Monday, April 28, 2008

The Creator Has a Master Plan

Recorded May 27, 1970

Track Time 4:08

Written by Pharaoh Sanders and Leon Thomas

Recorded in New York City

Louis Armstrong, vocal; Arnold Black, Selwart Richard Clarke, Winston Collymore, Paul Gershman, Manny Green, Harry Lookofsky, Matthew Raimondi, Joe Malin, Max Pollikoff, violin; Julien Barber, Alfred Brown, David Schwartz, Emmanuel Vardi, viola; Charles McCracken, Kermit Moore, George Ricci, Allan Schulman, cello; Richard Davis, George Duvivier, bass; John Williams Jr., electric bass; Sam Brown, Kenny Burrell, guitars; James Spaulding, flute; Frank Owens, piano; Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, drums; Gene Golden, congas; Leon Thomas, vocal; Oliver Nelson, arranger, conductor

Originally released on Flying Dutchman AMS 12009

Currently available on CD: Available on Louis Armstrong and His Friends or the old 1990 Bluebird C.D., What a Wonderful World

Available on Itunes? Yes, in all three takes

The Itunes shuffle rarely lets me down…this time it led me to a song that I’ve always kind of shunned. However, after some intensive listening done for this entry, I’ve found some new delights in it, as well as in the album from which it came from, Louis Armstrong and His Friends. Though Pops would record one more album after this one, for all intents and purposes, Louis Armstrong and His Friends was his swan song. After ill health kept him off the stage from the end of 1968 to the beginning of 1970, it became clear that the years of blowing his trumpet at full power, traveling nonstop, ingesting Swiss Kriss and smoking marijuana were catching up with him. He had watched as close musical cohorts such Sidney Bechet, Jack Teagarden, Billy Kyle, Buster Bailey, Red Allen, Coleman Hawkins and others all had passed away within the previous decade. Even his longtime manager, Joe Glaser, passed away in 1969.

Surely feeling moral on the inside, Armstrong didn’t show it outwardly as 1970 began, making frequent television appearances in the first half of the year. Doctors forbid Armstrong from playing trumpet at this point (though he practiced at home and brought it out to play a bit on the Dick Cavett Show in January), but Armstrong could still sing and tell stories and he made an ideal talk show guest. At the time, Armstrong, along with the
rest of the world, still believed he was born on July 4, 1900, which meant that July 4, 1970 would mark his 70th birthday.

That summer, Armstrong was the recipient of tributes at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, at the New Orleans Jazz Festival and at the Newport Jazz Festival. Magazines devoted full issues to singing his praises and television networks filmed documentaries on him. Naturally, an album had to be made to commemorate the occasion and that album would be Louis Armstrong and His Friends.

The album was cut in New York City in May 1970 for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman label. Armstrong and Thiele were no strangers as Thiele was the man responsible for both Armstrong’s 1961 collaboration with Duke Ellington as well as the original recording of “What a Wonderful World,” and the resulting album, which bore the same name. After “What a Wonderful World,” Armstrong made some very erratic recordings for the Brunswick label. Though Joe Glaser had died, his successor, Oscar Cohen, had very much the same mentality as his former boss, meaning one thing and one thing only: get Louis Armstrong a hit record.

Thus, when planning Satchmo’s 70th birthday album, Cohen turned to Thiele, who was now running the Flying Dutchman label, which featured records from an eclectic mix of musicians ranging from Johnny Hodges to Oliver Nelson to Gato Barbieri to Gil Scott-Heron. Thiele enlisted Oliver Nelson to be the arranger and conductor for the Armstrong sessions. Nelson was originally best known as a saxophonist, but he soon became better known as a composer and arranger. His album Blues and The Abstract Truth has become a classic, while on a personal note, I listened to his Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis big band album, Trane Whistle, three times last week while driving from gig to gig. By the late 60s, though, Nelson was doing a lot of film and television work and that “commercial” sound began to creep into his jazz writing, something that can especially be heard on the dated arrangements he turned in on Thelonious Monk’s 1968 Monk’s Blues album for Columbia. Sill, he loved Armstrong and was quoted in the July 1970 issue of Down Beat as saying, “We couldn’t have had what he now know as American music without him. He created a style and he opened up this whole thing.”

Nelson definitely had that commercial sound down and the combination of his orchestrations and Thiele’s talents as a producer looked as if they could give Armstrong one last hit. And that’s where Louis Armstrong and His Friends fails. The original album had ten tracks, though 11 were recorded (“Here Is My Heart For Christmas” was released as a single and is on the current Bluebird C.D. reissue of the album). Of the original ten, I’d say five are home runs. Thiele gave Armstrong a pair of standards to sing, “Mood Indigo” and “My One and Only Love,” and Armstrong in return gave absolutely beautiful interpretations of both chestnuts. Thiele also decided to update “What a Wonderful World,” giving Pops a charming opening monologue, while Nelson turned in a soulful arrangement enhanced by Frank Owens’s church-like piano. Those three songs were recorded along with “Here Is My Heart For Christmas” during the first session, which, by all accounts, sounds like a joyous occasion. A birthday cake was served before the recording went down and in the studio, guests from all walks of life came in to pay their respects to Pops.
“The Blacklisted Journalist” Al Aronwitz was at this session with Miles Davis and he wrote about his experience there in a 1996 piece that can be found at this address: http://www.bigmagic.com/pages/blackj/column11.htm. Aronwitz makes a number of mistakes throughout and he clearly didn’t truly understand Armstrong (“Dixieland”!) but he paints a good picture of that first session:

“…[W]hen he walked into RCA's brand, new Studio A for his first recording session since September of 1968, he found some two hundred and fifty of the greatest surviving giants of jazz waiting for him. Also waiting for him was an immense chocolate layer cake. I remember thinking at first that there was something sad about this party, thrown by old men for another older man who obviously wasn't going to be around much longer. But these old men were all heroes to me. They had created a new and beautiful music, America's very own, which to me equalled the world's greatest classics by the world's greatest masters. These men, too, had achieved artistic immortality. Against crushing hardships, they had persevered. Somehow, they made me think of courageous sea captains ready to go down with their ships but their ships had stayed afloat. Their ships were their music. Here they were, as if with hats in hand, come to pay homage to Louis. Satchmo. Pops.”

Aronwitz goes on to relay some of the dialogue he overheard during that first session:

“What are all these people doing here?” Miles asked Louis' wife, Lucille. “They come to see him fall on his face,” Lucille joked. “Well, if he does, it's about time,” Miles said. Satchmo himself was buoyant. When I asked him how he felt, he said: “Satchmo never felt better and had less. . .” His words danced out like happy bubbles in a toothpaste commercial. “I'm back on the mound again,” Satchmo said. “I'm waitin' for some word from the doctor about when I can play my horn again. But I play it anyway. Every night before supper.” 

Aronwitz continues: “RCA's brand, new Studio A was immense, big enough to hold a couple of basketball courts. It had a stage, too. As the party dwindled, many remained as an audience for the session, and there were rows of folding chairs. Tony Bennett was sitting in one. Leon Thomas and Bobby Hackett and Eddie Condon also stayed. Ornette Coleman sat dangling his feet over the edge of the stage, sucking up a whistle every time he thought sick, old Pops hit a home run or made a shoestring catch. Miles told me that it was as if the songs, the arrangements and the register of the orchestra had been designed to make it easy for Satchmo. So easy that there was practically nothing left for him to do. He didn't have to expend any effort. He just had to crawl around the bases. He could sleep-walk his way across the finish line. But Satchmo fooled everybody by doing some unexpected fancy footwork."

Aronwitz remembers Miles remarking, “He don' sound like a dyin' man,” after hearing Pops sing. True, Armstrong’s voice is raspier than ever before on this recording, but his soul shines through, though apparently Miles was so concerned, he went up to Pops between takes and whispered, “Isn’t the orchestra too low for you?” Armstrong responded that he didn’t care about that and after conversing for a while, shouted, “Always glad to see you, Miles,” as Davis walked back. When Davis was ready to leave, he told Aronwitz, “They take advantage of his age. When you're that old, they really drain you to make you sound as if you're in heaven. It don't matter. He's got so much soul, he makes it sound good anyway.”

And that’s the key to the success of Louis Armstrong and His Friends. Thiele and Nelson sound like they’re trying too hard for a hit and some of the material is just plain lame. “His Father Wore Long Hair” might be the nadir of the Armstrong discography to my ears, though Pops sounds as earnest as if he’s singing “Star Dust.” “This Black Cat Has Nine Lives” is pretty silly, but Pops liked it enough to sing it on the Dick Cavett Show the following year. “Give Peace A Chance” goes on too long and the choir is a bit sloppy, but Armstrong carries the ball beautifully. His cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” also doesn’t exactly fit like a glove, though he sounds quite happy on it, getting in a "beau koo love" towards the end. As Miles said, “He’s got so much soul, he makes it sound good anyway.”

I bought a French C.D. reissue of the album from 2000 that included a number of photos from the original sessions. Since these are probably the only photos of Armstrong with the likes of Ornette, Leon Thomas and Tony Bennett, I decided to scan the photos and post them here:
Image and video hosting by TinyPic
Image and video hosting by TinyPic
Earlier, I mentioned there being five home runs on this album, three of which were the standards recorded on the first session. A fourth would be “Boy From New Orleans,” an autobiographical tour of Armstrong’s life, sung over the changes to “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The band really cooks on this one and Nelson’s arrangement gives a hit of what could have been if they didn’t try so hard to make the rest of the album sound so current (damn you, 1970!). An album of Pops singing standards and jazz songs over a swinging big band or string section…well, it would have been like a 1950s Decca session all over again. But I would not have changed what I feel to be the fifth home run of the album, “We Shall Overcome.” As Doug Ramsey wrote in his 1970 Down Beat review, “…the anthem gets its most moving performance since the civil rights days of the early ‘60s.” It’s a beautiful, uplifting gospel hymn to begin with, but Pops really sings the shit out of it. On top of that, Thiele allowed the guests in the studio to sing along in the choir. The image of Louis Armstrong leading a choir made up of the likes of Tony Bennett, Miles Davis, Ruby Braff, Ornette Coleman, Eddie Condon, Bobby Hackett, Chico Hamilton and George Wein, well, it’s simply mind-blowing. And just think Armstrong singing those lyrics and all the obstacles he overcame to became what he became: poor childhood, racism, becoming the scorn of younger black musicians and writers…he overcame it all to become the greatest, most important jazz musician of them all. And to have him singing that song while Eddie Condon, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and Tony Bennett all stood side-by-side? It boggles the mind, but it also demonstrate how far-reaching Armstrong’s influence was.

Condon and Bennett always spoke glowingly of Armstrong at the drop of a hat but in Down Beat's 70th birthday tribute issue to Armstrong, Coleman and Davis got in their props for Pops, though in their own race-conscious ways. “Louis Armstrong is the best loved performer in the white society and his contribution to Western culture has certainly enhanced the black man’s social position in the struggle for human achievement,” Coleman said, while Davis remarked, “To me, the great style and interpretation that Louis gave to us musically came from the heart, but his personality was developed by white people wanting black people to entertain by smiling and jumping around. After they do it they call you a Tom, but Louis fooled all of them and became an ambassador of good will.”

Well, I think I’ve spent enough time on the background of these sessions (over 2,000 words for those counting at home), so let’s get on to the object of today’s entry, “The Creator Has A Master Plan.” This track was co-composed by avant-garde sax giant Pharaoh Sanders and the vocalist Leon Thomas. Ian Scott Horst runs a very fine website at www.jazzsupreme.com and he has written the following of the song:

“A kind of sequel to Coltrane's ‘A Love Supreme,’ ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan’ is, in its original form, an extended 32-minute distillation of its authors' musical and cultural ideas. It first appeared on Sanders' 1969 album KARMA, with co-author Thomas on vocals, keyboard player Lonnie Liston Smith, flautist James Spaulding, french-horn player Julius Watkins, Coltrane veteran Reggie Workman on bass; second bassist Richard Davis, drummer Billy Hart, and percussionist Nathaniel Bettis. While later versions were shorter and more lyrical, this original version is full of avant-garde fire with extended free instrumental sections. Full of the optimism and spirituality of the era, it became a kind of anthem for those exploring the peace, love and happiness vibe through music. Critics have called it the only ‘hit’ generated by the avant-garde jazz movement, and indeed its perennial popularity has resulted in a number of new interpretations by acid jazz and hip-hop artists.”
The original 32-minute version was edited down to a nine-minute version that can be heard in this YouTube clip:

I had never heard that version before doing this entry but I have to admit that there’s something very beautiful to it. And judging by the comments on YouTube and elsewhere on the web, this song had a pretty profound effect on many of its listeners at the time. Of Leon Thomas, I always thought that he had a hint of Joe Williams to him so you can imagine my surprise when I stumbled across this clip on YouTube of Thomas singing “Shake, Rattle and Roll” with Count Basie in 1965:

It turns out that Thomas sang straight-ahead jazz and blues with the likes of Basie, Mary Lou Williams, Randy Weston and even Oliver Nelson before he began collaborating with Sanders. Thomas’s signature “yodeling” sound was discussed in his New York Times obituary, which stated: “Onstage with Mr. Sanders in the late 60's Mr. Thomas developed his ululating singing style, which has been compared to African pygmy and American Indian singing techniques, and which he later called ‘'soularphone.’' He believed that his ancestors had given him his elastic throat articulation, he said, and henceforth always used it.”

So let’s play “connect the dots” for a minute. Thomas worked with Oliver Nelson in the early 60s. He teamed up with Pharaoh Sanders, co-writing and recording “The Creator Has a Master Plan” for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman label in 1969. Bob Thiele recorded a Louis Armstrong album featuring some current songs with orchestrations by Oliver Nelson. Thus, though it might sound like an odd combination, the connections between all the men involved made it plausible to have Armstrong and Thomas duet on a cover of “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” complete with an arrangement by Nelson. Thomas even came to the album’s first day of recording to meet Armstrong and celebrate his birthday will all the other guests in attendance. However, though Armstrong was slated to record “The Creator Has a Master Plan” the following day, Thomas wasn’t present in the studio. Instead, he would overdub his part later on from a studio in London. When the track was edited together, the final master sounded like this, courtesy of YouTube:

As can be heard, Nelson followed the Sanders arrangement very closely. Once the strings enter, there’s some “out” wood flute playing, possibly done by Thomas, who was known to also play the flute. Then comes Pops’s sandpaper rasp, audibly smiling as he delivers the “Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah’s,” soon answered by Thomas’s more suave, soul singing. Thomas’s singing is really smooth and I like what he does with the word “divine.” His “come with me” reeks of Joe Williams to my ears. Then Pops comes back to really just chant “The Creator Has a Master Plan/Peace and happiness for every man,” for a while. You can even hear Pops chuckle a bit, but I’ll have more on that in a little while. At about two minutes in, Thomas breaks out his “soularphone.” Too bad he recorded his part later because Pops probably would have had a ball reacting to that sound live. With the hypnotic two-chord vamp in the background and the truly bizarre vocalizing of Thomas in the foreground, the record sounds like a simple remake of the Sanders recording as Pops disappears for quite a while.

Finally, with about a minute to go, Pops starts having a little fun, turning in an “Oy yoy yoy yoy” scat and singing, “Mmmm, Master Plan/yeah, swing it man!” He starts scatting a little louder, gleefully intoning his “La la’s” with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy. He throws in a “gizzard,” starts improvising with his scatting and even gets in a “Cats swinging, ain’t they folks?” as the record fades out. The whole time, Thomas continues his yodeling, making for a very interesting comparison of jazz vocal styles. But I usually find myself laughing at Pops, having such a good time and trampling all over the meditative mood with those funny “La la la la la la la’s.” When the record came out, Doug Ramsey gave it four stars in Down Beat and wrote, “Leon Thomas is a strong and very classy singer, but Pops outsouls him on ‘Master Plan.’”

I’ve always felt that this performance doesn’t really work, but it certainly has its fans, judging by the positive comments on YouTube. On his website, Horst writes, “When Larry Nai told me about this album I thought one of us was hallucinating. But there he is, Satchmo, singing in duet Leon Thomas' transcendental lyrics to ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan.’ And then as he starts growling those throaty mucousy noises he makes, Leon Thomas starts to yodel. Sheer, divine madness. It's actually very very beautiful, from one of Louis Armstrong's last albums. Bob Thiele and Oliver Nelson must have had an amazing laugh when they figured out they could do this.” And an uncredited writer on the Soul Brother Records website (http://www.soulbrother.co.uk/flyingdutchmananthology2.htm) has written, “The beauty of the song and the music is a lasting tribute to both artists, and epitomises the positive attitude of both men. Leon mentioned when he was in London that recording this song with Louis was one of the greatest highlights of his career, and the respect that each had for the other, and their enjoyment of the song and the experience comes clearly across.”

Opinions on the merits of the issued version of “Master Plan” might vary, but in 2002, Bluebird hit the jackpot with one of the unissued tracks on their reissue of Louis Armstrong and His Friends. I never bought the C.D. of this reissue, only downloading the extra tracks on Itunes, so I’m not sure if there’s any new liner notes that make reference to the bonus tracks, but my goodness, what a bonus it is: the original 5:52 long Armstrong track done before Thomas overdubbed his part. It’s six minutes of pure Pops and it’s a “gassuh.” I’ve decided to upload it so if you’d like to listen along, here ‘tis:


As already pointed out, the wood flute and a lot of extra percussion was dubbed in later so what you hear is Pops singing, scatting and riffing on the atmosphere at hand, all while the band cooks. It’s nice to know that Pops recorded his vocals live with the band, as he ad-libs about the musicians while they’re playing. The nicest part is hearing Armstrong actual sing the lyrics of the song, instead of just chanting the title or doing the “la-la’s.” I don’t know what was going through Thiele’s mind; perhaps he thought Armstrong’s voice was too raw or he didn’t want to disrespect Thomas’s reading of the tune, but he didn’t use one word of Armstrong’s vocal on this part of the song on the master. Armstrong puts a lot of feeling into it and that New Orleans accent is extremely prevalent:

There was a time, when peace was on the “Oy-th,”
And joy and happiness did reign and each man knew his “Woi-th”
In my heart I “yoin,” for that spirt’s “retoin”….


Armstrong’s voice does occasionally sound strained as he reaches for higher notes, but that just adds emotion of his reading. Hey, it was Pops’s album so why not feature him more than Thomas?

After about three minutes of this, Thiele obviously signaled to Armstrong to just let his imagination run wild. Here’s where the “gizzard” comment and some of the other fun scats on the master take were culled. However, there’s more joys on the unedited take, including Armstrong’s comments on the other musicians, namely the famed drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie. Purdie was a session mainstay to the point where he’s billed today as “The World’s Most Recorded Drummer.” He was present on sessions by artists ranging from Aretha Franklin to B.B. King to Hall and Oates to Miles Davis to Joe Cocker and beyond. At the 3:20 mark, Pops sings, “Cats swinging all over the land/ old gizzard whipping them drums.” As Purdie continue laying down his irresistible groove, you can hear Pops chuckling as he goes on, finally breaking himself up with, “Chops is flying all over the studio!” On “Cotton Tail” from the 1961 Ellington collaboration, Pops sang, “Chops is flying everywhere,” so this is a nice throwback to that moment. He sounds so HAPPY, adding, “Yeah, blow Gate, yes. Look at that cat over there wailing…that drummer looks like old Count Basie sitting over there!” Here’s a picture of Purdie from around that time:

Does he look like Basie? Not really, but Pops saw something that caused him to laugh so hard, you can hear him clapping his hands. He then draws our attention to another musician in the studio, possibly conductor Nelson: “Ah, we have a reverend swinging over there. Ah, do that dance there, cat’s swinging there.” Pops then begins singing the title phrase more emphatically while a guitarist (perhaps Kenny Burrell) really starts pumping out some fierce rhythm. But just as things are boiling, James Spaulding’s flute hits a piping note, signaling the band to end it. The song concludes soon after but it’s a fun six-minute ride.

The 2002 Bluebird reissue that unearthed this delightful bonus also featured a new, unedited mix that’s 100% better than the issued master take. Again, I never bought the C.D. so I don’t exactly know who made this new mix but it’s longer than the original, juxtaposes Thomas’s reading of the lyric with more of Armstrong’s and includes a lot of Pops’s fun asides, such as the “Chops is flying” line. Overall, it’s a lot more fun than what originally appeared in 1970.

So chalk it up to misguided tastes. Thiele and Nelson tried so hard to make Pops sound contemporary that they left the most natural, unadulterated Armstrong moments on “Master Plan” on the cutting room floor. The original master, the overlong “Give Peace A Chance,” the dated “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the embarrassing “His Father Wore Long Hair,” the silly “This Black Cat Has Nine Lives,”…these are some pretty difficult tracks to get through. But the other five tracks work beautifully, the stories about the guests at the sessions are wonderful and Pops sounds like he’s having a ball on every single track. Thus, check out Louis Armstrong and His Friends if you’re curious, but don’t judge Louis Armstrong’s entire career by it. But if you’re going to listen to “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” please drop the 99 cents at Itunes and bask in the warmth of a fun-lovin’ Satchmo having a ball on such a serious, peaceful song.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Absolutely fantastic blog. Yours is easily the best Armstrong blog on the web.

Ricky Riccardi said...

Thanks for the kind words...though I think I'm the ONLY Armstrong blog on the web! Still, comments are always appreciated...and don't be so "Anonymous!" As always, anyone can e-mail me at anytime at dippermouth@msn.com

Eastwood said...

wow... what a wonderfully written and detailed post! I really enjoyed it; thanks.

Anonymous said...

yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeh yeah! Great blog..thanks

Anonymous said...

Your blog tripled my enjoyment and appreciation of this recording...thank you so much!