Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Limehouse Blues

[NOTE! Oof...I posted "Limehouse Blues" on Wednesday morning and gleefully quoted Maxie Kaminsky's exclamation, "Didja hear Pops on 'Limehouse'?" Well, the answer was NO as I forgot to post the audio to the master! I'm so, so sorry. It's been corrected so please enjoy it. And I'll let it stew for the weekend and be back on Monday with "La Vie En Rose." Sorry!]
Louis Armstrong and The Dukes of Dixieland
Recorded May 24, 1960
Track Time 4:53
Written by Philip Braham and Douglas Furber
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

Last Monday, I raved on and on about Louis Armstrong's 1960 recording of "Avalon" with the Dukes of Dixieland, arguing that it was one of the high points of Louis's later years. But in that same entry, I made numerous mentions of "Limehouse Blues," a song recorded that same day and in my opinion, is tied for the distinction of being the very best performance to come out of Louis's two albums with the Dukes (and trust me, there's plenty to choose from).

Well, people seemed to have dug "Avalon," so I can't resist by following up with "Limehouse Blues," recorded just two songs after "Avalon" on May 24, 1960, 50 years ago last month. (You might be wondering, what some came in between these two? A dynamite "Wolverine Blues" that I blogged about last year. To revisit that entry and really get a more complete picture of how incredibly Louis was blowing that day at Webster Hall, click here.)

I originally chose "Avalon" last week because it presented a more complete picture of Pops: singing, playing, swinging, hitting high notes, playing second, doing it all. But "Limehouse" is purely instrumental, a burning take on a number that had been part of the jazz repertoire since the 1930s. Louis had given it a 101-second run-through for a Standard Oil transcription session with the All Stars in 1950, but otherwise, had never touched this song before playing it with the Dukes. With a studio audience consisting of the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Krupa, Marty Grosz, Jack Bradley, Max Kaminsky and others, Pops had quite the audience watching and listening to his every move. When he got through with "Limehouse," EVERYONE was broken up with Dukes trumpeter Frank Assunto uttering the words, "The old man's too much" and Kaminsky shouting to everyone else in the studio, "Didja hear Pops on 'Limehouse'!?"

So to hear what all the full is about, just click here:

I guess I'll be the first to say it...didja hear Pops on "Limehouse"!? The old man IS too much! The Dukes enthusiastically handle the introduction with Frank Assunto in the lead before Pops steps in to show them the way through the first chorus. In no rush at age 58, Louis gives a fairly straight-forward reading of the melody, rephrasing it here and there just caressing it with his extra special tone, ending on a high note to foreshadow what's to come. Clarinetist Jerry Fuller then takes two, sounding a bit tentative a first before gradually heating up a bit.

But then Pops enters and well, good night nurse. He takes "Limehouse's" main melodic motive and spins circles with it, before he starts unleashing some beautifully flowing improvisations. Midway through his first chorus, he turns the melody into a quote of "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" before floating through the bar lines in his lower register. He then revisits the melody, as was his wont, for the last eight bars, playing it with a bright tone.

So far, so great, but he really lets loose in his second go-around, opening with a quote from "The Hoochie Coochie Dance," one of his favorites from the 1920s and early 30s. The leads into a devastating concert B natural, a blue note that Pops really makes moan, whipping it into a slippery gliss. He keeps pounding away, perhaps surprising some by going way down, instead of up, at the halfway mark of his second chorus. But it's a storytelling device as he's back on top mere seconds later, punishing the living hell out of those blue B naturals until the listener wants to scream, "Mercy!" After a series of more piercing B naturals, Armstrong turns his final one into a dazzling gliss that dives low before rising up to end on a triumphant high C. A terrific solo.

Rich Matteson then gets his innings on helicon before the performance's final two ensemble choruses. The first one is a true gassuh as Louis and Assunto peck and poke around each other, swapping phrases, having fun with melody and really just have a sweet little conversation. Midway through, Louis takes over with a brief, ingenious quote from Massenet's "Elegy."

But much like "Avalon," Louis is kind of just toying with Assunto before he unleashes full blast in the last chorus. Armstrong works over a three-note motive like it's 1927 again before shooting out those high, hard ones. Assunto's in there, offering a great counterpoint but overall he, and the rest of the Dukes are swallowed up by Pops's gigantic lead, working over more of those searing B naturals. After the drum tag, Louis lets Assunto take charge for a few bars but he still has the final say with a roof-shaking closing high C. Incredible stuff.

Like "Avalon," Hank O'Neal released an alternate edit of "Limehouse Blues" on the Chiaroscuro label in the 1970s. Only the drum tag and final eight bars were used on the issued take; the rest is entirely new. It must have been an earlier attempt because, though Pops is still in remarkable form, he performs a couple of miniscule fluffs in his second solo chorus and enters with a bit of a miscue going into the final ensemble choruses. But otherwise, he's a force of nature, dispelling any myths that he could no longer improvise at this stage of the game. As I've exhausted myself saying on this blog, he knew exactly what he was doing when he played those "set" solos on numbers like "Indiana" and "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" with the All Stars, as those were more or less improvised compositions honed to perfection night after night on the bandstand. But give the man a fresh piece of material...and stand back! "Limehouse Blues" is a great example of this as his playing is completely different from take to take. Even when some of his ideas are similar--playing with the three-note motif, quoting the "Hoochie Coochie Dance," etc.--he approaches them in different way and places them in completely different spots.

But don't rely on my word for it. Here's the alternate take, 30 seconds longer because of an extra chorus by Matteson's helicon:

So there you have it, some pretty ferocious playing from Louis in 1960. The old man, really was too much, wasn't he? Til next time when I'll be celebrating yet another anniversary, 50 years of "La Vie En Rose."


Swingin' Drummer said...

Yes indeed fabulous stuff. This is one set that I had never bought before, thinking that the Dukes backing might be a bit corny. I admit I would prefer more string bass, especially on the uptempo songs, but actually I love these sessions and have been playing them non-stop since I got the 3CD set. Pops is really inspired and the rest of the band, especially Frankie Assunto are too. I particularly love Pops' take on "Just a Closer Walk"; the way his trumpet comes out of nowhere on "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've seen and his steamrolling solo on "Limehouse Blues". Highly recommended.

Dan said...

In the alternate (earlier) take for "Limehouse," in the place where Massenet's "Elegy" appears in the master take, we have something that might be from the fifth movement of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony