Sunday, May 30, 2010

80 Years of "Tiger Rag" - Part Nine: Two More From 1959

Welcome back to the never-ending saga of Louis Armstrong and "Tiger Rag"! First off, Happy Memorial Day to all who have served our great country. And for those who choose to celebrate by consuming inhuman amounts of hamburgers and hot dogs (like yours truly), happy scarfing! And if you're having trouble getting your barbecue started, just hold some meat in front of the computer and blast today's versions of "Tiger Rag" and I guarantee you'll have some well-done burgers in just a couple of minutes (though I can't promise this will work).

I've left the two mammoth, four-encore versions from January 21, 1959 in Copenhagen up for about a week now because I wanted Pops nuts from around the globe to bask in them. As I mentioned in the backstory to those pieces, Louis was at the start of an incredible tour of Europe, one that lasted for five months and pretty much gave Louis a heart attack. As my good friend Hakan Forsberg reminded me, Louis did return to the United States for two weeks in June (playing a Sidney Bechet Memorial Concert at Carnegie Hall on June 14) but then it was off to Spoleto, Italy, where he was stricken with a heart attack, one he tried covering up until the day he he died. As we'll see in my tenth, and final (!), installment on "Tiger Rag," Louis's routine on this number was one of the casualties of the heart episode. But for today, let's bask on two more doozies from Europe in 1959.

The two four-encore versions were recorded at the Falkoner Centret in Copehagen, Denmark on January 21. As great as those versions are, Louis wasn't quite done with Copenhagen. Four days later, on January 25, Louis played two more concerts at the Falkoner Centret. That evening, he still killing the Danish fans with another remarkable version of "Tiger Rag," this one featuring three encores instead of four. Once again, I have the performance broken down, encore by encore. Here's the first go-around, which is Louis's standard "Tiger Rag" routine of the period (feel free to skip to the encores since there's nothing too different here from stuff I've shared in previous entries):


Louis is clearly ready to blow, tearing through his set solo (complete with "Singin' in the Rain" and "Pagliacci" quotes before a series of high concert Ab's closes out the piece. So far so good. Then it's time for encore one:


Again, this one was usually also a given, with Pops starting with "I'm Confessin," using "Dixie" for the break and building his last chorus around two-note jumps from Ab to high C. (And Louis goes way off mike at one point, meaning he was really in the midst of chasing Trummy Young!). As we heard in the previous Copenhagen versions, that was usually enough for Billy Kyle to start playing the arpeggio to signal the start of "Now You Has Jazz." And as you should know by now, Pops wasn't quite ready to stop. So here's the second encore, which, to me, is the highlight of this performance:


Clarinetist Peanuts Hucko and trombonist Trummy Young sound a little tired in their spots, but they still contribute some good ideas. But Pops is still on fire, opening with a quote from "Gypsy Love Song." Then a "Honeysuckle Rose" phrase spirals into a wild improvisation before he lands on "Exactly Like You" for the break. He had played that quote on both of the previous Copenhagen versions but now he repeats it, turning it into an ingenious motive. For the final chorus, Louis sticks mostly towards high C's but he also indulges in some "talking" playing with Trummy as they shout at each other with funny "wrong" notes. Louis pays Kyle no mind again and calls for a third encore:


Peanuts this time quotes Pops by humorously opening his spot with a taste of "Confessin'." After Trummy, Louis once again starts improvising in an operatic bag, coming up with some very melodic ideas. However, he almost overblows a ridiculous high note during the break and it seems to throw him slightly off balance for a few seconds. He recovers and whips himself into a frenzy for the final chorus. Now, on the previous third encores I've shared, Louis usually started beating out a series of high Eb's. Here though, he must have sensed that he was running out of steam and instead came up with an alternate route, two-note phrases, one up to the Eb, the next up to the slightly lower C, then back to the Eb, then back to the C, etc. It's still freakish and a good demonstration of what Pops could do when his chops were in "A" form but maybe note A+ form. Still, he empties his reserve with three fat Eb's and tops it off with a final high F! Bravo, maestro...no need for a fourth encore that night.

Louis continued his European tour after Copenhagen but there wouldn't be as many "bootleg" recording of his All Stars shows in the coming months. However, on February 7, Louis and the All Stars found themselves at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam for another fantastic performance, one I blogged about with plenty of sound clips back on February 7, 2009, the 50th anniversary of the show. As I mentioned back then, my big regret about this show is that it has never been issued on video of DVD because it was filmed and two performances are still up on YouTube ("Sleepy Time Down South" and "Indiana"). Maybe one day, we'll get to see this truly great version of "Tiger Rag."

In the meantime, we can enjoy the excellent audio. Here Louis only takes two encores but that second is a gassuh. First, after the standard first encore, you'll hear the rhythm section play a cute "Good evening friends" line, a not-so-subtle way of of saying that the hilarity of the tune, which would end with Armstrong and Trummy Young chasing each other around the stage while playing, was over. Kyle then goes into the standard arpeggio for the next tune, "Now You Has Jazz," but as we heard in Copenhagen, Pops had the final decision on what to do next and what he did was call a second encore!

It's an incredible one, opening with his favored "Gypsy Love Song" quote but it's another quote that really knocks me out every time I hear it: on the break, he somehow inserts the 1924 pop song "When You Wore A Tulip (And I Wore A Big Red Rose)." From there, he skyrockets right up to high Eb's, hitting one after another like he was 30 years old again before ending on a sky-high concert F! Ridiculous playing. It's all the best moments from the versions with three and four encores but it's compressed into this dynamite, six-minute, two-encore blowout. Enjoy the whole thing here:



That was about a six-minute romp. For those who know the routine by heart and just want to hear the second encore, I made an edited version that begins with the trumpet playing during the first encore, continues through the "Good evening friends" bit and carries into the full second encore. Dig it!



As the European tour continued, Louis continued hitting home runs with "Tiger Rag." We'll never know how many times he busted out the three and four-encore versions but even the basic versions were something special. I have more audio I could share but I won't because they're very similar to what we've heard. I would like to point your attention to a video, however. In May 1959, just a month before the heart attack, the All Stars were filmed in La-Bussola Focette, Italy. It's a wonderful broadcast, worthy of DVD release, and features one go-around on "Tiger Rag." Louis was again in superhuman form and, perhaps knowing he didn't have time for encores, really blows out the light at the end, holding one high note towards the end for much longer than usual, and he manages to skirt up to a high F at the very finish. Even though we could probably all sing this solo note-for-note by this point, there's something about seeing him do it that's even more impressive. Unfortunately, embedding of this video is not allowed so I'm going to have to send you over to it, which can be done by clicking here.

Also, the Armstrong DVD in the fantastic "Jazz Icons" series has another exciting "Tiger Rag," this time WITH an encore, filmed in Antwerp, Belgium in March 1959. On this version, you can see Louis chase Trummy around the piano and also watch Louis in absolutely stirring form (I've actually shown this clip at lectures and it's always a favorite). Unfortunately, this version isn't on YouTube but the DVD is easy to find online at Amazon and other such places.

Hopefully you've marveled at Louis's miraculous playing on "Tiger Rag" during the European tour of 1959 (and applause for the Europeans who recorded so many of these shows....it's a shame that so little seemingly survives from countless All Stars American one-nighters of the 1950s and 1960s). But as we'll see next time, "Tiger Rag" was never the same after the heart attack. Come back in a few days and we'll kill this "Tiger" together...

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