Friday, August 20, 2010

80 Years of "Confessin'" Part 2: The Big Band Versions

Hello and welcome back to the second part of my four-part series on Louis Armstrong's history with "I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)." After recording the original in 1930, Louis Armstrong had a new song that became a staple of his repertoire. When he was remaking a lot of his earlier hits for Decca in the late 30s, it was a no-brainer to take another stab at "Confessin'," which is what Louis did on April 25, 1939. Without further ado, let's give it a listen:


The remake follows the 1930 arrangement to the tee, though you can tell how far jazz had come in nine years by the completely different feel of the remake. Gone is the tuba, the plodding rhythm, the steel guitar. In place of the guitar, alto saxophonist Charlie Holmes takes a bluesy solo leading into Armstrong's vocal. Armstrong sang it wonderfully in 1930 but there's something about the quality of his 1930s/Decca voice that can't be touched. It's so clear and so damn charming. From the start, Louis is already recasting the melody in a new light, singing "tell me do you love me too" on one pitch. A bit of the intensity of the 1930 vocal is lost but in its place is an unmistakable maturity; he delivers the lyrics and the asides with heartfelt emotion, never pushing matters too hard (those little hums in between the lines are a delight).

Where Lawrence Brown took the trombone solo on the original, the remake features another hall-of-famer with a somewhat brash outing by J. C. Higginbotham. Armstrong's opening break is perfectly poised and singable; the man improvised in compositions. He solos beautifully, though he eliminates what was originally the "Pick-A-Rib" break and instead ends with some high notes, passing the ball to the tenor of Bingie Madison who does all right with it. But then it's passion time as Louis picks up his golden horn and blows the melody an octave higher to close out the performance. Again, a little of the daring intensity of the original is gone but the pure beauty of Armstrong's tone and the power of his phrases gives me the chills more on this one than the 1930 version. And dig that closing cadenza, where Pops throws in a bit of everything, including a quote from "Dixie"! Where he finished low in 1930, he finishes high in 1939. A glorious ending to a glorious record.

Armstrong had been performing "Confessin'" live for pretty much the entire decade of the 1930s so it's nice to be able to hear how he performed it live during the same period. Here he is live at the Cotton Club, a performance made public by my dear, departed friend, Gosta Hagglof. Give a listen to this gem, recorded live on March 24, 1940:


This version follows the pattern of the Decca remake for its first half. Louis sings it in almost the same fashion and hell, even Higgy pretty much takes the same trombone solo, which was obviously set in stone by this point. But the main differences occur when Louis picks up his trumpet. He opens with another dazzling break that's completely different than the two studio ones we've heard. His improvisation is also different and just as effective...until the bridge. I wonder what was supposed to happen here; in both previous versions, Armstrong handed it off to the saxohpone, but he here, he's obviously in a blowing mood, so he keeps on going. Maybe he forgot he was supposed to quit or maybe he just had a brain fart but either way, in a rare moment of humanness, Louis fluffs a phrase! But don't worry, Superman quickly throws his cape on and he turns the fluff into an ascending gliss, the audible equivilent to a football player almost fumbling a ball before making the recovery. Phew...

But once he gets past his mistake, he keeps blowing with stunning force. This is the first time we've heard Louis on the bridge of this song and fortunately, it's not the last time we're going to hear it. This bridge really brought something out in him and he rarely ended it the same way twice. This one features a motive that he would return to, repeating a four-note run a couple of times before turning it into a quicksilver chromatic run, topping it off with another giant gliss. Still cooking, Armstrong ends the piece as he did the studio performance, with some macho upper register playing of the melody and another extended cadenza, complete with "Dixie" and high-notes. It's a very special performance for the amount of trumpet it featured because not every Armstrong "Confessin'" from the period followed the same pattern. On an edited "Jubilee" broadcast version, Louis played right through the ending, while on a 1945 live version, he played half of the final eight bars before switching to voice to scat out that final cadenza. I'm going to close today by sharing one from October 5, 1944 that features Louis going back to the vocal after the trumpet bridge. His scat cadenza is note perfect and would rarely change:


By that point, you can hear that saxophonist Teddy McRae has taken over the trombone spot but otherwise, Louis is magnificent from top to bottom. I hope you enjoyed all these fantastic big band versions but just a few months after this 1944 broadcast, Louis would begin making a series of very special small-group versions of the tune. For those, come back at the start of the week...til then!

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