Sunday, May 4, 2008

DVD Round-up

We’re into the fifth month of the year but it’s been slow going for new, worthwhile Louis Armstrong CDs. The Universal Music Group reissued an Armstrong Decca LP, as well as yet another repackaging of Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s version of Porgy and Bess, but otherwise, matters have been quiet. The great news is that the famed Fleischmann Yeast Broadcasts are finalized and should hit stores before the end of the year. I’ve heard these recordings and let me tell you, they will blow your mind and hopefully change a lot of people’s perceptions about Armstrong in the late 30s. He’s in peak form, the choice of material is outstanding and the band swings better than any of the Decca records of the period. I’ll be charting this release as the year goes on…

However, it’s been an unusually fruitful year so far for Louis Armstrong on DVD. Hip-O put out The Portrait Collection a few months back and just last Tuesday, Louis Armstrong Live In Australia 1964 was released on the Medici Arts label. Both arrived at my house this week and after immersing myself in them, I can heartily recommend each set.

I’ll begin with the Live in 1964 release, which initially distressed me because the concert, filmed for “The BP Show” in Australia, is actually from 1963! Never a good start. What’s worse is March A. Woelfle carries the error through the liner notes, mentioning the fact that “Hello, Dolly” wasn’t performed at this concert because Armstrong didn’t know it was a hit yet. Of course it wasn’t performed—Louis Armstrong didn’t even know the song EXISTED in March 1963! And he writes about Trummy Young “retiring” in 1964, but again, Young was gone at the end of 1963. And he repeats the standard line about Arvell Shaw playing with Armstrong “for no fewer than twenty-five years.” Yes, Shaw joined in 1946 and played Armstrong’s final gig in 1971, but in between, he was gone for years at a time, sitting out stretches such as mid-1956-1963 and mid-1965-1970. It’s like in baseball, Reggie Jackson started with the A’s, played nine seasons with them, won three championships, then went to New York for five years and California for five more before playing his last season with the A’s again. No one would say, “Reggie Jackson played with the Oakland A’s for no fewer than 20 years!”

So that’s all pretty embarrassing but otherwise, Woelfle’s notes are pretty good as he makes the central point behind why I was initially drawn to writing and researching the All Stars period: “Unlike Duke Ellington’s and Miles Davis’s famous colleagues, Armstrong’s associates are now in danger of being forgotten. There was scarcely a word in the newspapers when his tried and tested drummer, Danny Barcelona, died in 2007. And little is now heard of Jewel Brown, even though she is still singing and spent seven years appearing alongside Armstrong. And yet all of them were more than mere extras.” Amen, Brother Woelfle….

Anyway, as to the show itself, I already wrote in the past about the trailer for the DVD, which appeared on YouTube. Here it is again if you’d like to get a feel for it:

A handful of the performances showed up on a Time-Life Armstrong box set from a couple of years ago but this is the complete show, captured in crisp black-and-white. It’s very valuable because it’s from the “lost year” of 1963. Armstrong didn’t make any studio records from September 1961 to the “Dolly” session in December 1963. There’s about a hundred bootlegs of Armstrong shows from 1962 but for some reason, the bootleggers stopped taping in 1963. Besides a New Year’s Eve show, an Ed Sullivan appearance and a TV pairing for one song with Count Basie, there is NOTHING in the Armstrong discography from 1963 besides this Australian show. But of course, when there’s so little surviving material, one always wants to nitpick instead of enjoying what’s there. For me, the biggest nit to pick revolves around the omission of the standard opener “Indiana” because Armstrong’s trumpet is in terrific form throughout this Australian show, but there’s simply not enough of it. No need to blame Pops, though; it’s not like he made it to Australia every year and since he only had a limited time for the hour-long TV show, he had to play the hits. Needless to say, the audience digs every minute of it…and how can they not? Pops and the All Stars put on a helluva show...

Of course, “When It’s Sleepy Down South” starts the evening and it’s a typically beautiful version, though it looks like some of Pops’s opening trumpet chorus is edited out. Arvell Shaw recently rejoined the band and he sounds like a different man (just dig those double stops behind the vocal). In the “Indiana” spot, Armstrong chose to play the two numbers from the 1956 film High Society, “Now You Has Jazz” and “High Society Calypso.” The movie might have been seven years old at the time, but Armstrong was always proud of the songs he did in movies and would usually perform them for years after the original film was forgotten. These two kept kicking until 1964 when “Dolly” made them obsolete and they finally disappeared.

Around 1962, Armstrong decided to put the brakes on some familiar numbers like “Now You Has Jazz,” “Mack the Knife” and “When the Saints Go Marching In,” slowing them down a bit to more groovier tempos. This version of “Now You Has Jazz” has a perfect foot-tappin’ feel. Though it had been a staple for so many years, it still feels fresh, especially Trummy’s clowning which is more animated than usual. Shaw’s bass solo is, again, more adventurous than what he played on the original. On “High Society Calypso,” it’s fun to see Trummy play a wood block and clarinetist Joe Darensbourg shake some maracas, but the best part of any version of this song is always Pops’s closing, “Can you dig ol’ Satchmo in the beauty-ful high soci-yo-ty!”

Next up is the highlight of the DVD for me, an absolutely perfect version of “Basin Street Blues.” The tempo on this slowed, too, over the years and Pops's reading of the melody is very stately and soulful with some new ideas and quick little runs when he reaches the main part of the melody. Pianist Billy Kyle also inserts some different lines in his solo but the “Campbell’s Are Coming" quote is naturally still there. When the band kicks into double-time, Arvell solos with a bow, another trademark of his 1963-1965 stay with the band. Pops sounds wonderful in the two rideout choruses, especially considering that there are few versions in the discography after this one (the song disappeared around 1965, 66). Maybe it’s because I just watched it, but this has to go down as one of the best versions of “Basin Street” I’ve ever seen.

Next up is a real treat, Billy Kyle’s feature on “Perdido,” something I’ve heard probably 5,000 times but have never actually seen. “Perdido’s” tempo also gradually rose over the years so this is a pretty fast version (though it would get even faster two years later). Kyle’s really into it and looks like he’s improvising it for the first time, though almost everything he plays is completely worked out (there are some new lines in this one, but not a lot). You can hear it thousands of times, but seeing him reminded me of just what a monster he was on the piano. Also, the rhythm section locks in very nicely too before the front line returns from their two-minute break to take it out.

“Blueberry Hill” follows and it’s a pretty standard version, meaning very enjoyable. It’s hard not to smile at Pops’s heartfelt delivery and Trummy’s little dance when the arrangement gets "lowdown" at the end. Next comes Arvell’s feature on “How High the Moon,” which he introduces as being from the Satchmo at Symphony Hall album, though he had been featuring it even earlier than that November 1947 concert. One only has to compare both versions to hear how far Shaw had come in 16 years. This is probably the most “modern” sideman feature ever included in an All Stars stage show. On the choruses, he plays most of his old “set” solo, right down to the “Ornithology” and “Deep Purple” quotes, but on the longer “free” section, he really explores his instrument, beating the hell out of it, pulling out more double-stops and doing some pretty intense sawing with his bow. At one point, he plucks and bows higher and higher—the old Slam Stewart trick—before uttering to the audience, “Show business!” You forget he’s even playing "How High the Moon,” but it’s pretty captivating stuff. Finally, the group returns, with Pops playing lead while Shaw looks like he’s throwing left hooks at the bass, kicking his leg in the air to really finish with a bang. A helluva feature.

Pops returns for “Mack the Knife,” whose tempo also slowed in the early 60s. Also, the tune always used to end with a jammed rideout but now, Pops would play two choruses up front and end it by singing, “Mackie’s back in town.” Armstrong’s second chorus always had some nice improvised touches and this version is no different. The performance really takes off a the “Louie Miller” verse, though the ending is a little ragged.

Next comes one the question marks I had when I first heard about the disc, “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Edmond Hall swung the old warhorse to death as a feature in the 1950s and even Billy Kyle tore it up a few times. Who gets the ball on this 1963 version? Joe Darensbourg. Oof. Now I think Darensbourg is a nice player but he always had the magical ability to make whatever he played instantly forgettable. What’s worse, his features often exploited the “slap-tongue” style that gave him a hit on “Yellow Dog Blues,” but becomes rather tiresome after repeated listens. “Sweet Georgia Brown” is no different as I should have known what to expect when Darensbourg introduces it as a “novelty feature,” a phrase that probably caused the jazz critics to throw up their lunch. Darensbourg trots out some pretty corny ideas, the kinds that Barney Bigard used to parody, before he pulls out the slap-tongue. Fortunately, Pops plays a lot of lead and he sounds very strong but in the end, I was longing for Edmond Hall.

Next up, Armstrong vocalist “Jewel Brown” steps up to the mound, opening with the Harry Belafonte calypso, “Jerry.” She, too, announces it as a “novelty” and indeed, it does allow Young and Darnesbourg to once again break out the woodblock and maracas. But Brown really sells it, right down to the accent, and the piece starts cooking when the band starts riffing. Everyone gets a break (Kyle quotes Mozart), with Pops taking a mellow one, very beautiful but not as incendiary as the one he played on the 1962 Goodyear show (available on YouTube). She follows it with “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” Tony Bennett’s massive hit from the previous year. This went on to become a standard feature for Brown but this is the very first version listed in Jos Willems’s All of Me. It’s a tight performance with Kyle playing some of Ralph Sharon’s famous countermelody and Brown really belting on the reprise of the last eight bars.

Naturally, the concert ends with “When the Saints Go Marching In,” yet another song that featured a slower tempo and less trumpet in the early 1960s. Again, Pops sounds great on those two opening choruses but alas, that’s all he plays. Trummy really gets into his solo, working a plunger mute, and the audience can’t help but clap along—though many are woefully offbeat. The band marches around the stage as Pops closes the vocal and a good time is had by all. Quick side note: May 13, 2008 will be the 70th anniversary of Pops’s first recording of the “Saints” so be sure to check out this column as I’ll explore Pops’s history with the song, with a ton of audio and video clips to go along with it.

I think it’s a fine All Stars concert, but not a legendary one, though it’s still worth purchasing because any footage of Armstrong in his element is priceless. Yet I shudder to read other reviews of this DVD because there’s nothing really “new” on it and it repeats five songs on the 2006’s Jazz Icons Live in 59 DVD. Both that one and the Australia show claim thy have one of the “only known complete Armstrong concerts” and to those who might not have a deep understanding of Armstrong, they’ll trot out the set lists of both discs and start claiming, “Many of the same songs are repeated! He played the same songs every night!” That would ignore the other, different eight songs on the 1959 DVD as well as the countless All Stars standards that aren’t featured on either disc. But if there are more people out there who want to put out more Armstrong on DVD, don’t believe that these are the only two shows. Jasper Van Pelt posted an entire hour long show the All Stars did from Italy in 1959 with different numbers like “Didn’t He Ramble” and “12th Street Rag.” From that same 1959 tour, there are two clips from a show in Amsterdam, a show that I have been fortunate enough to hear the entire audio and let me tell you, Pops is in scorching form. Somewhere, the rest of that show exists. And the All Stars show in East Berlin in 1965 was also filmed. I have about an hour of it and Pops plays more horn on it than he does on either the 1959 or 1963 discs! So there’s more out there to be issued and hopefully the Australia disc is a step in the right direction to getting more Pops on DVD.


However, for both those who are just getting into Armstrong and for the die-hard Armstrong nuts, the Portrait Collection is perhaps the most essential Armstrong DVD on the market today (note: it's listed as the "Definitive Collection" on Amazon). It has the usual perceptive notes by noted Armstrong authority, and a hero of mine, Dan Morgenstern. It has a number of the classic must-see Armstrong clips ranging from 1933’s “Dinah” to the “Umbrella Man” duets. It has rarer clips, such as Armstrong performing “Confessin’” on a Frank Sinatra show and duetting with Velma Middleton on a rare 1950 TV show. It has beautiful photo galleries with some incredible music choices (more in a minute). And it has 30 minutes—30 MINUTES!—of Pops, natural as always, being interviewed on a television talk show in 1961, telling stories, uttering wisdom and promoting laxatives. It’s the complete package and it can be yours for about $12 on Amazon if you click
here now! (Sorry, I just went into full-on salesman speak…I should get a commission!).

The beauty of this set is that it’s not just a series of clips, then the credits. There is so much to explore, it’s mind-boggling. If you click on the timeline, each period of Armstrong’s life contains links to pictures, video clips and Armstrong interview footage that make it an interactive journey, rather than experiencing some boring text on a dull background. There are various photo galleries on the different stages of Armstrong’s life including one of stills from Satchmo the Great, sadly perhaps the closest this great documentary will ever come to reaching DVDs. But the galleries also contain one of the gems of the entire set: a snippet of Armstrong practicing at home. It can be found in the “At Home” gallery and trust me, the first time I heard it, I had to rewatch it three times. I don’t know what song he’s playing, if it’s even an actual song at all, though oddly, it has hints of “What a Wonderful World” in the beginning. But Armstrong positively soars on this piece, hitting some of the highest notes I’ve ever heard him it. However, when I played my piano along with it, it turns out the tape features him playing in E, which probably wasn’t the case. But even if it’s Eb or F, he ends with an absolutely freakish gliss up to the high tonic, so whether he hit an Eb, E or F, regardless, it’s pretty damn impressive.

The “Louis Armstrong Talks on TV” segment is arguably the highlight of the disc because, seriously, if there’s anything better than spending 30 minutes listening to Louis Armstrong play music, it’s spending 30 minutes listening to Armstrong talk about his life. He’s interviewed by a mostly unseen panel, whose questions are edited it out to make segment a little shorter and more Armstrong-centric. The quality is very nice, though for some reason the footage is placed in a smaller frame within the larger natural frame of the TV screen. And unfortunately, though there are title cards that split the interview into different topics, there’s no way to skip from segment to segment. But this is all nitpicking as the interview is truly priceless. Armstrong’s wisdom should still be heeded today, especially when he talks about music. A favorite part for me is when Armstrong talks about playing classical music that “instills soul” in a musician. But when a member of the panel says, “I didn’t know you played legitimate music,” Pops sets him straight, saying, “Well, that’s all I play, is legitimate. But it’s the people that call it ‘Dixieland.’ That’s what’s worrying them. I say the note’s the thing and the tone. Any time you play straight lead, you’re just as high as anybody.” The interviewer starts to laugh after the Dixieland line, but Pops is as serious as your life, looking a bit frustrated but very earnest in his explanation that his music is just as “legitimate” as anything else.

Of course, the clips are the meat and potatoes of the DVD and the selections are very fine, though the color is a little muted on the 1962 Goodyear material (it’s sparkling clean on an old Goodyear VHS tape I have and I don’t think I’m ever going to get rid of it!). Also, “Mack the Knife” is supposed to be from the Hollywood Palace from April 11, 1965, but it’s actually from ABC’s Solo show of July 1965. For one thing, Buster Bailey plays clarinet in the clip and he didn’t join until July 1965 (Eddie Shu played on the “Palace” version). And also, thanks to the trumpet player Phil Person’s perfect ears, the clip of “Mack” is actually pitched a half-step up from where it should be.

But again, nitpicking, nitpicking, nitpicking. The Soundies are in great shape and the Timex footage is always great to see. It was nice to see the complete “Rockin’ Chair” from the first Timex jazz show, but it would have been nicer to see the All Stars play “Mahogany Hall Stomp” from that same show, which I only have in terrible quality. The “Basin Street Blues” is dynamite, taken from a Colgate Comedy Hour show from New Orleans during Mardi Gras in 1955, Armstrong’s last visit to the city of his birth until ten years later. The clip features the classic “W.C. Handy and Satch Plays Fats” band and was filmed less than a month after the band’s recorded appearance at the Crescendo Club. The tempo is faster here than it would be in later years, and the group really smokes. Everyone in the group is swinging and bouncing during the rideout choruses and it’s hard not to get swept away by the performance.

“Confessin’” on the Sinatra show really knocked me out (Pops is on fire vocally and his trumpet playing during the bridge is tremendous), but the “That’s My Desire” from 1950 was really a treat. The clip comes from a “Cavalcade of Bands” show on the old Dumont network and if any other footage exists from it, it should be issued on DVD immediately. The audio was released on a number different LPs years ago and Pops is in peak form, swinging with a big band on numbers like “Stompin’ At The Savoy.” More, please!

The disc ends appropriately with his own composition, “Some Day,” which Morgenstern writes, “…I always felt [the lyrics] were meant as an oblique message for the modern musicians who’d written him off.” Armstrong himself said in one interview that he wrote it with his third wife, Alpha Smith, in mind, but I’m sure there was more than a trace of what Morgenstern talks about going through Pops’s mind each time he sang it. And truly, the jazz world should be sorry, sorry that many crucified him while he was alive, making those last two decades so difficult from a critical and social point of view. Not that he cared; he publicly ignored the critics and the cries of “Uncle Tom” and just continued traveling the world, creating timeless music and entertaining every member of every audience he ever played in front of.

Toby Byron is listed as the producer for this set and he should truly be congratulated. Byron was also the man behind Satchmo, the fantastic documentary on Armstrong’s life that was based on Gary Giddins’s book of the same name. A lot on The Portrait Collection borrows from that earlier film—there’s a clip of the 1961 talk show, the “Black and Blue” audio from Satchmo the Great, home movie footage of Armstrong and friends throwing a party at home, etc. Even a clip of a woman speaking outside of Armstrong’s funeral is lifted directly from Satchmo, with the same strains of “What a Wonderful World” heard in the background. Still, the footage worked then and it still works now. Combine Byron’s archival choices with co-producer Morgenstern’s writing and insight, and the DVD becomes an essential purchase for Armstrong fans and truthfully, for all jazz fans, too.

But will the jazz world even acknowledge the existence of this DVD? I haven’t seen it reviewed anywhere except at All Music. A local Borders and Barnes and Noble both still had the Billie Holiday DVD from the same Hip-O series in stock, but didn’t carry the Armstrong. I pride myself in knowing everything that’s happening with regards to Pops at all time and I didn’t know about this disc until it was already out for a month. For me, it’s frustrating to see Pops continuously glossed over in the jazz community. When the Jazz Icons series came out, Pops’s disc got the least attention, compared to those by Art Blakey and Quincy Jones. When Armstrong’s set at the Monterey Jazz Festival was released as part of a series last year, more people focused on the releases by Miles and Monk. And now the Fleischmann broadcasts are looming, complete with a bonus disc of treasures from the Armstrong Archives. This should be the most historic and important release of the year and I just hope it gets the same attention and buzz Bird and Diz at Town Hall, Monk and Coltrane at Carnegie Hall and Mingus at Cornell have received in the last couple of years.

But don’t worry, fellow devotees of Pops, I’ve got your back. As long as the new stuff keeps trickling in, I’ll do my best to promote it, starting with these two very excellent DVDs. Long live Pops!

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