Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Cain and Abel

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded May 1, 1940
Track Time 3:03
Written by T. Fenstock and A. Loman
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Bernard Flood, Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, trumpets; Wilbur De Paris, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Rupert Cole, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophones; Joe Garland, Bingie Madison tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Decca 3204
Currently available on CD: It’s available on volume 7 of the Ambassador series. Check out www.classicjazz.se for more information.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on a few different compilations including Louis Armstrong’s Gospel Book

Instead of hitting the shuffle button on my Itunes, I decided to write today’s entry based on a small section in an e-mail that Gösta Hägglöf, the noted Armstrong oracle from Sweden, wrote to me a few weeks ago: “Just listened to Cain And Abel. Doesn't he play like he is preaching? That solo has always interested me.” I’ll admit that “Cain and Abel” was one of those Armstrong records that, of course, I had listened to plenty of times, but not much stuck in my memory. But when the esteemed “Reverend Gus” brought it up, I figured it was a good time to dig in a little deeper.

Armstrong recorded it in May 1940, an odd period in his Decca recording contract. From March 1940 to April 1941, Armstrong recorded seven different sessions for the label, but only two featured his working big band. Two sessions paired him with the Mills Brothers, another reunited him with Sidney Bechet and the first two dates in 1941 featured Armstrong playing with a small group, dubbed the “Hot Seven.” On top of that, Decca was really pushing the novelties on Armstrong. When he first began recording for the label in 1935, he was given some pretty good pop songs such as “I’m In The Mood For Love,” “Shoe Shine Boy,” “Solitude,” “Red Sails In The Sunset” and “Once In A While.” But novelty songs ranging from “The Music Goes Round and Round” to “The Flat Foot Floogie” began topping the pop charts in the late 1930s and every jazz/swing musician had to make their peace with them at some point or another—in fact, Decca had Armstrong record both of the tunes I just mentioned. Now, I have no problem with novelty songs—in fact, if I had to start another in-depth blog, it would probably be on Slim Gaillard, who I really want to write a book on some day. But some of those novelty tunes were just dogs and it would take a Herculean effort to wring out any musical merit from within their 32-bar structures. Fortunately, ol’ Pops could make Hercules look like a runt sometimes…

In addition to pop songs and novelties, Armstrong also remade many of his OKeh classics for Decca and the May 1 session began with a very nifty new version of “Sweethearts On Parade,” one that doesn’t quite reach the heights of the 1930 original, but offers a slew of new, invigorating ideas in his trumpet playing. But after that, the novelty parade began with “You Run Your Mouth, I’ll Run My Business,” “Cut Off My Legs and Call Me Shorty” and “Cain and Abel.” Armstrong was the only musician of the era to tackle the latter two, but “You Run Your Mouth, I’ll Run My Business” was also covered by Fats Waller and Louis Jordan, perhaps the only other artists who could make such dross listenable and actually a lot of fun (Armstrong’s trumpet playing over rocking Sid Catleet backbeats on “You Run Your Mouth” makes it a very exciting record). Of course, the record companies knew what men like Armstrong, Jordan and Waller could do with these songs, so they kept passing them their way and I guess they’re right. Tommy Dorsey wasn’t about to record “Cut Off My Legs and Call Me Shorty” with a vocal by Frank Sinatra and the Pied Pipers now, was he? But Armstrong treated every song the same, as he had always done and would continue to do until his final record dates in 1970, and his genius always managed to shine through.

Also, a lot of the fun of Armstrong’s novelty excursions can be found in his vocal delivery. He approached all these songs with more of a spoken, rather than sung, style that sounds like an ancestor of rapping (check out “You’ve Got Me Voodoo’d” from March 1940 for more of this, as well as a fantastic Chappie Willet arrangement). “Cain and Abel” casts Armstrong in the role of preacher of sorts, singing about the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve who met a pretty messy conclusion when Cain killed Abel. Armstrong had always done a mock sermon during his live performances dating back to his New Orleans days and on records, he had reprised the church parody (“Lonesome Road”), jazzed up some spirituals (“When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Bye and Bye”), delivered nonmusical, humorous sermons (“Elder Eatmore”) and soberly tackled religious standards with a choir (“Going To Shout All Over God’s Heaven”). “Cain and Abel” sounds like something from the “Shadrack”/”Jonah and the Whale” template as it features Armstrong basically singing/preaching a Bible tale in swing time. Before I get too deep, why don’t you listen along by clicking here.

As you can hear, “Cain and Abel” is in a minor key, which Armstrong always thrived on. The band sets the mood well with their aggressive playing, spurred on by the absolutely driving sound of Pops Foster’s thumping bass and Sid Catlett’s relentlessly swinging cymbals and perfectly placed accents. Armstrong sings the first part of the song, which is 16 bars long and is more or less based on “St. James Infirmary.” Armstrong sounds appropriately bluesy before he adopts the half-spoken, preaching style during the second section, which is also 16 bars. The form of the song then reverts back to the “Infirmary” changes, with a slightly extended ending, making the third and final section of the vocal 20 bars. Thus, overall, it’s an odd 52-bar vocal, but Armstrong really emotes well. He sounds fiery and he delivers his message with a passionate, serious, yet winking, tone. There’s no scatting or typical Armstrong clowning, but it’s hard not to get swept up in Armstrong’s fervor, especially in the final four bars, as his voice builds up higher and higher much like one of his trumpet solos.

The band then swings out for 16 bars, Catlett shining throughout, before a modulation sets up Armstrong’s entrance. Now, the whole idea for this entry came from Gösta’s comment to me, “Doesn't he play like he is preaching? That solo has always interested me.” And upon listening to about a dozen times, I agree 100%. I really like this Armstrong solo because there’s a general absence of high-note fireworks. Naturally, I live for such fireworks, but sometimes it’s refreshing to hear Armstrong purely improvising in the middle and upper register of his horn (and I mean the upper register for humans, not area he dabbled in, which was strictly reserved for Gods). Armstrong took a number of solos like this one in the early 1940s and they should really be more well-known (the one on the 1941 Hot Seven “Long Long Ago” really knocks me out).

The rhythm section really bounces along on this one, generating a tremendous amount of heat, and Armstrong really seems to respond (Catlett sure responds to Armstrong, too). Things that I like during this solo: the repeated quarter notes that serve as springboard to Armstrong’s entrance; the quick little run at 1:51 that shows rhythmic mastery and always catches me by surprise; the wonderfully bent blue note at 2:02 which is downright funky; the placement of the first two notes of the second section at 2:07, which defines swing; Armstrong’s interesting note choices at the 2:20-2:24 mark; the held note that heralds the last section with an enormous amount of excitement and tension; Armstrong finally getting into the upper register at 2:28, only to skip back down a bit to continue his masterful improvising in the middle of his horn; and much like his vocal, the final climb to the final high concert E, which sounds high compared to what’s preceded it but is in actuality about an octave lower than some of the high notes that end other Armstrong records.

That’s the kind of thing that defines Armstrong’s ability to tell a story. Take something like “Chinatown,” where he starts pretty high and gradually, almost in slow motion, edges his way slightly higher with each passing chorus. On “Cain and Abel,” he never approaches the (literal) heights of “Chinatown,” but he doesn’t have to because the buildup to that final E is so completely logical and is still nevertheless exciting. And seriously, if someone wanted to scat Armstrong’s solo or write “vocalese” words to it, it would make complete sense because the solo does sound like a sermon. Wow…first he preaches with his voice and then with his horn…I’ll convert to the church of Satchmo-ology anytime!

So please, if you’re not familiar with these Decca recordings, seek out the Ambassador series, especially volume 7, which really illustrates the many different settings Armstrong found himself in during the years 1940 and 1941: novelty songs, the Bechet stuff, the Mills Brothers dates, the Hot Seven revival, OKeh remakes, the great Chappie Willet arrangement on “Wolverine Blues” and even some rare broadcasts of Armstrong sounding in peak form on “Lazy River” and “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” Definitely check it out…

As for me, I’m currently in the final chapter of a book my good friend Todd Weeks has written about the trumpeter Hot Lips Page. It’s titled Luck’s In My Corner and is currently available on the web. I hope to finish it tonight and will write a more in-depth review in a day or two but please, if you have any interest in jazz, blues, rhythm-and-blues, trumpet players, swing bands, momentous research and great writing, check it out. More to come….

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