Thursday, January 8, 2009

Long, Long Ago

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven
Recorded March 10, 1941
Track Time 3:27
Written by Thomas Haynes Bayley
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; George Washington, trombone; Prince Robinson, clarinet; Luis Russell, piano; Lawrence Lucie, guitar; Johnny Williams, bass; Sid Catlett
Originally released on Decca 3700
Currently available on CD: It’s on the seventh volume of the peerless Ambassador series
Available on Itunes? No

The subject for today’s entry has one of my very favorite Louis Armstrong trumpet solos but alas, it’s almost completely unknown (it’s not even available on Itunes). The song is “Long Long Ago” and it’s a good old good one...emphasis on the “old.” It was written by the English poet Thomas Haynes Bayly in 1833 and, according to online resources, became a “hit” in the United States around 1844. The song is still around today; just do a search for it on Itunes and YouTube and you’ll hear modern folk groups singing it, country versions of it, even an all-strings attempt by an elementary school orchestra. It’s the kind of song a person learns in a beginner’s piano songbook...but how did it end up in the hands (or chops) of the world’s greatest jazzman?

Good question, but who knows the answer to anything when it comes to Louis Armstrong’s two “Hot Seven” dates of 1941. I originally wrote about these sessions in my November entry for “Now Do You Call That a Buddy” but can repeat some of the facts here. In 1940, George Avakian discovered a bunch of unissued original Hot Seven recordings from 1927 and had them reissued on the Columbia label. Perhaps wanting to cash in, Decca had Armstrong record eight tunes over about a month span with septet made from his big band. It was a cream of the crop aggregation with George Washington on trombone, Prince Robinson on clarinet and tenor and a swinging rhythm section of Luis Russell on piano, Lawrence Luice on guitar, Johnny Williams on bass and the one and only Sid Catlett on drums.

Unlike the original Hot Sevens, which featured plenty of groundbreaking jazz, the Decca Hot Sevens focused on nostalgia (at least on the first session; the second session had two blues numbers, “Hey Lawdy Mama” and “Now Do You Call That A Buddy” and two sing-a-longs, “Yes Suh!” and “I’ll Get Mine Bye and Bye”). The theme of the first session was spelled out in the very first tune, “Everything’s Been Done Before,” an ode to the timeless nature of love and how nothing has really changed since the days of Adam and Eve bit into it. From there, Armstrong gradually crept backwards, tackling the standard “I Cover the Waterfront,” which he used to feature in the early 30s, then a Scottish tune from 1877, “In the Gloaming” and finally, the Your Hit Parade champion from 1844, “Long, Long Ago.”

I’ll admit that this session never did much for me in my early apprenticeship days of listening to Pops. But once I found the Ambassador series of discs and read producer Gösta Hägglöf’s endorsement of the Decca Hot Sevens, I listened a little closer and began to enjoy them a lot more. The tunes might all be ancient and the small group might appear to ape a “Dixie” format in terms of its lineup, but there’s some really nicely swinging material here. The band reminds me of a proto-type of the All Stars and the rhythm section, anchored by Big Sid, is faultless.

But of the numerous highlights of the eight tracks, the standout for me occurs of a 32-second span of time on “Long, Long Ago.” It’s an absolutely dazzling gem of a trumpet solo, not really featuring any pyrotechnics, but rather an unpredictable rhythmic flow featuring some of Armstrong’s most fleet-fingered playing of the period. Dig the whole thing but pay attention to that trumpet solo (and listen to the way Big Sid drives him to great heights):


The introduction is cute, with Armstrong alluding to “Cornet Chop Suey” before the front line plays a harmonized version of the melody, Robinson’s clarinet peeping in and out of the cracks. After Washington’s bridge and Robinson’s final eight, Armstrong sings a fairly straight chorus though I greatly doubt Bayly wrote the words, “Let me tell you, Mama, that you’re in the groove!” After the first chorus, Armstrong begins rapping about a very funny poker game, even getting in a plug for Joe Glaser, while the band humorously chants the title phrase. Armstrong’s personality really shines in this chorus but all is soon forgotten when he picks up the horn.

Catlett sets Armstrong up beautifully and the trumpeter responds by entering cautiously, dipping a few toes in the pool. Sensing the water to be warm, Armstrong dives in with a few scintillating strings of eight-notes, something he rarely did. It’s not quite bop, but it’s pointing in that direction. Of course, his rhythmic sense still makes the runs appear to float; there’s nothing stiff about them. After a slight rest, the next eight bars feature a whirlwind of Armstrong ideas. He opens with some hot hollering before he settles back into this bubbling frame of mind, cascading phrases in every direction, some trailing off like asides, and he even manages to wrap the section up with one of his patented calling cards.

But dig the bridge, or as I like to call it, the Senor Wences portion of the solo. Armstrong rhythmic mastery is at the forefront here, as is his storytelling ability, taking a two-note, “S’awright? S’awright” phrase and using it as a motive, developing it ingeniously before discarding it for some purely melodic playing. With the rhythm section driving him hard, Armstrong instead plays soft melodies, a lullaby in the middle of a traffic jam. Finally, sensing the end of the solo, Armstrong turns up the heat and wails for the last eight bars, hitting some high notes, throwing in almost invisible glisses and swinging like mad. It’s only 32 bars but it’s the definition of storytelling. A helluva solo...

A modulation brings the ensemble back on, Armstrong now playing wonderful New Orleans lead, rephrasing the melody here and there and really punching it out. Catlett’s drums take the bridge, always welcome, before Armstrong blows everyone home. I love every second of this record, even though it’s just about completely unknown. It’s a trumpet solo that should definitely be better known so now that’s it out there, tell your friends. I’m done writing for now, but I think I have to listen to it a couple of more times...

1 comment:

Jon-Erik said...

Yessir, thanks for this--I love that cut, as well, and agree it's underrated and underplayed.

Keep up the good work--happy to find your blog (finally--what took me so long??).

Jon-Erik Kellso