Friday, July 30, 2010

Hello, Louis! The Hit Years: 1963-1969

It's been a long time since I've been able to write about any major new Armstrong C.D. release. The last big one I can think of was the Mosaic Decca box of 2009 preceded by the Fleischmann's Yeast set of 2008. Otherwise, the pickings have been slim as the major labels sit on their jazz archives and the MP3 world more or less sees an endless stream of no-name bootlegs enter the market. However, a new Armstrong set was released last week, though it's flying so low under the radar I don't quite understand it. It's called, "Hello, Louis! The Hit Years 1963-1963" and it's put out by the good people at Hip-O Select.

Do you know about Hip-O Select? The Hip-O label has been around for a while and they've done some nice Armstrong compilations in the past, including the three-disc "An American Icon" set that is more or less the ideals soundtrack to my forthcoming book (the "American Icon" set is now out-of-print but available used on Amazon for about $10!). Fairly recently, Hip-O was pretty much given carte blanch of the vaults of the Universal Music Group, allowing them to put out limited edition boxed sets a la Mosaic Records. Unlike Mosaic, Hip-O Select doesn't cater specifically to jazz, instead releasing complete sets on everyone from Chuck Berry and Little Walter to Buddy Holly and The Supremes.

But now they're getting into jazz, which is cause for celebration. They put out a fantastic Ella Fitzgerald boxed set last year culled from unissued material recorded at the Crescendo Club, a set that was received with tremendous publicity and great sales (see that, big labels?). Now, they've done what look like terrific sets (I haven't purchased them) on Oscar Peterson and Nat King Cole, focusing on Peterson's rare duet recordings from 1949-1951 and some of Cole's finest jazz sides of the 1940s.

And now, they've given the Hip-O Select touch to ol' Pops. So what did they dig up? The Verve Hollywood Bowl concert of 1956? More alternate takes from Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson? What could it be???

The answer? A two-disc set that reissues the complete "Hello, Dolly" and "What a Wonderful World" albums, as well as Louis's 1960s Mercury Recordings and a handful of bonus tracks.


All right, I don't mean to be so unenthusiastic but the majority of this set is so easily accessible elsewhere that it's hard to must up THAT much enthusiasm. BUT--and it's a pretty big but--this is the first time that Louis's 1960s Mercury output has ever been issued in complete form in the US and that is pretty good news for the hardcore Armstrong fan...

...such as myself, who dropped $30 on this set just to have terrific sounding versions of Louis's 13 Mercury master takes, as well as two rare Kapp singles from 1968. I have Louis's Mercury material on the original LP simply titled, "Louis," which I transferred to CD in shaky sound. Then I purchased a German bootleg with Louis's Mercury and Brunswick 1960s material that satisfied me but the sound was only marginally better. Now, I have the Mercury material in sparkling sound and I couldn't be happier...but is it worth it?

Louis's Mercury output contains a fairly mixed bag. Louis joined the label right after he had a hit with "Hello, Dolly" so the formula for the Mercury sessions was to come up with a "Dolly" clone, often with middling results. Armstrong recorded for the label in 1964, '65 and '66, finally coming up with a winner in his last session for the label with "Mame." The deck was usually stacked against Louis as he had to battle both inferior material and diminishing chops during this period, making some of the Mercury singles somewhat forgettable.

But others are bona fide classics. I rate "Short But Sweet" to be one of Louis's finest performances of the 1960s, a recording so powerful that it moved Louis's friend Jack Bradley to call me out of the blue a few months ago because he listened to it on a disc I had sent him and was so emotionally moved, he couldn't think straight. And Louis's trumpet playing on the 1964 dates is pretty spectacular.

Thus, I would never recommend the Mercurys as first-choice, desert island Armstrong but there's some great stuff here that most Armstrong nuts should have. Then again, those same people interested in specifically the Mercury recordings probably already have the complete "Hello, Dolly" and "What a Wonderful World" albums elsewhere so it becomes a struggle to decide whether or not to make the leap.

Of course, if you don't have those albums or if you know someone interested in ultra-late, pop-hit, Louis, then by all means, don't pass this set up. But $30 for 13 Mercury sides, two corny Kapp singles and "We Have All the Time in the World" (which I don't believe has ever been issued on CD in the United States) is a little steep.

But you see, this is where the fine folks at Hip-O Select dropped the ball a bit. Disc 1 is a chunky 70 minutes, filled the gills and packed with good stuff (I don't listen to it often, but my goodness that original "Hello, Dolly" album has some great stuff). Disc 2 however ends at only 40 minutes and to me that's a bit unfair. I happen to know that many rehearsal, alternate and insert takes exist for the Mercury sessions (I happen to know this because I have copies of them...shhhhhh) but none made the cut. About 10 years ago, when Verve was knocking out Armstrong reissues the great producer Ben Young added many alternates to the releases he produced, notably the two-fer "I've Got the World on a String/Louis Under the Stars" (all hail Ben Young!). Because I know this stuff exists, it's a shame that Hip-O Select didn't raid the vaults any deeper for this stuff.

But never mind unissued rarities; what about other Armstrong odds and ends from the period? Adding the 1968 Kapp single of "Life of the Party" and "Kinda Love Song" is a terrific bonus for collectors (though neither song is Gershwin-esque). But for me, my mind melts when confronted with the puzzling choice of "We Have All the Time in the World," which was a United Artists release. I don't argue with reissuing that song, but why not issue the flip side, an incredible "Pretty Little Missy" that featured the final trumpet solo Louis ever recorded in a studio (and it's a great one, too!). The only version in my collection is in crappy sound quality so that really would have made me flip. And since they got "We Have All the Time" from United Artists, why not include Louis's two Mitch Miller-produced singles from 1967, "No Time Is a Good Good-Bye Time" and "We're a Home"? Those would have also been especially rare treats.

And correct me if I'm wrong, but Hip-O Select is using the Universal catalog. Doesn't Universal own Decca and Brunswick recordings? Louis recorded an album for Brunswick in 1967 and 1968, "I Will Wait for You," that again, isn't exactly one for the time capsule but is deserving of release, which has never happened in the United States in the compact disc era. That album, according to my Itunes, clocked in at 31 minutes. Thus, disc 2 could have included the entire Brunswick album, the two United Artists singles from 1967 and "Pretty Little Missy" from 1969 and it still would have clocked in at under 80 minutes. And my goodness, it would have been a can't-miss for both newbies looking for the hits and for the hardened collector who might have been trying to piece together these scraps for years.

The packaging for the set is fine, with some lovely photos included in the booklet. The liner notes by Bill Dahl, a terrific blues writer, are fine though I could always find something to nitpick. Dahl doesn't seem to have had access to a large Armstrong reference library as his list of resources at the end of the notes are pretty sad, with no major Armstrong works of late listed. He does list a vague "Louis Armstrong Discography" with no details but I can assure you that it's not the essential one compiled by Jos Willems (one that can be partly searched on Google Books for free). Dahl is hung up on the "Hello, Dolly" session being recorded in a single session on April 18, 1964 but as Willems makes clear, it was actually recorded over three sessions (none April 18). And he also repeats the old myth about "We Have All the Time in the World" being recorded in London, when it was really done in New York. I know its nitpicking but there's some silly errors that could have been fixed with a little more research.

And one final odd thing: this set has been released with zero fanfare. As I mentioned earlier, the Ella Fitzgerald box got a "New York Times" review, it was released in stores and sold a bunch. I only knew of the Louis set because I received a Google Alert mentioning it...two days before it released! And I had to order it through Hip-O's website ( as it wasn't listed anywhere else, including Amazon (it's still not!). And when you go to the Hip-O site, you can search for "Louis Armstrong" and find it but otherwise, it was buried as the last release on the "Rock, Pop and Country" page. Weird...

But that, my dear readers, is that. If this sounds like a release that will fit your needs, head over to the Hip-O site, plunk down the $30 and have a ball. If you want to pass, by all means, pass (though this is a limited edition of 6,000 copies if that matters). It's not a groundbreaking release and it's not what it could have been, but it's Pops and the music is still pretty great. Have a great weekend!

Friday, July 23, 2010

There's No You

Recorded October 14, 1957
Track Time 6:28
Written by Hal Hopper and Tom Adair
Recorded in Los Angeles
Louis Armstrong, vocal; Herb Ellis, guitar
Originally released on Verve MG-V-8322
Currently available on CD: Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson
Available on Itunes? Yes

Earlier this week, my posting of "You Go To My Head" from the album Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson drew lots of positive feedback from my wonderful readers. People wrote in to tell me how much they loved the track (the great Desmond Polk was even inspired to write a poem about it!), while others agreed with my assessment that this album represents one of Louis's finest hours. However, multiple people also mentioned how to them, the album's high-point is "There's No You." I couldn't argue with that for a single minute.

"There No You" is a short track, running only 2:19. Louis only sings one chorus and he doesn't play any trumpet. But if you're not completely hypnotized by his vocal, I'll give you your money back. It's the kind of performance that is so low-key compared to Armstrong's usual operatic tendencies, it seems to have flown under the radar. For the performance, producer Norman Granz had the ingenious idea to back Louis's voice with the solitary sound of Herb Ellis's tender guitar. The chance to hear Louis in such a stripped down setting makes you appreciate his vocal that much more. This is strong stuff.

I've always been knocked out by "There's No You" but it wasn't until last November when I really felt the song's impact on other people. It was then when I took part in a daylong Louis Armstrong Symposium at the College of Staten Island. It was a fantastic day from top to bottom with multiple seminars on a variety of Armstrong-inspired topics. The entire day was spent listening to timeless Armstrong's tracks--Jimmy Leach's breakdown of Armstrong's "Star Dust" vocals was a special treat--but I don't think it was until the end of the day that everyone in attendance became so moved, they were speechless. Dan Morgenstern closed the bill with a summary of all the great happenings involving Louis these days and closed with a few essential recordings, including "When You're Smiling" and "Wolverine Blues." Everyone was digging it, that's for sure, but Dan had an ace up his sleeve: he closed with "There's No You." Many in the audience had never heard of it before. But when Louis's voice and Ellis's guitar came blasting out of the room's sound system, a silence came over the room that was almost spooky. Nobody moved, nobody coughed, nobody checked their watch. The room was still and when it was over, everyone was so emotionally drained, they didn't clap immediately. There was just that murmur of disbelief that comes when you're so touched, so moved by the power of a song you had never previously heard.

So without further ado, here's "There's No You." For those like me who have lived with it for years, listen to it again and bask in it. For those to whom this is a new treat, pay attention. Don't check your mail or update your Facebook, just listen and try not to be moved.

Well, there it is. I don't think there's anything left for me to say other than have a great weekend...and don't be surprised if you find yourself listening to that recording a couple of dozen more times.

Monday, July 19, 2010

You Go To My Head

Recorded October 14, 1957
Track Time 6:28
Written by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie
Recorded in Los Angeles
Louis Armstrong, vocal; Oscar Peterson, piano; Herb Ellis, guitar; Ray Brown, bass; Louie Bellson, drums
Originally released on Verve
Currently available on CD: Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson
Available on Itunes? Yes

When I somehow find the time to churn out a new blog, it usually comes in one of two varieties: the anniversary post or the completely random Itunes shuffle result. But occasionally, I listen to a Louis song that hits me so in between the eyes that I have to run to the computer and share it with the world (the perks of having a blog).

That's what happened to me today when I listened to Louis Armstrong's 1957 recording of "You Go To My Head." Full disclosure: this was not exactly a song I had never listened to before. As I've mentioned in this space before, I hold the album Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson in almost absurdly high estimation, ranking probably just behind the W. C. Handy tribute and Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography in my pantheon of favorite Louis long-playing albums. I also feel that it's one of Louis's most neglected outings in the jazz community, though I don't know why this is the case.

Perhaps because it represented something so very different in the Louis discography during this part of his career: no All Stars, no strings, no arrangements, no pop tunes. It's just Louis backed by a hall-of-fame quartet, given a dozen of the finest songs ever written to put his remarkable stamp on. For this project, I hail producer Norman Granz, one of my heroes. Granz had impeccable taste in musicians and songs and he really gave Louis first-class treatment during his too-short run of albums on the Verve label.

Of course, when mentioning Louis and Verve, I have to mention his three classic albums with Ella Fitzgerald, just perfect chunks of music that no amount of superlatives can do justice. Then there's Louis's two albums arranged by Russell Garcia, ones that found Louis in an the midst of a grueling pace that found him playing each evening in Las Vegas, then flying to Los Angeles every morning to record for Granz, traveling with abused chops on his face. Even with Louis in pain and with Garcia's somewhat overblown arrangements, those albums have some incredible moments, featuring some of Louis's most human moments on the trumpet (just listen to him push through "Stormy Weather" and try not to cry).

But for me, the Peterson album takes the cake. For one thing, Louis's trumpet was in better form than on the Garcia sessions of just two months prior. But there's something about hearing Louis with just an ace rhythm section that is so refreshing--and this is coming from the world's number one fan of the All Stars! But I think it's a perfect primer album for jazz fans who don't know much about Louis. The All Stars might reek too much of Dixieland, the "What a Wonderful World"-esque pop tunes might be pegged as too commercial and those world-changing early records could be hindered by poor sound quality to someone used to listening to jazz from the 1950s, 60s and beyond. I do not condone such reactions, but I know they exist.

But the Louis-meets-Peterson album sounds like a normal jazz album of the 50s, featuring choice standards, some ballads, some burners, a little bit of everything. And Louis rises to the occasion marvelously, contributing vocals that rival anything Sinatra or Billie Holiday or any other top singer was putting out during the same period. And on trumpet, his power on "Let's Fall in Love" is frightening, he handles the deft tempo of "Just One of Those Things" with ease and in the words of my mentor Lewis Porter, "out-Mileses Miles" on "Sweet Lorraine."

So you can that I love this album. Every few months, I'll give it a spin and it always moves me to no end. Last week, I brought my copy to work and listened to it three days in a row. Then, the other night I brought it in my car and listened to it once again while driving by myself. This time "You Go To My Head" came on and I don't know, even though I had heard it approximately 87 times prior, this time it really got me. The muted trumpet reading of the chorus is so fragile, so heartbreaking, its a masterpiece in itself. But then Louis sings and well, good night nurse. What a vocal! I mentioned Sinatra and Holiday, who each owned this song. Well, I'm not condoning the destruction of their records but I do think Louis's version should be mentioned with theirs. This is some DEEP stuff. Give it a listen and try to disagree:

Isn't that the warmest performance imaginable? The trumpet solo is so sober, so subdued, you might forget its Louis for a second. Except for that sound. Jesus Christ, what a sound! Even muted, nothing could subdue the pure sound of that horn. And the man barely leaves the melody but just infuses it with a lifetime of emotion that it just melts me into mush. Perhaps someone looking for the "Hotter Than That" virtuosity or the searing high notes of "St. Louis Blues," to name two songs I've shared in the last week or so, might be disappointed. But I don't know, it moves me tremendously.

But for reason #273 of why Louis was simply the greatest, who else could play the trumpet like that, set aside his instrument and deliver such a moving vocal? Some props must go to lyricist Haven Gillespie, whose lyrics are of a simply can't-miss quality. Anyone who has loved and lost can identify with these lyrics. Louis still radiates his usual warmth--pronouncing "burgundy" as "boigundy," delivering a perfect scat run, etc.--giving it a different spin then say, Sinatra's tone of despair. But it's still very subdued, very powerful and I think touches the listener in a different way, a way that states that yes, love hurts but it's always worth the heartache as long as you keep on smiling. Or in Louis's parlance...boppa do zot!

Well, that's all I have for tonight. I'd love to hear other opinions on this song and especially this album. It's back to work for me tomorrow...and I'll probably be spinning it one more time.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

St. Louis Blues

Recorded July 13, 1954
Track Time 8:52
Written by W. C. Handy
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Trummy Young, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Billy Kyle, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Barrett Deems, drums; Velma Middleton, vocal
Originally released on Columbia CL 591
Currently available on CD: Yes, the 1997 reissue is still the way to go (the one with the bonus tracks)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Hello and welcome to the three-year anniversary post for this madcap labor of love for mine. Three years ago today, I was a struggling painter with a head full of Louis Armstrong ideas and nowhere to share them. When I started this blog, I thought it would be fun to connect with other Louis nuts but otherwise, I thought it would be a fun way to pass the time, nothing more, nothing less.

Well, in order, this blog helped get me on WBGO radio, it got me to give presentations at the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans, got me a book deal and finally, landed me in the job of my dreams at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Note to parents: get your kids a blog!

Usually on these days, I like to do something special, such as last year when I shared the audio to Louis's half-hour appearance on the BBC's "Be My Guest" radio program in July 1968 (still up, if you want to hear's great!). I was thinking about what to do for this anniversary posting and couldn't come up with any ideas until I began poking around Jos Willems's Armstrong discography, "All of Me." All of a sudden, it dawned on me for the first time in three years: my first post was on July 13, 2008. On July 13, 1954, Louis Armstrong recorded "St. Louis Blues" for the album Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy--the single track that blew my mind and started me on this path. How had I not realized this before?

Thus, it became pretty easy to put it all together. A question a lot of people ask me is, "How did you get into Louis Armstrong?" Well, that version of "St. Louis Blues" pretty much has everything to do with it. If you indulge me for a few paragraphs, here's the answer to that story.

I always like to say that I was born in 1980...and I've always hated just about all popular music made after 1980! My brother got me into Motown which kept me going into elementary school (my father still has a drawing in crayon I did in first grade of Stevie Wonder at the Apollo). Then I went backwards and got heavily into 1950s rock and roll, doo wop, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, you name it. Then when I got to seventh and eighth grade, I went WAY back to ragtime and especially to vaudeville and began listening to Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson (don't worry, I knew how to lie about hip-hop and alternative music, sparing me from many eighth grade beatings).

At the same time, I've always been an old movie buff. Well, in eighth grade, I went through a Woody Allen phase and saw the movie "Sleeper." When I heard the New Orleans jazz on the soundtrack, done by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, my goodness, I couldn't stop moving. I loved it but I didn't know what it was or where to go. Then, a few months later, I caught the "Glenn Miller Story" with Jimmy Stewart. Well, when Pops comes out and does "Basin Street," I was hooked. His singing was so magnetic but in the closing ensembles, I heard something that sounded like the music in "Sleeper." I decided to do some further exploration...

In October 1995, at the beginning of my freshman year in high school, I went to my local library and checked out a Columbia CD, "Louis Armstrong: 16 Most Requested Songs." It was a compilation of Armstrong's 1950s recordings for Columbia (liner notes by George Avakian, who is now a friend) and from track one, "Mack the Knife," I immersed myself in it. But all was well and good until I got to track 14, "St. Louis Blues" from the "Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy." That track, at nearly nine minutes long, completely wrecked me. With each passing minute, I felt my heart racing, until Armstrong's breathtaking rideout choruses. Something in my brain snapped right then and there. I went back to my library and began checking out every Armstrong disc they had. And the rest is history...

Flash-forward 15 years and here I am today. So though I was already digging Pops before that version of "St. Louis Blues," it was really that performance that made me feel a certain way about music and life that I had never felt before. And I still feel that way every time I hear Louis. And I STILL feel that way every time I listen to that version of "St. Louis Blues."

I don't think I have to get all blow-by-blow for this track as it pretty much speaks for itself. But I will add a few nuggets. First, one of the unsung heroes of the Handy album was its producer, George Avakian, whose pioneering skill with a razor blade brought the concept of splicing and editing music from multiple takes to the level of high art. However, on "St. Louis Blues," Avakian didn't have to use his razor once. Thanks to courtesy of George and David Ostwald, I was able to listen to the suriving session takes for the 1954 "St. Louis Blues," an absolute treat that perhaps Sony can share with the rest of the world someday (2014, Sony, is the 60th better be ready).

Anyway, after a bunch of false starts trying to nail the introduction, Louis and the All Stars caught a wave and rode it thrillingly for nearly nine minutes, producing a remarkably exciting take, leading to all the band members to shout, "Wail! Wail!" upon its completion. Let's just say if Norman Granz was in the control booth, that take would have been just fine and no one would have complained.

But fortunately, George Avakian was in the booth and after some discussions and such (which I deal with in my forthcoming--May 3, 2011, officially now--book), Avakian called for another take. This is what happened. This is what changed my life:

Phew, it still gets my heart racing. Pops's lead is simply magical in the beginning as he takes a full chorus, spurred on by the rocking drums of Barrett Deems. I should point out that after Velma Middleton's first vocal go-around, Louis leads the ensemble for a chorus, digging out one of his old blues solos, one he originally featured on "Terrible Blues" in 1924 and on the spontaneous blues from the 1938 Martin Block jam session with vocals by Jack Teagarden and Fats Waller (Muggsy Spanier also borrowed it for his tremendous Commodore version of "Memphis Blues" from 1944). Louis also played it during the first complete alternate take of "St. Louis Blues" so he definitely wanted it to be a part of this performance.

And how about Trummy Young! That must be one the filthiest trombone solos in the history of recorded jazz. Louis began performing this routine almost nightly in 1955 and though Trummy always sounded excellent, he never again got quite as down and dirty (Billy Kyle's descending comping also works well).

But Pops's rideout lead is something to live for. Those high notes, that tone, my goodness, with the band absolutely rocking behind him. Play it again. Play it LOUD.

Well, that's my story. As usual, (and I know this sounds like a Las Vegas lounge act), I couldn't do it without my readers so thanks to anyone who has ever written me even a single word of thanks or encouragement to keep this project pounding ahead for another years. And thank Pops for, without him, who knows where I would be today (penning an Al Jolson blog perhaps?). Thanks, again!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Hotter Than That

Recorded December 13, 1927
Track Time 3:05
Written by Lil Hardin
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Lonnie Johnson, guitar; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8535
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Since I teased "Hotter Than That" the other day, the weather broke here in New Jersey and has actually turned into a pretty perfect breezy 85 degrees out as I write this. So why am I not outside enjoying it? Good question. But the baby's taking a nap and the wife is out so during this short window, dear readers, I belong to you! So enough nonsense, let's talk about "Hotter Than That," one of the high points of the entire vaunted Hot Five series.

"Hotter Than That" comes from the final session featuring the original Hot Five group of Louis, Kid Ory, Johnny Dodds, Lil Hardin Armstrong and Johnny St. Cry (plus an added special guest, as we'll discuss in a minute). The next time Louis fronted a "Hot Five" group in a studio, the personnel would be completely different, though with the same epic results. The team of Louis and Earl Hines would prove to make some pretty landmark recordings in 1928.

Arguably, Louis had outgrown his colleagues in this first edition of the Hot Five. These were all great musicians but none of them had the solo brilliance of Pops, whose towering solos and virtuosic ensemble playing led him to dominate almost all of the early Hot Fives. When listening to those recordings today, Ory, Dodds, Hardin and St. Cyr have their moments but really, it's the Louis Armstrong Show. But when George Mitchell sat in for a session in 1926 (released under the name The New Orleans Wanderers), the whole group seemed to relax and teamed up to make some truly rocking New Orleans ensemble work. Louis--playing nightly with Erskine Tate's "symphony orchestra"--was growing by leaps and bounds and the old-fashioned New Orleans-styled ensembles were no longer enough to contain him.

But man, did this edition of the Hot Five go out with a bang! After a detour through the recordings of the Hot Seven, the original Hot Five returned in 1927 to record nine more songs between September and December, waxing classics like "Put 'Em Down Blues," "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" and "Once In A While." After recording that last number on December 10, the Hot Five welcomed a very special guest into the studio in the form of New Orleans guitarist Lonnie Johnson. Johnson, who was two years older than Louis, had been a tremendously popular OKeh recording artist, cutting 130 tunes for the label between 1925 and 1932 (checking my Itunes, Louis recorded 190 songs for OKeh during that same period, including work as a sideman and alternate takes...not bad!).

Teaming Armstrong and Johnson was a brilliant move. Today, Johnson is primarily known for his blues work and sure enough, he contributes mightily to two blues he recorded with the Hot Five, "I'm Not Rough" and "Savoy Blues" (as Marty Grosz once pointed out, Johnson more or less invented rock and roll guitar playing with his stinging triplets on "I'm Not Rough"). But Johnson was also a tremendous jazz musician. I absolutely adore Eddie Lang but the unabashed claims that Lang was the first jazz guitar virtuoso give me pause. Lang was right there around the same time as Johnson but I'd give the edge to Lonnie, who was really tearing out on his guitar in the mid-20s with some dazzling single-string work. It's a shame that Johnson has been pigeonholed as being just a blues musician. The man could do it all.

And that talent definitely can be appreciated on "Hotter Than That," one of the most joyous recordings in jazz history. The song was credited to Armstrong's wife of the time, Lillian Hardin Armstrong, but there's not too much of melody present. Instead, it's more or less a jam on the chords to "Bill Bailey." As I've pointed out before, it's also the same changes as "Tiger Rag," but Louis played "Tiger Rag" in a different key; it wasn't until I spoke to other musicians on the scene today who told me that in this key, it's "Bill Bailey" changes and that's good enough for me. (Besides, they only jam on the "chorus" strain, leaving out any of "Tiger Rag's" earlier strains.)

I've had the audio posted for a few days but if you haven't heard it, here it is again (and if you have heard it, really, is there a better way to spend three minutes and five seconds?):

From the opening eight-bar introduction, the band sounds completely warmed up, like they had been playing this tune for 20 minutes. It's all hands on deck for the intro, with Johnson's single-string lines contributing another unique voice to the polyphonic ensemble. But once they get into the main strain, Louis takes over, I guess playing Hardin's melody, but who knows how much of this was improvised (apparently, there is a lead sheet at the Library of Congress but I have never seen it). Once Louis takes over, he's blowing over a very pushing rhythm section. Lil's idea of comping was four-chords-to-the-bar, which Louis once wrote was the way they did it in New Orleans and that his wife was very good at it. But on top of Lil's work, there's the duel strings of Johnson's guitar and St. Cyr's banjo, each also going four-beats-to-the-bar. It's not exactly Freddie Green and the Basie band but they do keep things exciting.

Louis is so damn relaxed and flowing during that first chorus as he never stops swinging for a second. His break is perfectly executed and rhythmically, he's both daring and completely logical. What more can be said? Johnny Dodds takes over, opening with a somewhat angry note before launching into a hot solo (notice he's only backed by Lil as the strings take a breather). I love Dodds, even though I can admit that his lines didn't exactly swing. But his sound is great and there's a spiky urgency to his playing that always makes it plenty hot and plenty exciting.

But Dodds's outing is simply the appetizer before the main course. Do you perchance have a friend who doesn't really know what scat singing is about? Or have you ever heard a pop performer and an "American Idol" contestant break out into the weird scat escapade to the roar of the crowd's approval? Well, grab that friend or pay attention to yourself because Louis Armstrong is about to give a scat singing clinic. Never mind that each of his syllables is perfectly chosen; what makes his work particularly genius is the rhythm. It's one of his most hornlike scat solos, up to and including the break. But nothing quite prepares you for the tension of Louis's phrasing after his break; he's almost singing to a different tempo but everything still fits beautifully. Just a remarkable outing.

And I haven't even mentioned Lonnie Johnson yet! Do you see what I mean? The man's a guitar monster. Pops's scatting is the main event but if you were able to silence it and just focus on Johnson's guitar playing, he's contributing a helluva solo, full of single-string ideas that would influence guitarists for generations. And his free-form "conversation" with Louis is alone worth the price of admission (and if you had to pay to listen to this, I hope you're getting your money's worth!). Just listen to how Johnson bends his guitar strings to mimic Louis's moans or how Louis's little "rip" in his last break is expertly answered by Johnson's slashing guitar.

However, this tempo-less interlude comes to an abrupt ending with the sound of Lil's pounding piano setting the tempo for a short outing by Kid Ory that pretty much defines his classic style. But think of Ory's solo as where jazz has been; then listen to Louis's break and hear where it was going. It's a dizzying upward ascent that leads to a series of simple sounding, yet demanding high-note pairings. My goodness, the man is pretty much inventing the Swing Era with those two little beeps; how many trumpet sections would borrow such phrasings? It's every tub from that point on with everyone pitching in equally but I don't know how you can focus on anything but Louis's lead, which really explodes during a stop-time section towards the end of the chorus. Louis and Lonnie then engage in one more exciting conversation, both virtuosos tossing phrases back and forth with ease. Louis was always inspired on the Hot Fives and Sevens but when he really had someone of his stature to prod him, stand back. We heard that with Sidney Bechet, we're hearing it now with Johnson and goodness knows we'd hear it with Hines in the following year. Just a wondrous recording from start to finish.

30 years later, Louis revisited "Hotter Than That" for his triumphant "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography" album for Decca. To me, it's a highlight of that remarkable box but it's never mentioned with numbers like "When You're Smiling" or "King of the Zulus." And I think I know why: on those songs, Louis (I think) surpassed his original versions. I'm going to start right off by saying that the 1957 "Hotter Than That" does not surpass the 1927 version. But it's still a remarkably exciting recording and Louis is in astoundingly good form from start to finish, as are the All Stars. Give a listen and see what you think:

See what I mean? If the 1927 version wasn't so towering, I think more people would be flipping for this one, and that's perfectly understandable. But based on its own merits, I think the later version is wonderful. For most of the "Autobiography," drummer Barrett Deems was restricted to playing a closed hi-hat but on "Hotter Than That," he got to open it a bit more and in effect, was allowed to really drive the band. This is the famed Armstrong-Trummy Young-Edmond Hall edition and no small group in this history of this kind of jazz was hotter, says I (and Dizzy Gillespie, who once told Deems just that, according to my friend Phil Person). The opening of the 1927 record was exciting but this one, in today's parlance, simply kicks ass.

Like the original, Louis takes the first chorus by himself and it's a great example of Louis's playing at this tempo in this period of his life. The 1927 Louis played more notes and quicker runs and contributed a lot of jaw-dropping feats of dexterity that 1957 Louis could no longer do. But later Louis had the chops, he had that power, that unbelievable upper register, not to mention ferocious swing and an ability to improvise like he was telling a story. Every note of the 1957 solo is perfectly placed and can be hummed back without a problem. And the sheer power of that high note More proof that there is more than one kind of virtuosity; fast fingering is nice and all but don't miss the pure sound of his upper register.

Edmond Hall's up next and he scores with a typically agitated solo, building down at the start before turing up the heat after his break. For the scat chorus, Louis comes up with something entirely fresh and again, something that reflects the Louis of 1957. The daredevil repeated motif from 1927 is gone but what's replaced it is still terrifically swinging. Louis grew more melodic over the years and that's readily apparent here, to the point where he almost sounds like he wants to start singing words at one point.

And how about a hand for guitar great George Barnes. Barnes's lemony electric guitar tone might sound like a odd fit in what supposed to be a recreation of music from the 1920s, but there's no denying that Barnes was a great on the instrument and he compliments Louis very well. The conversation works well, too, as Barnes expertly repeats just about all of Louis's phrases to the guitar. Everything sounds so natural coming out of Barnes's axe that it's just further proof that Louis invented the language for ALL instruments!

After a short interlude by Deems, Trummy Young uncorks an exciting half-chorus that defines his style as much as Ory's did his on the original. Then Louis amazingly climbs that spiral staircase again, replicating the form of the original break, if not repeating it note- for-note. He follows the pattern of the original with those two-note concert Bb pairings but takes a different path during the stop-time section. Whereas younger Louis phrased his improvisation as if on a tightrope, Louis just bludgeons the listener with pure power and swing. For one thing, he hits a higher note than he did on the original right before the break but even during the break, he swings a series of quarter notes (not easy to do) before capping it off with another singable phrase ending on a high note.

The only big difference between this version and the original comes at the end where the remake gets rid of any last minute trading between the trumpet and guitar. Instead, it's a full-blown All Stars ending of the period and I think it's a exciting way to end such a blood-pumping performance, Louis ending with a sky-high Eb that he didn't touch back on the original, holding it and shaking it to prove that he had a lot of life left in that old horn of his.

Okay, the baby is stirring so I'm going to call it quits for "Hotter Than That." I hope you enjoyed this timeless, truly hot music...preferably listened to in an air conditioned room! Nothing will ever hotter than that, huh?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Hotter Than That

It's hot out. I don't mean warm; it is HOT. Blistering, sweltering, just all around awful. But as hot as it is outside, nothing will ever be hotter than this:

No, nothing will ever be "Hotter Than That"! Okay, time to enjoy the air conditioning. More to come soon...

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Spend 4th of July Weekend With Pops!

Hey everyone. It's July 4 weekend and that's a good time to be a Louis Armstrong fan (when isn't it?). Though he was later found out to be born on August 4, 1901, Armstrong spent his entire life believing he was born on July 4, 1900. Thus, for many Pops fanatics, Louis Armstrong and July 4 will always be linked together (and besides, we celebrate the August 4 one, too...the more the merrier!). If you're in the NY area, you'll have a ball by celebrating the fourth at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, my home base these days. In addition to having tours all day on Sunday, they'll be featuring a live performance by vocalist Gwyn Jay All whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the Armstrong Archives the other day. Allen is a true Pops worshipper who will be performing self-penned tribute songs to Louis, as well as unique takes on Armstrong classics such as "Someday" and "Now You Has Jazz." And it's always a good time when visiting the Armstrong House, as can be seen in this neat little piece produced by WNYC and featuring Assistant Director Deslyn Dyer. Click here for this virtual tour of casa de Pops.

If you prefer to stay home, make sure your radio is tuned to WKCR of Columbia University, offering their annual Louis Armstrong Birthday Broadcast. If the radio doesn't work, keep a computer nearby and go to to stream the audio live.

And as my good friend Al Basile pointed out to me last year, Louis Armstrong died on July 6, 1971 so ideally, a "birth to the death" marathon of Armstrong from the fourth through the sixth is perhaps the best way to pay tribute to Mr. Strong. And speaking of the great man's death, NBC's coverage of that fateful day actually appeared on YouTube last year at this time and it's still up. Here it is again:

And don't forget to listen to Louis and Earl Hines explode on 1928's "Fireworks"!

Have a happy fourth...and happy birthday (number one) to Pops!