Wednesday, May 28, 2008

When You Wish Upon A Star

Recorded May 16, 1968
Track Time 4:25
Written by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington
Recorded in Hollywood
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Tyree Glenn, trombone; Joe Muranyi, clarinet; Marty Napoleon, piano; Buddy Catlett, bass; Danny Barcelona, drums; with unknown studio orchestra and mixed choir
Originally released on Buena Vista STER-4044
Currently available on CD: On Disney Songs the Satchmo Way
Available on Itunes? Yes

Today’s entry is a special one for me as Louis Armstrong’s heartfelt rendition of “When You Wish Upon A Star” probably rates in my top ten Armstrong performances of all time. There’s no trailblazing trumpet a la “Potato Head Blues,” he’s singing a Disney song and he gets a pretty square choir backing him up. But strip all of that away and all that’s left is pure heart.

Armstrong didn’t get around to recording the tune until 1968, though it was originally written in 1940 for the Disney film Pinocchio, where is was sung by Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards in the role of Jiminy Cricket. The song won the Academy Award for “Best Original Song” that year and went on to become a standard and the theme song for all of Walt Disney’s enterprises. The song would have been a natural fit for Armstrong even had recorded it anytime in the 1940s or 1950s, but waiting until 1968 only adds to the emotional wallop this performance packs. Armstrong tackled it on seemingly strange concept album, Disney Songs the Satchmo Way. At a glance, having the most important jazz musician ever sing kiddy ditties like “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” and “Heigh Ho,” complete with studio orchestra and mixed choir, might seem like another losing battle with commercialism, much like the Brunswick records Armstrong was making during the period. And just two weeks ago, one of my musical heroes, Marty Grosz, ranted to me at the Institute of Jazz Studies about the regrets of Armstrong’s later years. He saw the Armstrong of the 1950s and 1960s as a completely different being from the one of the 1920s and he never got over all the pop songs and stuff like “What a Wonderful World” that Armstrong was asked to record. In the middle of his diatribe, Grosz began doing a spot-on impersonation of Armstrong singing “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” grimacing and waving his hand in disgust when he finished.

Because Grosz is one of my favorite musicians and people in the jazz world, I smiled politely and let him go off, though it’s precisely that attitude that I have been trying to fight against for years. Of course, if you’re looking for something specifically like “Potato Head Blues” in the 1950s or 1960s, you might be disappointed. But Louis Armstrong was Louis Armstrong and no matter what material he was forced to record, he made it his own. Thus, while some purists probably get indigestion, I have to say that the Disney outing is one of Armstrong’s finest albums of the 1960s.

The record was produced by Toots Camaratta, the man responsible for one of Armstrong’s greatest sessions, the 1953 Decca session with the studio group known as “The Commanders.” Camaratta, “another wonderful cat” in the words of Joe Muranyi, intelligently picked ten songs that suited Armstrong perfectly and handed arranging duties to Maxwell Davis, who kept things fun, yet interesting with no trace of the cloyingly stiff backgrounds of Dick Jacobs. In fact, the first session for the featured only the All Stars (plus Art Ryerson again on banjo), swinging hard on “Bout Time” and “Bare Necessities.” The former has a great trumpet solo and the latter would become a popular favorite in the band’s stage shows for the rest of the year with Armstrong even performing it on that year’s Academy Awards necessities. When the choir and orchestra were added a few months later, the results didn’t diminish but actually, in a few cases, improved. Of course, things get a little schlocky on “Heigh Ho” and “Whistle While You Work” but Armstrong makes one quickly forget everything else that’s going on with his infectious enthusiasm. Since he popularized scat singing in the 1920s, onomatopoeic titles like “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” are an unnaturally good fit. On the latter, Armstrong has a ball with the title phrase, rushing it with a laugh at the end of the first chorus and elongating it into the bubbling “Bibbidi-ah-bobbidi-ah-boo.” The Armstrong trumpet is unusually good form for such a late date; all of his solos surprise, both in terms of harmonic note choices and dexterity, sounding a thousand times better than he did on a March 28 episode of the Tonight Show where his chops sounded positively tired on “Cabaret” and “A Kiss To Build A Dream On.” He is also at his most rhythmically free on this album, with everything coming together on the nearly seven-minute “Chim Chim Cheree,” one of the album’s highlights.

If “Chim Chim-Cheree” isn’t the album’s highlight, it’s only because of the towering presence of “When You Wish Upon A Star.” A legitimately beautiful song, Armstrong gives one of his most touching performances on it. Davis’s arrangement is gorgeous and the choir sounds heavenly, though they’re placed enough in the background as to not distract from Armstrong’s primer in jazz singing. Please listen along and try not to be affected.

Gets me every time. Nearing the 67-year-old mark, Armstrong’s voice is slightly burnished than it was in previous years but again, it just adds to emotion of the performance. He doesn’t deviate much from the melody in his first vocal chorus, throwing in a bit of scat at the end of the bridge. You can hear him smiling throughout and when he sings, “Mama, when you wish upon a star,” it’s a toss-up about whether you want to laugh or cry.
Seconds later, he picks up the trumpet and it’s a no-decision: it’s crying time. He opens with simple quarter notes as the band slowly begins to swing with him. His first eight bars are low-key and mellow before he goes up high for his concluding eight. His tone gives me the chills. It’s still unlike anyone else’s, but like his voice, it’s slightly burnished. It sounds like a human voice. When I listen to him in the lower register, I know where Ruby Braff came from (and of course, Ruby would be the first to tell you!). It’s an astonishing solo, not for the pyrotechnics of something from his youth like “Swing That Music” but for the sheer passion and emotion that fills its every note. Armstrong’s music was always filled with passion and emotion, but it’s different on “When You Wish Upon a Star.” It’s a wise solo, filled with the sound of an old man summing up a lifetime of knowledge and experience in such a short space of time. His note choices are perfect and occasionally he tumbles into the lower register with the same freedom he brought to the jazz scene 40 years earlier. It’s the ultimate textbook example of using a short solo to tell an epic story. Gets me every time.

Armstrong reprises the vocal at the bridge, rasping out the first word, “fate,” before the strings and voices swell behind him, carrying him through another bridge-ending scat break (interesting side note: the song was introduced by Cliff Edwards, who is known to have done some pre-Louis scatting on records from the early 20s). Everything modulates for drama and Armstrong continues his master class in jazz vocalizing with the rhythm section swinging lightly before embarking on an extended ending. With the musicians holding an ominous minor chord, Armstrong sings the title phrase in a manner that 100% mimics his trumpet playing. He continues the horn-like phrasing for the rest of the cadenza, building up to the final line, “your dreams come true,” spicing it up with more scatting. It’s an exuberant ending and Armstrong’s slight shakiness on the final word, “true,” is completely covered by the arrangement. It’s the kind of ending that always leaves my mouth slightly open and sends my heart beating just a mite faster. It always overwhelms me every time, not only for the beauty of Armstrong’s performance, but also for the placement of it in his life. His chops were fading, his health was deteriorating, he was losing too much weight and too many friends and he was about to need over a year off because of various serious ailments. But he still managed to overcome it all and come up with a masterpiece filled with soul, optimism, heart and beauty.

Joe Muranyi has fond memories of listening to the playback of “When You Wish Upon a Star” with Armstrong and Camaratta. “Here comes Louis with a white handkerchief and he’s standing there,” Muranyi remembers. “Camaratta’s standing there, too. And he said, ‘You’ll be glad to hear it.’ I think I grabbed his hand or grabbed him around and said, ‘Pops, I think it’s wonderful. That’s the one.’ I don’t know that he said, ‘You think so?’ but that look he gave me [was] a very soulful look cause he liked it, too. A wonderful moment. Every time I hear that, I think of that.” By anyone’s standards, “When You Wish Upon a Star” must rate as a one of Armstrong’s most affecting recordings. Gets me every time…


Rich said...

Yep. This is a great recording from a wonderful album late from his career. I'm a Disney and jazz fan and this has been a favorite album of mine for many years. His age on the recording adds to the poignancy. Some of Sinatra's later recordings have that seem melancholy feel- age, wisdom, a life lived, regret, hope, etc... all rolled into one.

Aynne Pryce said...

Is this recording a collectors item? I have it unopened on a 33 rpm record.