Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Indian Cradle Song

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded May 4, 1930
Track Time 3:01
Written by Mabel Wayne and Gus Kahn
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ed Anderson, trumpet; Henry Hicks, trombone; Bobby Holmes, clarinet, alto saxophone; Theodore McCord, alto saxophone; Castor McCord, tenor saxophone; Joe Turner, piano; Bernard Addison, guitar; Lavert Hutchinson, tuba; Willie Lynch, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41423
Currently available on CD: It’s on the JSP two-disc set The Big Band Sides, 1930-1932
Available on Itunes? Yes

Naturally, on a session that provided three bona fide Louis Armstrong classics (“Exactly Like You,” “Dinah” and “Tiger Rag”), the Itunes shuffle has to land on the one song that’s kind of slipped through the cracks. Of course, I like it that way because if it landed on one of the others, I’d be off and running with another marathon post. But there’s not too much background information I can give on “Indian Cradle Song” so we should actually be able to just listen to this neglected little gem and appreciate the music without all those silly little words getting in the way, right? Nah...

So first, a few silly little words. Louis Armstrong came to New York in 1929, toting Caroll Dickerson’s Orchestra behind him. Tough times led to Armstrong becoming a single act and on all of his records from the end of 1929 through 1930, he’s found fronting other orchestras. After the Dickerson sessions came a few done with Luis Russell’s band and starting in the summer of 1930, Armstrong made a bunch of classic California sessions with either Leon Elkins’s or Les Hite’s big band, featuring the likes of Lionel Hampton and Lawrence Brown.

But right smack dab in the middle, in the spring of 1930, Armstrong made two sessions with a band led by drummer Willie Lynch, one that would go on to win a little bit of fame as the Mills Blue Rhythm Band. The Mills was Irving Mills but he didn’t put his name on the group until he became their manager in 1931 (at the time of the 1930 session they were technically still known as the “Coconut Grove Orchestra”). If you’re not familiar with the actual Mills Blue Rhythm Band, check ‘em out because they were a very hot outfit and two terrific samplers are available on Itunes, “Harlem Heat,” a single-disc compilation, and double-disc compilation on the Retrieval label, “1933-1936.” Great stuff with plenty of Armstrong connections (Armstrong covers like “Heebie Jeebies” and “Shoe Shine Boy,” arrangements from future Armstrong music director Joe Garland like “Keep That Rhythm Going” and even a few showcases for the trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen).

But back to 1930. Armstrong had already made one session with Lynchs’ outfit in April 1930, cutting “My Sweet” and “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me,” as well as a duet with pianist Buck Washington on “Dear Old Southland” (apparently featuring in Brad Pitt’s new opus, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which I have not seen yet). “Indian Cradle Song” was the first tune up on the May 4 date and was a bit old, having first been recorded by Paul Whiteman back in Septemeber 1927 (“Dinah” and “Tiger Rag” were also pretty old but “Exactly Like You” was a fresh choice). “Indian Cradle Song” was a collaboration between the great lyricist Gus Kahn, composer of too many famous lyrics to list here (okay, here’s a few, “Makin’ Whoopee,” “It Had to Be You,” “Ain’t We Got Fun,” “Dream a Little Dream of Me”), and Mabel Wayne, a songwriter who seems to have specialized in writing songs about things that happened in other countries: “It Happened in Monterey,” “It Happened in Hawaii,” “In a Little Spanish Town” and others. Clearly, Wayne thought the Indian culture might be ripe for a pop tune so she turned in this opus. Here’s how it sounded when the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra took a stab at it in April 1928. Click here to listen.

Pretty faux-exotic, huh? It’s peppy, has a definite melody and is well-sung by the vocalist. Now give a listen to Pops by clicking here.

Yeah, man. Every time I hear that track, I feel like I should be sitting in a smoke-filled room. There’s so much going on that the whole thing just seems to float by. The record opens with the exotic passage from the stock arrangement, not exactly played too tightly by the band (is that Armstrong’s trumpet straying from the others on top?) while drummer Lynch appropriately beats the tom toms. Then it’s off to the reeds, crooning the melody like every other dance band version until midway through, when the brass bursts in for a swinging little two-bar passage ripped straight from the Armstrong playbook.

The brass seems to remind everyone that this is a jazz record after all so Castor McCord responds with a slightly percussive tenor solo that, after a few impressive runs, seems to get stuck in neutral. But then it’s time for another arranged exotic passage, but this time with Pops definitely on top, breaking away from the band a bit to dig those minor changes, as he always did.

Armstrong’s trumpet sets up his own vocal, which might be the most bizarre moment of the record. As I said earlier, the Dorsey record had a definitive melody but after hearing Armstrong sing it, I’d be hard-pressed to notate it or even sing it back. Hell, I don’t even know what he’s singing about! And listen to how much is going on behind him. The reeds are still moaning swampy harmonies, the tuba alternates between punching out the one-and-three and occasionally playing four beats to the bar, drummer Lynch sweeps the brushes as if it’s a fast, swinging tune and the great guitarist Bernard Addison more or less takes a guitar solo--not an obbligato, but a solo, almost as if he’s oblivious to everything going on around him. And on top of it all, Armstrong delicately crooning an almost non-existent, spoiled by another swinging brass interlude that has nothing to do with the Hopi way. I love the vocal but it’s a rare example of Armstrong deliberately trying not to swing, instead keeping this zombie-like, almost half-spoken delivery going.

However, when he picks up the trumpet, there’s nothing he can do but swing. One more brass punch sets Armstrong up (I keep talking like there’s a brass section; it’s one other trumpeter, Ed Anderson, but he sounds strong), who glides in with a sing-song phrase before repeating a single note on the beat, almost instructing the listeners (or even the band) that this is where the tempo is. Naturally, Armstrong being Armstrong, he turns it into a quote, the single notes soon forming a snatch of “Dixie” (with “Dinah” and “Tiger Rag” warming up in the bullpen, it would be a banner day for quotes). After “Dixie,” Armstrong turns to the blues, playing some very singable lines, carrying over the mood of his vocal, except for a violent chromatic rip up to a concert Bb. He continues floating in and around the beat until he pauses for the perfect second, joining the brass for another accent at the midway point, his tone overwhelming the band.

But then comes the highlight of the record. Armstrong comes off the accent with a herky-jerky motif that defies explanation. It’s so damn funky and so damn genius. He descends with the phrase like he’s skipping down a staircase before gathering a quick head of steam and bubbling right back up to the top for some arpeggios that preface the introduction to 1931’s “Star Dust.” He then builds his way up to a high C, the highest note of the solo and continues floating over the beat to the end of the using, making the most use use out of a minimum of different pitches. It’s kind of a crazy record but there are definitely some moments of genius in that horn solo.

Listening to “Indian Cradle Song” in such detail made me wonder if this was a part of Armstrong’s stage act of the period. The song was three years old and the whole thing is kind of funny, right down to the brass accents, the exotic arrangement and the floating vocal. I decided to look into and sure enough, in Louis Armstrong In His Own Words, Armstrong wrote about it in “The Goffin Notebooks” on page 105. I can easily see Armstrong in a Native American headdress or something 105. He writes about how he was doubling while in New York in 1929, playing the show at Connie’s Inn as well as as doing his own show at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem. Armstrong writes about how his band “really used to play the hell out of Connie’s Show.” He writes, “Immediately after the show we would go in to a Dance set before we’d take intermission--and the Tune we would play was our Recording of ‘Indian Cradle Song.’ We would start off the Introduction in a slow Fox Trot Tempo--And Zuttie [Singleton] would be Beating those Tom Toms in Such Fine Fashion, without wiping the perspiration off of his Face.--That alone, would really Send me.”

So there it is: Pops was playing it, complete with Zutty Singleton’s toms, in New York in 1929. Pops said “our recording of ‘Indian Cradle Song’” but he hadn’t even recorded it yet. Thus, it makes one wonder if every note of that trumpet solo was already minted when Armstrong got to the studio that day in 1930. It wouldn’t surprise me, knowing what we know of how the later Armstrong would tinker with his solos until they were “perfect,” at which point they’d become set. Who knows how often this happened in the early days? Didn’t Lionel Hampton remember Armstrong playing “Star Dust” in California? Maybe every note of that incredible performance (my all-time favorite Armstrong record) was already set by the time of that 1931 recording. Who knows? It’s all speculation. I’m just glad to be to enjoy all the good times and great playing heard on “Indian Cradle Song.”

Now it’s time to clear all the damn smoke out of this room...

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