Sippie Wallace and Trixie Smith.

This is a period of Armstrong that I absolutely adore, but I don’t know it as well as everything that followed. I usually listen to the blues singer recordings in small doses because I have a hard time remembering the different singers and song titles when I listen to them for more than an hour straight. And on the Henderson titles, Armstrong’s solos sometimes fly by too fast to even digest what just happened. But there’s much classic music and as I wrote in my last entry, when you listen to it all in chronological order, which is possible thanks to the new series by Fremeaux and Associates, you really get a sense of how many different settings Armstrong recorded in while stationed in New York.

Armstrong’s first session with Bessie Smith came right in between two other January 1925 dates that demonstrated Armstrong’s versatility. Six days prior to his meeting with Smith, Armstrong dueled with Sidney Bechet on the timeless “Cake Walking Babies From Home,” arguably the most exciting jazz record ever recorded (I’ve never listened to it without losing my breath) and hinted at his future style during his passionate melody playing on “Pickin’ On Your Baby.” And just a short time later, at the end of January, Armstrong recorded pop songs like “I’ll See You In My Dreams” with the Henderson band.

But smack dab in the middle came the first landmark date with Smith. The session opened up with W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” and if that was all Smith and Armstrong recorded together, theirs would still go down as a classic partnership. Some of the blues singers Armstrong accompanied during this time were pretty dreary, but Smith was the top and her vocals on all five songs recorded that day are not only hauntingly emotional but they also bring out the best in Armstrong. Columbia recorded him pretty close to the microphone, lending a duet feel to the proceedings rather than the typical sound of a vocalist backed by a musician. Armstrong plays with his customary straight mute on “St. Louis Blues,” introducing some phrases that would become part of his “Back O’Town Blues” solo 20 years later, but on other sides recorded that day, he pulled out his plunger. Of course, Armstrong’s mentor, Joe “King” Oliver, was the master of the plunger and surely, Little Louis learned the art from him. He occasionally brought it out during his New York recordings, turning in a rip-snorting solo on “Everybody Loves My Baby” during this period, but though he used it well, the plunger-muted Armstrong just doesn’t sound right to me. Not bad, mind you, just not right. I mean, he gave up the plunger soon after so out of the almost 50 years of Armstrong records we have to listen to, the plunger only comes out on a handful, really making those sides stick out. And Armstrong doesn’t sound completely comfortable either, having trouble playing his customary double-timed phrases while controlling the mute at certain times, as will be discussed in further detail in a bit.

Today’s entry is on the fourth song recorded that day. I’ve listened to this entire session about five times over the last few days because I wanted to pepper my entry with information and opinions about all the songs, but each one could warrant an entry of its own so I’ll stick to the matter at hand, “Cold In Hand Blues.” If you’d like to listen along, please click here

This song was credited to Smith’s husband at the time, Jack Gee, as well as the session’s pianist, Fred Longshaw, but it’s very probable that Smith came up with the words. Because all five songs featured similar tempos, Armstrong changed up the sound of his horn on each performance, opening with the straight mute on “St. Louis Blues,” bringing out the plunger on “Reckless Blues,” playing open horn on “Sobbin’ Hearted Blues” and playing wah-wah style on “Cold In Hand Blues.” In fact, all Armstrong literally plays for a good chunk of the beginning of the record are just two notes at a clip, “wah” and “wah.” I think it’s a rather awkward moment for Armstrong. Part of me wonders if perhaps he was getting a little too ornamental on the previous number, “Sobbin’ Hearted Blues.” It’s a well-known fact that Smith preferred Armstrong’s fellow Henderson trumpeter Joe Smith as an accompanist and perhaps she told Armstrong to tone it down a bit for “Cold In Hand.” Literally, Armstrong only plays one pitch for the first 40 seconds of the record! After that, when Smith reaches the chorus, Armstrong plays like himself, turning in an obbligato with many phrases ripped straight from his customary vocabulary (I’m thinking of the one at the 1:18 mark). Armstrong really gets bluesy around the 1:32 mark, but then he reverts back to repeating notes, hammering the “wah wah” aspect of his playing into the ground. I’m actually glad he got rid of all of his mutes except the straight one, the one which least colored the glorious sound of his open horn.

Thus, at the two-minute mark, we have a wonderful Smith vocal and a fine Armstrong obbligato, though not one of his best ones, at least in my opinion. But then Smith gives him a solo and, though he keeps the mute in, he steals the record. More interestingly, Armstrong’s single chorus would turn up again later in 1925 almost played verbatim on one of the earliest Hot Five records, “Gut Bucket Blues.” It’s the kind of moment that once again proves the point that many of the early jazzmen worked on their solos and always had certain choruses they could pull out at the drop of a hat. Who knows—this “Cold In Hand”/ “Gut Bucket Blues” solo could have been something Armstrong had been playing since his days in New Orleans. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing because it’s a great solo. Here’s “Gut Bucket Blues,” if you’d like to listen to “Papa Dip’s” climactic solo, click here.

As you can hear, Armstrong plays the solo at a brighter tempo and without the mute on “Gut Bucket” but for all intents and purposes, it’s the same solo. I’ve written about this before in terms of Armstrong “borrowing” King Oliver’s “Jazzin’ Babies Blues” solo and using it as late as the 1961 “Black and Tan Fantasy” with Duke Ellington. This was a part of pre-bop jazz; not everyone did it but those who did shouldn’t be knocked, which happened to Armstrong when he played similar worked out solos night after night on the All Stars (though even then, there are plenty of differences when you listen to a number of versions of the same solo). Armstrong worked hard at mastering his solos and once he brought them to a level he saw fit, he didn’t see the need to change them. I mean, how could you top that solo on “Indiana”? That solo took about five years of improvising to perfect but once he nailed it, there was no need to change it because it was so damn good. Critics cried (and still do) but I won’t argue with music if it sounds good, improvised or not.

But back to Bessie…she returns for one chorus but now Armstrong is really feeling his oats. The redundant “wah-wahs” from the opening of the record are gone, replaced by startlingly tricky double-timed passages. Again, Armstrong’s execution doesn’t sound 100% comfortable to me because he has to work the mute while he’s playing, but his ideas are limitless. He fills each little space Smith leaves him with more ideas and creativity than some much longer jazz records provide.

But as stated earlier, this kind of playing probably didn’t sit too well with Smith, who preferred the relaxed style of Joe Smith. Armstrong returned in May 1925 to do two more sessions with Bessie but that would be it, a total of nine glorious records (plus two alternates). Armstrong clearly had a good time with Bessie, delighting in how, when he asked for change of a hundred, “…man, she just raised up her dress and, like where a carpenter keeps his nails, she had so much money, it killed me.” Armstrong’s famous quote about working with Smith was, “Everything I did with her I LIKE,” but Albertson also included this Armstrong quote from a 1952 interview, where he said, “Bessie Smith, I think she’s one of the greatest, the madam of the blues, that we are going to get for generations to come. It’s too bad that she didn’t live a little longer so that the younger generation could at least have heard her in person, you know.”

Smith might have died prematurely, but her musical legacy remains strong, as her recordings continue to be reissued on labels such as Colubmia, Frog and JSP. I love all of her work but to me, her peak recordings came when she was matched with one of her equals in the legend department, Louis Armstrong. Listening to Armstrong and Bessie Smith together had a profound effect on both Billie Holiday vocally and Lester Young musically and I think many younger jazz musicians can still learn a lot by listening to those timeless records.

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