Sunday, June 13, 2010


Louis Armstrong and The Dukes of Dixieland
Recorded May 24, 1960
Track Time 4:53
Written by Al Jolson, Buddy DeSylva and VIncent Rose
Recorded at Webster Hall, New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Frank Assunto, trumpet; Fred Assunto, trombone; Jerry Fuller, clarinet; Stanley Mendelsohn, piano; Jac Assunto, banjo; Rich Matteson, bass, Helicon; Owen Mahoney, drums
Originally released on Audio Fidelity
Currently available on CD: “Limehouse Blues” on the Blue Moon label and on "The Complete Louis Armstrong With The Dukes of Dixieland" on the Essential Jazz Classics label.
Available on Itunes? No

I know I'm a little late with this one, as Louis Armstrong's epic version of "Avalon" was originally recorded 50 years ago on May 24, 1960. But on May 24, I was thick in the throes of "Tiger Rag" and I couldn't stop for anything else. But "Avalon" is one of those recordings worth celebrating 365 days of the year so I think it will be just as enjoyable as ever today as it would have been if I posted this on May 24.

By the time Louis Armstrong got around to recording it in 1960, the song "Avalon" had been around since 1921, originally introduced by Al Jolson, who gladly took a co-composer credit. The tune's melody is based on part of "E lucevan le stelle," a Puccini aria from the opera "Tosca." Our hero might have been familiar with this aria as he was an opera buff proud of his collection of Caruso records. The great Caruso himself recorded "E lucevan le stelle" and courtesy of YouTube, you can now hear it yourself:

By the late 20s, "Avalon" had become a bona fide jazz standard, only growing in stature in the 1930s thanks to hot versions by the likes of Benny Goodman, COleman Hawkins and Django Reinhardt. Louis, however, never officially took a stab at it, though he did record an odd 80-second version with the All Stars as a transcription for Standard Oil, though that recorded only featured Jack Teagarden. And to skip past 1960, the All Stars later featured "Avalon" as a vibes outing for Tyree Glenn, with Louis joining in on the melody.

That's all well and good but today is all about that glorious 1960 version, which came from Louis's second trip to the recording studios with the Dukes of Dixieland. Louis had sat in with the Dukes in person a few times and apparently liked them a lot. In 1959, Joe Glaser officially made Louis a free agent when it came to recording; whoever had the right amount of money to record him could do so. The man with the money was Sid Frey of Audio Fidelity records, whose early recordings focused on the possibilities of stereo. The Dukes were already a popular attraction on the label so it only made sense for Frey to combine Louis with them for a series of recording sessions in the summer of 1959. However, Frey didn't do much planning; nor did he do his homework. Decca had a five-year restriction clause in their contracts, prohibiting Louis from recording any tune he already recorded for them for five years. As it turned out, nine of the songs waxed in 1959 had been already recorded for Decca in the previous five years, many on the "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography" project. Frey decided to keep them in the can and try again when all parties were free and willing.

That time came on May 24 and 25 in 1960. This time Louis and the Dukes would record 12 songs Louis hadn't either recorded in years or recorded at all. Louis was about to turn 60 (or so he thought) but 1960 was a great year for his chops, even after the 1959 heart attack. But if an enthusiastic young band and a slate of new material wasn't enough to inspire him, Louis just had to look through the recording studio window. Besides his usual entourage, including his wife Lucille and friend Jack Bradley--who snapped dozens of pictures and even took notes on the sessions--the studio was filled with jazz heavyweights including Dizzy Gillespie, Max Kaminsky, Gene Krupa and a young Marty Grosz, among others, all there to watch Louis in action. Louis rose to the occasion and blew everyone's minds more than once, especially on "Limehouse Blues," which caused Kaminsky to run around the studio yelling to anyone in listening distance, "Did you hear Pops on 'Limehouse'!???"

I thought of celebrating the anniversary of these sessions with "Limehouse" (and if there's enough requests, maybe I'll still do something on it) but for me, the high-water mark was "Avalon." In four minutes and 53 seconds, Louis demonstrated every single aspect of his greatness: his ability to make a melody swing, his sense of humor, his dynamic vocalizing, his swinging improvisations, his unimpeachable sense of time and rhythm, his effortless high notes and operatic tendencies. As everyone knows by now, I'm the world's biggest defender of Louis's later years and to me, this is one of the greatest moments of that period.

So enough blabbing from me. Just buckle your seatbelt and take a trip to "Avalon":

An exciting break by drummer Owen Mahoney sets up a rollicking first chorus. The presence of tuba (actually helicon) makes it immediately apparent that these aren't the swinging, straightahead All Stars. Nevertheless, the Dukes had enthusiasm and they definitely seemed to inspire Pops (actually, it was probably the other way around!). Louis showed a great deal of respect to the Dukes's lead trumpeter Frank Assunto, giving him plenty of solos and occasionally a vocal. On the first chorus of "Avalon," Armstrong lets Assunto play lead. What's pretty neat about it is it allows Louis to go back to his King Oliver days and play second trumpet, devising a countermelody to Assunto's lead and generally staying out of the way. For the second chorus, the two trade roles, with Louis playing a stately lead with slight embellishments and Assunto harmonizing behind him. Louis opens up a bit towards the end of the bridge but hands the ball over to Assunto for the last four bars as he had to make his way up to the microphone for the vocal.

And what a vocal! As already stated, Sid Frey didn't do much preparation for these sessions; Marty Grosz told me that Frey purposely called public domain numbers like "Dixie" so he wouldn't have to pay for any copyrights. Thus, there wasn't any sheet music lying around the studio with lyrics for Pops to sing. Thus, on more than one occasion, Louis was forced to wing it (such as his ad-lib about Swiss Kriss on "South"). On "Avalon," Louis gets through the first line with no problem but then he just starts making 'em up with hilarious results ("She was killing me!"). My favorite part is when he sings "But now we up in Harlem.....lon," that extra "lon" thrown in for good measure. The whole thing leads to a happy shout-out to Lucille, but according to Nat Hentoff's original notes, Louis improvised different lyrics on every take. Isn't it high time some of those got released? More on that later...

Thanks to the magic of tape splicing, Louis's trumpet solo immediately follows the last word of his vocal. And my goodness, what a solo it is. Louis, as was his custom, starts out by making sure we're familiar with the melody. The embellishments are small, but telling, such as his insertion of his favorite quote from Vasa Prihoda's "Drdla Souvenir." He keeps that melody front and center but manages to play his own obbligato during every one of the tune's spaces. But after that first chorus...stand back! Louis begins his second outing with some dazzling fingerwork. Perhaps he was looking at Dizzy standing there, but out of nowhere, Louis unleases a dizzying, dancing, descending motif with some rapid clusters of notes. He soon settles down into his own rhythm and begins simply floating through the bar lines. His bridge is a lesson in deceptive simplicity as he chooses only a few notes but they're pretty demanding choices. He then ends with a bang, taking the melody up an octave, topping out at a huge high E. Man, there's a little of information in those two choruses. Feel free to listen to it a couple of hundred more times.

After a helicon solo by Rich Matteson, Armstrong lets Assunto play the lead again. The other horns lay out so it actually becomes a nice little conversation between the two. Assunto puts together an exciting ending, holding an F for good measure. It's pretty impressive, until Hurricane Pops enters and blows everyone else out the door. Louis enters with an Ab higher than Assunto's F and builds from there. It literally sounds like he's playing a different instrument as he performs his old trick of playing the melody an octave higher than expected and as usual, it works like a charm. In fact, Louis completely sticks to the melody, building higher and higher, possibly with Caruso in mind (or at least B.A. Rolfe). He nails those high E's in the bridge and just keeps pushing up in the stratosphere.

After a drum break, Pops takes a second to get his chops together and whips himself up to a ridiculous closing high concert F (G on the trumpet). If you were hear for my high note discussion last week, trumpeter Dave Whitney wrote, "Louis seemed to use high G as his cut-off. As you have stated, he probably went higher in practice. The thing about his high note work was how much control and sound he had up there-never straining or squeaking and such a huge sound. His shakes on the end of Avalon with the Dukes and Black and Blue from E. Berlin '65 are so huge and powerful. They just electrify the listener." Amen, brother Dave. If you're not electrified after the end of that "Avalon," check your circuit breaker...

As great as that "Avalon" is, I should mention that it's a composite take, which was nothing new to Louis's 1950s work, especially if you're familiar with Louis's seminal George Avakian-produced albums for Columbia in the 1950s, which sometimes edited together three or four different takes to make a master. That stuff doesn't bother me in the least bit; Pops played it all, right? Anyway, the late Gosta Hagglof told me that when he visited America in the 1960s, he was fortunate enough to hear the session tapes for Louis's sessions with the Dukes and they were fascinating, with rehearsals, studio chatter and more complete takes. Those tapes ended up in the hands of Hank O'Neal, the wonderful record producer and photographer (and now, blogger; check out his wonderful blog in my list of links to the right). O'Neal went through the tapes and edited together different alternate masters, which he released on a series of Chiaroscuro LPs in the 1970s. O'Neal's takes were eventually released on the Essential Jazz Classic's boxed set "The Complete Louis Armstrong With The Dukes of Dixieland."

However, I'm a greedy bastard and want more, more, more! Hopefully one day a handsome boxed set will be released with some complete takes, session chatter, Jack Bradley photos and more. But for now, we still have O'Neal's alternates, which are definitely worth listening to. Here 'tis:

As you may have noticed, O'Neal's "Avalon" is 6:28. Where'd the extra time come from? Well, remember the "magic of editing" that produced the seamless transition from Louis's vocal to his trumpet solo? In the studio, Louis's vocal was followed by clarinet and trombone solos, which are restored to this take. Also, the opening choruses AND the vocal are identical to the master. But after the new clarinet and trombone outings, we get a new solo by Pops and it's another "gassuh," though not quite as swashbuckling, for lack of a better word, as the issued take. It follows the same pattern with a melody-centric first chorus and a more daring second outing, full of more great high note work and completely new ideas....dig that ending! Louis sounds pleased, offering a shout of approval before the helicon solo. The final chorus is also new and it features Louis the tower of strength once again playing the melody an octave up. To do that once must have been hard enough...but twice? That's the iron man for you! However, the eight-bar tag after the drum break is identical to the one on the master.

So if you're scoring at home--and I know this is getting confusing--THAT was a complete take from start to finish. For the original master, Sid Frey used the opening two choruses, the vocal and the eight-bar tag but inserted Louis's solo, the helicon solo and the rideout from another take. Who cares how you break it's all pretty amazing, right?

"Avalon" is a high-water mark in Louis's later years but it's only one of the many masterpieces he recorded that day. After a short break, it was time for "Wolverine Blues," which I enthusiastically wrote up back in 2009. Then "Limehouse Blues," which had everyone shaking their head in disbelief. But those are subjects for another day. Today is all about "Avalon"...and it is a gassuh!

1 comment:

Dan said...

The last eight bars of the second version are identical, but they are not identically engineered: the balance on the second one (the real time take) favors, probably too much, the Asunto second trumpet part. Louis's high G does not sound as big.