Thursday, May 8, 2008

I Laughed At Love

Louis Armstrong with Sy Oliver’s Orchestra
Recorded August 25, 1952
Track Time 2:56
Written by Benny Davis and Abner Silver
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Hymie Schertzer, Dick Jacobs, alto saxophone; Babe Fresk, Melvin Tax, tenor saxophone; Bill Holcombe, baritone saxophone; Billy Kyle, piano; Everett Barksdale, guitar; Joe Benjamin, bass; Bobby Donaldson, drums; Sy Oliver, arranger, conductor
Originally released on Decca 28394
Currently available on CD: Available on Satchmo Serenades
Available on Itunes? Yes, on the same set.

Ah, just what I needed. As I prepare for my dissertation on Louis Armstrong and “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” to be published on Tuesday, I wished for the ol’ Itunes shuffle to give me something nice and easy, a solid record that wouldn’t take eight pages to discuss. And with “I Laughed at Love,” my wish was answered.

With this recording, we’re firmly back in Armstrong’s early 1950’s “pop” period for Decca. Producer Milt Gabler gave Armstrong a steady diet of other people’s hits during this era, often changing the backing groups to give the sessions more variety. Armstrong recorded with Gordon Jenkins’s strings, with the All Stars and with studio big bands led by the likes of Benny Carter but arguably his finest Decca recordings were arranged by Sy Oliver for groups of various sizes. By the time of this recording, Armstrong and Oliver had made many records together, including hits like “I Get Ideas” and “La Vie En Rose.”

For this session, Oliver backed Armstrong with five reeds and a rhythm section. Notable personnel includes pianist Billy Kyle, who, one year later, would be an integral part of the All Stars; and alto saxophonist Dick Jacobs. Jacobs is better known as an arrange but he frequently teamed up with Oliver. In the late 60s, Jacobs oversaw a number of Armstrong sessions recorded for the Brunswick label, some of the sorriest arrangements Armstrong ever had to deal with (interestingly, guitarist Everett Barksdale is on many of those Jacobs sessions and he’s the guitarist right here on “I Laughed at Love”).

Fortunately, Jacobs sticks to just playing and not arranging and for that we can be thankful. As for the song itself, it was introduced by vocalist Sunny Gale on the RCA Victor label. Interestingly, I’m always fascinated by how Gabler knew not only what the other labels were recording, but also, what was going to be a hit. I’ve mentioned it before: when Armstrong recorded his “cover songs” for Decca, his recordings were usually made right before the original version hit the charts or at least around the same time. Sunny Gale’s “I Laughed at Love” debuted at #42 on the Cash Box charts on August 23 and two days later, Pops was putting his own stamp on the song. Gale’s record lingered on the charts until November, while Armstrong’s didn’t make a dent but listening over 50 years later, I think Armstrong’s holds up infinitely better. Listen for yourself:

Armstrong opens the record with the glorious sound of his open trumpet, backed by the creamy reeds and a strutting Oliver two-beat. You can tell that Armstrong’s in phenomenal shape but I do sense a little hesitation four seconds in as he approaches the high note on the second playing of the title phrase. It’s only a fraction of a section and of course, he hits hit. The reeds give him a pad to play a little break over, one that always reminds me of his scat singing. He sings the song prettily, especially when he’s in his tenor range, while Billy Kyle’s perfect accompaniment demonstrate why Armstrong knew where to turn when Marty Napoleon left in 1953. I like this vocal because if you listen carefully, the microphone picks up all of Armstrong’s little noises in between the phrases, whether a quiet hum or a cute little “Tch” before he sings “When people mention our affairs.” Halfway through the song, he delivers a scat break, sounding like he’s in a very good mood (you can hear his eyes roll on the last “zoot” syllable).

In the second half of the vocal, I really dig the “Mmm” he throws in before the words “goes by.” As the melody goes up for the last eight bars, Armstrong scats wonderfully. At the end of the chorus, he scats a typical descending phrase, which Kyle picks up and plays back without missing a beat. I’m sure it might have been worked out but regardless, it’s a highlight of the record.

Notice, I said “a highlight.” THE highlight is Pops’s mellifluous trumpet solo which begins with three quarter notes that simply swing and highlight his always spell-binding intonation. The rhythm section, which kept up a two-beat feel behind the vocal, now swings so lightly and politely, it sounds like they don’t want to disturb the neighbors (Kyle doubles up bassist Joe Benjamin’s descending line). The trumpet solo is a gem because Oliver sets it up to feature a couple of stirring breaks. The first one is the more exciting of the two, as Armstrong deftly swirls around an arpeggio, quickly taking it up high. The second one starts with a perfectly placed beat of space before Armstrong plays a quasi-military line that resolves with three more emphatic quarter notes, somewhat echoing his entrance. As the reeds come in and band swings happily, it sounds like it’s going to be a spot for the orchestra. But after sitting out a couple of seconds, Armstrong swoops in, riding over the ensemble like Superman over Metropolis, tossing off a carefree descending phrase that sounds effortless but is actually highly complex. Already in the upper register, he doesn’t take the easy way out when the written melody goes up higher, hitting some gorgeous, fat high concert C’s before taking yet another that is resolved by an almost humorous chord by Billy Kyle that sets up Armstrong’s vocal reprise. Phew, that’s a lot of writing, but it’s an exciting solo, the kind that makes you wonder what the critics were complaining about when they griped about the lack of “jazz” on these Decca sides.

Armstrong’s singing remains tender, but also swinging….dig those quick little “Mm’s” he throws in before he starts a new phrase. When the melody hits its climactic high note, Armstrong hits it, too, emphasizing it with some even more horn-like scatting (I love the notes he chooses to emphasize). He sounds as joyous as ever as he gets to the final phrase, the band swinging emphatically behind him. He repeats it one more time, swinging over stop-time chords before Oliver’s arrangement has the reeds play Pops’s patented ending phrase. Armstrong, still having a ball, ends the record by warning, “You gotta watch that love, yeah!” A lot of these Decca sides ended with Armstrong speaking or laughing some aside, much like an old Fats Waller record. “I Laughed at Love” has slipped under the radar over the years, but it’s a charming record with some powerhouse trumpet playing and an seemingly endless stream of scat singing. Who can ask for anything more?

Armstrong’s good mood more than carried over to the next song recorded that day, “It Takes Two To Tango,” which actually did dent the charts that October. But that’s another topic for another entry, my friends. For now, enjoy “I Laughed at Love,” a great record. As for me, it’s off to celebrate the wife’s birthday on Saturday, Mother’s Day on Sunday and the 70th anniversary of the “Saints” on Tuesday. See you then!

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