Friday, August 27, 2010

80 Years of "Confessin'" Part 4: The All Stars

When we last left our hero, he had been performing "I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)" with a series of different small groups in the mid-40s, groups that eventually led to the formation of the All Stars in 1947. "Confessin'" seems to have been absent from the group's repertoire for its first year of existence but there are multiple surviving versions from late 1948 and 1949 broadcasts. They're pretty similar so I'm going to pick the better sounding one from the Hollywood Empire, March 1949 (one of Sid Catlett's last dates with the All Stars). Give it a listen and then we'll talk amongst ourselves:

For those who were with me last time, you'll hear that Pops must have especially liked the way this song turned out at Carnegie Hall in February 1947 this version follows that one to a tee. Louis opens with a lovely half-chorus of melody before delivering that vocal, just as heartfelt as it was in 1930 (Earl Hines's piano is a little busy behind Pops at times but it doesn't bother me; in fact his tremolo during the bridge works very well).

But the real meat comes with the delicious trumpet solo, Pops stretching out for 24 bars. He opens with a signature phrase before he starts floating through the bar lines in the first eight bars. His next eight are a little more set but he delivers them beautifully, all of it building up to that high gliss at the start of the bridge. Man, everyone really gets into it! Catlett begins rolling on the snare, Teagarden and Bigard hold the note with him, Hines starts with another tremolo....some dramatic stuff! Pops really knew how to build up to a climax, huh? Catlett's heavy rolls could move mountains, spurring Pops higher and higher right into that terrific bridge. I love those earlier versions, but Pops did play more trumpet in his All Stars renditions and for that, we should be thankful. From there, Louis decides to end on a vocal (again, listen to Hines, quoting Louis's favorite "Drdla Souvenir" lick). Louis's closing scat is in there and puts the finishing touch on a breathtaking performance.

And that, for the most part is that, my friend. There are other versions of "Confessin'" from the All Stars years, as we'll soon hear, but for the most part, "Confessin'" was retired in the 1950s, called out for special occasions or when requested. As usual, one should never make such blanket assumptions about the All Stars but I've seen enough set lists from the 1950s and 1960s to know that "Confessin'" never again became a regular part of the show. Why? I think it was pushed out because of the popularity of "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" and "La Vie En Rose" during the era. Seriously, how many slow love songs could Pops play in one night? "Kiss" and "La Vie" were recent hits and were filled with wondrous trumpet playing so I think "Confessin'" had to take a back seat.

Interestingly, Louis continued performing "Confessin'" on television for years to come. Now's the time when I wish all of my readers could meet me in New York City for a field trip or something because one of the greatest "Confessin's" was done on the "Steve Allen Show" on May 25, 1958, a version that I have only seen at the Museum of Television and Radio in the City, but boy, what an impression it left on me! On it, Louis plays some melody, sings a chorus, then enters with the trumpet on the bridge...and plays until the end...up to and including his 1930s closing cadenza, complete with "Dixie" quote! I'd kill to see it again, but I've never seen it outside of the Museum. There's another fantastic "Confessin'" from the "Frank Sinatra Show" in 1952. That one fortunately is available on a commercial DVD, "Louis Armstrong: The Portrait Collection," but it's never showed up online so I can't share it here (but for my NY friends, I will be sharing it this coming Tuesday night at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem). But if you can check out the DVD, you'll be blown away, I assure you.

In July 1953, Louis spent nearly the entire month at the Blue Note in Chicago. Many broadcasts survive from this engagement and on two occasions, Louis beat out requests for "Confessin'." Barney Bigard later remembered Louis blowing his chops out once at the Blue Note and this had to be the engagement he remembered because on of the "Confessin's" features only a half-chorus of hesitating trumpet before Louis takes it out with just a single vocal chorus, obviously knowing he didn't have the lip to blow it out of the park that night.

But the broadcast from July 29, 1953 was quite a different story. On that night, Louis's chops were simply in stunning form (there's an incredible "Royal Garden Blues" from that night that I've shared in the past). Louis was feeling so good that he managed to take a simple request and turn it into the "Confessin'" to end all "Confessin's." Dave Whitney and Phil Person are just two of the Louis nuts I know who love this version; I know I've said this before but you know, this might be my all-time favorite version of "Confessin'." Why? Listen for yourself:

See? Louis was feeling so good that he takes an entire chorus right up front. He doesn't improvise like a wild man, but hearing the master play an entire chorus of lead is a pretty special experience. Once again, the vocal is a delight, Louis receiving sympathetic support from Trummy Young's held notes, Barney Bigard's rippling arpeggios and the subtly swinging rhythm section of Marty Napoleon, Milt Hinton and Cozy Cole (what a band!).

But Louis is only getting warmed for his trumpet spot. Though he hadn't probably played this song in a while, Louis still has the set framework of his solo in mind, but he does a fair share of improvising throughout, sounding very strong. The high note still rules during the bridge, Cozy laying down the backbeats with Trummy and Barney providing some insistent riffs. But the whole thing builds and builds to that break, one of the greatest Louis ever took on this song, ending higher than usual, rather than his usual mid-register-ending to the break. It draws spontaneous applause from the audience and Louis sounds positively thrilled when he gets back to the microphone to close out the song with the vocal. All in all, this version clocks in at nearly six minutes and for all that trumpet playing, it's a "Confessin'" that's tough to top.

After that, except for those television versions, we have to skip to September 1961 for the next--and final--version of "Confessin'" by the All Stars. The occasion was a dance in the middle of Pottstown, PA--just another one-nighter for the group. Perhaps it was a request or perhaps it was an example of Louis calling slightly different material on dance dates (as testified to by clarinetist in this version of the group Joe Darensbourg), but without any explanation, Louis called the song one more time. As was the case with other ballad performances in the 1960s like "Kiss to Build a Dream On" and "La Vie En Rose," Louis preferred to deliver it as slowly as humanly possible. Thus, this version is also nearly six minutes, but it doesn't have as much trumpet as the one we just heard. Still, 60-year-old Pops, in the middle of nowhere, reprising his hit of 31 years earlier and still infusing it with so much passion, it's all pretty special. Dig it (and thanks to Phil Person for correcting the pitch!):

Like the Blue Note version, Louis opens with a full chorus of melody, sounding great once again. That opening trumpet solo is over two minutes long--for only 32 bars of music!--but Louis sounds completely at ease throughout it. After another charming vocal, it's trumpet time. Perhaps knowing the crawling pace of this song was taking plenty of time, Louis only takes the bridge on his horn. For those looking for the fireworks we have just heard in the other versions, you might be disappointed; because Louis starts right in on the bridge, there's no dramatic build-up to that climactic high note. Instead, Louis packs a lot of information into only eight bars, starting with melody and gradually building up to the break. We've heard Pops take plenty of breaks on this song by this point, but this one features one missed note that always makes me sad. It comes at the halfway point of the break and it's just a simple wrong note...yes, Virginia, Pops was human. But the first part of the break is great and the end of it is STUNNING. The power, those closing high note, that! The wrong note only lasts a half-a-second, but it always leaves me thinking, "Damn, if he didn't hit that clam, this would be one for the pantheon." Nevertheless, I still think its a mighty fine way to end this four-part tour.

Of course, in a perfect world, I'd end with another unavailable video clip of Louis's final performance of the tune on a 1970 episode of the "Mike Douglas Show" when he sang it onstage to his wife Lucille, an absolutely beautiful moment of television. Perhaps, one day the world will be able to see such a clip but for now you just have to take my word for it. Anyway, I think Pops has confessed enough love to last a lifetime over these last few entries....soak it all in, call up a loved one and confess to them and be back early next week for the once-in-a-lifetime meeting of Louis Armstrong and Louis Jordan. Have a great weekend!


Anonymous said...

We're confessin' that we love this! And (although it should be obvious) if you were to play the apparently "simple" melody chorus of the 1961 version -- the lucky folks in Pottstown, PA! -- for any trumpet player, (s)he would tell you just how hard it is to play melody like that. The great art is to conceal art, someone Roman once said. Thank you, Ricky! Michael Steinman

Anonymous said...

Ricky, regarding getting your readers to join you, perhaps you should consider starting a group for Louis Armstrong fans.

alan-pat said...

I saw the Mike Douglas show (and week) live, hurrying home like mad from school. And let me ssy- just another in your long amazing series of detailed, insightful analysis. Armstrong and Ellingotn are two artists unurpaseed at re-intventing themselves and their material. Hopefully, your work will help people understand the nature of Louis' genius. I'm still trying to play "one of his solos."