When we last left off with the saga of Louis Armstrong and "Confessin'," ol' Pops had been killing the tune with his big band for years, still coming up with new ideas on the last broadcast version I shared from October 1944. Though he continued to perform it with his big band in the next couple of years, our attention today will focus on some very special all-star small group version from the mid-40s.
The first comes from a magical V-Disc session from December 7, 1944. A terrific congregation of musicians had already been assembled for this midnight session: Bobby Hackett on cornet, Jack Teagarden on trombone, Ernie Caceres on clarinet, Nick Caiazza on tenor saxophone, Johnny Guarnieri on piano, Herb Ellis on guitar, Al Hall on bass and Cozy Cole on drums--pretty good, eh? Well, according to eyewitness George T. Simon, Louis dropped in unexpectedly and the whole event turned into a giant celebration for Pops. After all the salutations and merry greetings, it was decided that Louis record a few numbers with the musicians on hand. First off, Pops stepped into what was supposed to be a blues feature for the trombones of Teagarden and Lou McGarity, and completely stole the show with chorus after chorus of inspired blowing. Th song was retitled "Jack-Armstrong Blues" and two wonderful takes survive, proof that Pops was in fine blowing spirit (though you'll have to wait to hear those until another day, my children...).
Then it was decided to whip up a feature for Pops...and what better than "Confessin'" With no arrangement, the horns led by Hackett devised some simple whole-note harmonies, which is really all Pops needed, and the rest is history. Two marvelous takes were recorded with the second being the winner. I'm only going to share that one as to not confuse anyone; here 'tis!
Isn't that magical? The sound quality is absolutely superb, especially in how it captures Louis's voice. The rhythm section is also extraordinarily recorded with Guarnieri's pitch-perfect accompaniment sharing the spotlight with Louis's vocal while Cozy Cole's drumming keeps things moving softly, but emphatically. Louis handing the ball to Jack Teagarden, of course, is foreshadowing the future formation of Louis's All Stars, which was still almost three full years away. Nevertheless, it's recordings like this that demonstrate how natural Pops sounded with a small group (he sounded natural with the big band, too, but hey if you can get away with paying six musicians instead of sixteen, why argue?). And I haven't said a word about Louis's spectacular trumpet solo, which is similar to what he was playing at the time, but much better recorded (and in the break at the end of the bridge, he eschews his quick chromatic run for a big, fat gliss). One of my all-time favorite versions.
A little over a month later, Louis was surrounded by yet another all-star aggregation, this time for the second Esquire jazz concert, Louis's portion taking place in New Orleans. This time, Louis was surrounded by J. C. Higginbotham on trombone, James P. Johnson on piano, Richard Alexis on bass, Paul Barbarin on drums and last, but not least, Sidney Bechet on soprano saxophone. I already blogged about this version back in January when I covered Armstrong's adversarial relationship with Bechet. For the whole story of their playing at this concert, click here. But for "Confessin'," all I have to say is that Louis and Bechet butted heads in rehearsal and Louis, knowing Bechet's tendency to dominate trumpet players, completely obliterated Bechet the night of the concert, playing over him and never allowing him to take a single solo in their four numbers together! Here's the audio, followed by what I wrote about this performance in January:
This time, Higgy and Bechet behave themselves in the first chorus, allowing Armstrong to have the spotlight to play the melody (maybe he beat them into submission during "Back O'Town"). Higgy takes an out-of-this-world break before Pops croons the melody beautifully as usual. Armstrong then instructs Higginbotham to take eight bars but even during this brief solo, Armstrong starts turning up the volume on his backing, making sure Bechet doesn't get a word in. Then it's Armstrong's turn for 16 spectacular bars topped off by an absolutely stunning break. The crowd cheers wildly and Armstrong, carried away a bit, continues playing for a second until he realizes it's time to close the number out with a vocal. The only person not impressed? Bechet, who, immediately after the break plays perhaps the most demeaning note in jazz history. It's a sarcastic little moan that seems to say, "Oh wow, that's SOOO impressive...big deal!" Makes me laugh every time. Still, he can't steal Armstrong's thunder. What a feature!
Two years later, Louis's career was at a crossroads epitomized at a February 1947 concert at Carnegie Hall where Armstrong spent the first half playing with Edmond Hall's sextet and the second half with his own big band. Armstrong was super energized during the small group portion of the program and the next day, the critics couldn't stop raving about it. Clearly, a performance like "Confessin'" was cause for celebration. I know I'm repeating myself, but this is a pretty spectacular version:
This version starts off with Louis playing the melody, the first time we've ever heard this (and it won't be the last). He sets the tempo unaccompanied (slower than normal) before taking eight relaxed bars (that's Hall's trumpeter Irving "Mouse" Randolph who swoops in before the vocal). The vocal is gorgeous as usual, but this version is notable for its trumpet playing. The tempo is so slow that Louis doesn't have to hand the ball over to anyone else in the band. He has enough time to pick up his horn and he starts right in by blowing on the "A" sections. This, too, is something we haven't heard in a while as Louis almost always came in on the bridge. But here, he's front and center for 16 bars of brand new playing, taking a few breaks and overall sounding simply sublime (there's even a hint of "The Gypsy" in bar 14). Armstrong powers into the bridge with a gliss to a high note, a touch he would revisit in future years, before ending his solo with a dramatic break with a pause that kills me every time. He ends with the vocal but that trumpet solo is the killer and to me, this was the highlight of the Carnegie Hall performance.
(By the way, ever wonder what Louis looked like that night? The legendary photographer William P. Gottlieb took some photos of Louis in his "afro" phase, photos that are now available through the Library of Congress. Dig it!)
That ends the story for now but needless to say, there's plenty more "Confessin'" to do as part four will cover the All Stars years. But before I go, a quick plug for my New York friends: tonight, August 24, I'll be at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem where I'll be reprising a presentation I recently gave at the Satchmo Summerfest about Louis's relationship with New Orleans told completely in video footage of Pops. It's a free event and should be a lot of fun, so if you could make it, come on by and say hello. And yes, in case you were wondering, the Museum's recent acquisition of the Bill Savory collection does include some Pops and Museum Director Loren Schoenberg was gracious enough to play some of it for me recently. Some terrific stuff, but that's a topic for another day. I will say that Loren did give me a quick private tour of the Savory collection last week and the stuff I heard has been rattling around my brain since then. I may be too young to have experienced the Swing Era, but I'm glad to be coming along now for the new Swing Era, courtesy of the Savory Collection and the National Jazz Museum! Til next time...