Wednesday, June 4, 2008

I'm Beginning to See the Light

Recorded April 3, 1961
Track Time 3:31
Written by Duke Ellington, Don George, Johnny Hodges and Harry James
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Trummy Young, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Duke Ellington, piano; Mort Herbert, bass; Danny Barcelona, drums
Released on the Roulette LP "Together For The First Time"
Currently on CD: "Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: The Complete Sessions"
Available on Itunes? Yes (The rehearsal is available only by purchasing the full album)

The ol’ Itunes shuffle landed on a good one today, one of the tunes recorded for Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington’s 1961 Roulette album (of course, if it’s Pops, they’re all good!). “I’m Beginning to See the Light” is a great song and one that refuses to die. On a whim, I typed the tune’s title into an Itunes search and found versions by everyone from Bobby Darin and Frank Sinatra to Natalie Cole and Della Reese to Michael Buble and Destiny’s Child’s Kelly Rowland. But the two most famous versions came from 1944 and were recorded separately but two of the tune’s composers, Harry James and Duke Ellington (needless to say, a third co-composer, Johnny Hodges was in the Ellington band at the time). James had the bigger hit with it, but to me, the song will always be identified with Duke. Here’s that original Ellington Victor disc, recorded December 1, 1944 with vocalist Joya Sherrill singing Don George’s lyrics (courtesy of another helpful YouTube video of which the only visual is a spinning record).

Great stuff, of course, but our hero managed to avoid it until the famous 1961 collaboration with Ellington. In fact, Armstrong never featured much Ellington in his repertoire before the Roulette sessions. He recorded “Solitude” in 1935 but that was pretty much it, except for his playing on ex-Ellington-ian Barney Bigard’s “C Jam Blues” feature.

But by 1960, Armstrong’s bassist, Mort Herbert, began featuring “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” Herbert was a fine player, who swung the band nicely and took many humorous, quote-infused solos. He was with the band for a long stretch—almost four years—and always was featured on a wide-ranging number of tunes, from “I Cover the Waterfront” to “These Foolish Things” to “Old Man River,” the latter with vocal support from Pops. Herbert always loved his Ellington as his feature on “Love is Just Around the Corner” always ended with the bassist quoting Jimmy Blanton’s classic “Jack the Bear” solo verbatim (with Billy Kyle take a few playful, Ducal stabs at the piano).

Armstrong and the All Stars turned in a typically great set at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, an evening that featured Herbert getting to stretch out on “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” Herbert’s showcase followed a roaring feature for Trummy Young on “C Jam Blues” so it must have been quite difficult to make the transition from such an exciting romp to a bass feature. But hey, Pops needed his rest, and Herbert did a good job, though he had to deal with fans shouting requests for “The Faithful Hussar.” Anyway, the main event of the feature is Pops and the front line returning to play 16 bars of melody, Pops getting downright bluesy in the second eight bars (you can even hear him warming up in the background before his entrance). Herbert reenters with a quote from “Air Mail Special” and Pops can audibly be heard digging it, letting out a loud “Yeah!” Enough from me, here’s the Herbert feature:


A few songs later, Bigard played “C Jam Blues,” which ended with Armstrong jumping in to play the lead of another Ellington composition, “Rockin’ In Rhythm.” Thus, the spirit of Ellingtonia was in the air, setting the stage for the two consecutive days in April 1961 when Duke Ellington became a member of the All Stars. I’ve written about these sessions before but I might as well rehash the only complaint anyone could possibly have with them: that Ellington was asked to sit in with Armstrong’s small group instead of having Armstrong sit in with the Ellington big band. That was an idea that George Avakian had when both men were under contract with Columbia in the 1950s, but Joe Glaser became too difficult to deal with and the project went down as one of Avakian’s biggest regrets.

Fortunately Bob Thiele came through in 1961 to at least get the two men in the studio together but this time, Ellington simply replaced Billy Kyle in the All Stars for a program made up of nothing but Duke’s compositions. Regrets aside, a lot of great music was made in those two days and anyone not intimately familiar with this session is missing one of the great match-ups of jazz legends in a recording studio.(How come so many of these match-ups fizzle but Armstrong’s always hit a home run, whether paired with Louis Jordan, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson or Dave Brubeck?)

The sessions kicked off with three tried-and-true standards—“It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “Solitude,” and “In a Mellow Tone”—before the musicians turned to “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” Fortunately, Thiele let the tapes roll for this one and a number of others and in 2000, reissue producer Michael Cuscuna released a bonus disc of outtakes and rehearsals from the session, a truly essential reissue for die-hard fans of Armstrong and Ellington. But if you’re not quite willing to wade through 80 minutes of discussions and failed takes, have no fear, ol’ Ricko’s got you covered. Here’s the seven-minute track of various false starts, alternate takes, studio discussions and a few mess-ups on “I’m Beginning to See the Light.”


To some, that might have sounded like noise, but if you don’t mind, I’ll do my best to take you through it.

The track begins with Ellington assuring trombonist Trummy Young that the introduction will be handled by “piano and rhythm.” Duke obviously scribbled a little riff that he would use as an intro, one that would also crop up later in the performance, but during this first take, he botches it, taking full blame by announcing, “There’s a goof in there. Piano goofed. The piano player goofed. Don’t get nervous, fellas, I won’t do it…” Pops can be heard letting out an almost inaudible chuckle at Duke’s self-deprecating remarks.

The track then cuts to take four with Ellington still messing up the piano introduction, moaning at his fumbling. He immediately gives it another whirl and nails it…until Pops comes in in the wrong key! “I’m in another key, there,” a bemused Armstrong announces, causing some laughter. Ellington catches his key, plays it on the piano and yells out, “Ohhh, you’re back in Bb!” Duke really sounds loose and in a fun-loving mood throughout the session. Barney Bigard chimes in with, “You went right to HIS key,” referring to bassist Herbert, who played it in Bb as his feature. Duke’s use of the phrase “you’re back in Bb” makes it sound like there must have been some discussions on keys and such before the tapes started rolling. Pops quickly noodles the melody in the correct key (and Ab) and waits for the start of take five.

This next take begins with another strong piano introduction, with Ellington more locked in with Herbert and drummer Danny Barcelona than he was on the earlier attempts. Pops finally gets to play the melody, sounding a little tentative, but also quite relaxed. Pops steams right into the bridge, taking it by himself as Bigard and Young drop out. Again, he doesn’t sound 100% sure of the melody’s twists and turns so clearly this would not be the chosen take. Nevertheless, Pops takes a stab at the vocal and, much like his trumpet playing, sounds like reading the lyrics for the first time. There confusion in the rhythm section around the 2:40 mark as Herbert begins playing substitute changes in the last A section. “I’m Beginning to See the Light” is one of those jazz songs that can be approached with two different sets of changes, but of which work well, but clash when used together. Ellington continues playing the standard changes but Herbert starts playing a descending line that completely clashes, something that would need to be fixed. Bigard also sounds a bit out during his obbligato, playing notes that would be perfectly feasible for say, a Pee Wee Russell, but since Bigard’s mind didn’t work that way, they can probably be written off as clams.

Pops made it through the first vocal chorus unscathed but the second time around, he struggles a bit, both with lyrics (“moonlight skies” instead of “moonlit skies”) and the rhythm of the melody. He mistimes the entrance to the bridge, but—leave it to Pops—manages to turn it into a pretty emphatic rephrasing of the melody. Pops also hears Herbert’s substitute changes the second time around and recasts his vocal accordingly. Pops was battling a cold during the days these sessions took place and you can really hear it in his vocal—he sounds almost like a Satchmo impersonator at times, rather than the real thing.

After the vocal, Bigard and Young reprise Ellington’s original piano riff, though their execution is sloppy at best. Ellington plays emphatically, trying to guide them by force, but clearly, this, too, would require another shot. Pops comes in after eight bars, entering on a wrong note but he turns it into something that works without losing his footing. Pops really boots things along during the bridge, with the rhythm section really swinging, but again, he gets a little mixed up in there during the second chord change, though he escapes with some patented Pops phrase. He improvises through the last eight bars, alluding to the melody here and there and everyone ends tightly, but clearly there was more work to be done.

At the end of the take, Ellington can be heard discussing what might have caused so many problems on that take: “A little bit slower, huh?” Ellington counts it off slower, plays a sample, and is clearly satisfied with the new, groovier tempo. He also asks Pops if he should take the first bridge, and Pops gives him permission. Maybe Duke heard Pops struggle during the two bridges on the previous take and thought he should carry the load for those eight bars. Then again, Pops tells Duke, “You took the first bridge on the last one,” so maybe he just forgot the routine. Meanwhile, Bigard can be heard saying, “You cut four off me—eight. Yeah, eight. That’s what I had the first time.” Judging from the finished take, Bigard is probably referring to his obbligato during the vocal, where he lays out for the eight-bar bridge. While this is happening, Thiele tells Pops that he stood too close to the microphone during the vocal on the last take. Pops repositions himself, tests out a phrase, gets the seal of approval, and we’re off for take six…which ends abruptly when Thiele calls it off after a clam in the piano introduction. Ellington didn’t even pick it up, saying, “What, the piano goofed? All right.”

Take seven gets off to a great start with Pops sounding more comfortable at the new tempo and Duke taking a typically Ducal first bridge. Everything sounds okay but again, Pops misses a few words in the lyrics (you can hear the sheet music page turn) and decides to call it off with a disappointed, subdued, “Hold it, Duke.”

This is where the rehearsal track ends so it must be assumed that the musicians nailed it soon after. Thus, without further ado, here’s the master take:


Yes, I can admit it: that’s not exactly a work of perfection. After all those rehearsal takes and false starts, you’d think Thiele would keep driving the men until he got something a little smoother, but really, who needs perfection? There’s a happy spirit on this take, the vocal is positively ebullient and the trumpet scores at the end.

Duke’s introduction is the same as the one he had been playing all day, but he ends it differently. Then it’s Pops playing lead as Trummy and Bigard offer creative countermelodies. Duke’s got the bridge, but Pops calls the children home with one of his typical licks. He continues playing straight lead until putting down the horn and beginning the vocal. Now he sounds more natural, and thus, more happy. Duke’s piano playing is cute behind Pops while Bigard sticks to playing a low-register obbligato. The rhythm section is tight on this track, and the rest of the album—Herbert steers clear of the substitute chords and everyone gets along happily (great sound—you can hear Herbert’s foot patting).

Pops’s second vocal chorus is a gem as he rarely alludes to the written melody. He completely rephrases everything in his path, eliminating the words “to see the light” from the title and swinging like hell on the last eight bars.

But then the sloppiness hits in a big way. Bigard and Young tentatively start the riff but they’re not on the same page. Ellington butts in and tries showing them the way, but Bigard still screws it up, dropping out for a couple of beats before coming back in with a little more confidence. Pops comes in to straighten everything out but again, he only sticks to melody for eight bars. Finally, during the bridge, he blows it all away with some delicious short chromatic runs. The bridge is the highlight of the instrumental portion of the track as Pops returns to the melody before the final, stop-on-a-dime ending.

Thus, “I’m Beginning to See the Light” can be classified as a “good” recording of a great song, at least in my opinion. Pops’s vocal is a joy and that last trumpet bridge knocks me out but otherwise, it’s kind of sloppy and a little too short. Compared to the other masterpieces from those sessions (“Solitude,” “The Beautiful American,” “I Got It Bad,” “Mood Indigo,” and others), “I’m Beginning to See the Light” becomes one of those tracks that causes my mind to start to wandering a bit when I listen to the original album. But hey, I can’t complain too much…it’s Armstrong singing Ellington with Duke on the piano, with seven extra minutes to study how these great artists worked together in the studio. Good enough for me…

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