Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Angela Mia

Louis Armstrong With Sy Oliver's Orchestra
Recorded January 30, 1957
Track Time 3:23
Written by Lew Pollack and Erno Rapee
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet;Geoge Dorsey, Phil Urso (alto saxophone, flute); Lucky Thompson; tenor saxophone; Dave McRae, baritone saxophone; Billy Kyle, piano; George Barnes, guitar;Sid Block, bass; Rudy Taylor , drums; Unknown, harp; Unknown strings, Unknown choir - three male and four female - vocals; Lillian Clark, lead vocal; Sy Oliver, arranger, conductor.
Originally released on Decca DL 8488
Currently available on CD: On Louis and the Angels"
Available on Itunes? Yes

Hello and welcome back to the blog! Am I ready to resume regular blogging again? Almost....my book is now in the hands of the copy editor so I don't have to tinker with that for four weeks, which is nice. But my liner notes for that Storyville set are only 75% finished, I'm still away from home for many hours a day and the Yankees are about to embark (in a matter of minutes) on hopefully another rewarding October run, so things might be hit or miss for a while. But I had some extra time and wanted to pump out a new one based on some experiences I had at work this week.

Here's the story: in my duties as Project Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, I have the luxury of having interns come in a few days a week to help with numbering artifacts, organizing materials and other such catalogue-related matters. This semester, I have two dynamite interns working for me, Greg Hammontree and David Engelhard, both young, top-flight jazz musicians from Atlanta, now conquering the master's program in jazz at Queens College.

Greg and David are great guys and marvelous musicians but as you'd expect in this 21st century of jazz studies, they came into the job with an appreciation of Louis but not much experience in listening to him. Well, naturally, I sought to change that. I always have music on in the work room where I spend all of my days, but when David and Greg started coming in, I'd give them a quick lesson before they'd begin the task of hand-numbering photos. "Today, guys, an evening with Louis at the Crescendo Club" or "These Fleischmann's Yeast broadcasts are going to knock you out" or "Count the high C's on the 1936 'Swing That Music'" or "You mean you've never heard 'Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy'???"

Greg and David have been terrific students and Pops has been blowing them away at a daily basis. Well, this week I decided to go one step further and spring some "commercial" Louis on them. My choice: "Louis and the Angels," Armstrong's 1957 collection of angel/heaven-themed songs performed complete with choir and strings. Hmmm, two hotshot, 20-something-year-old jazz students, one studying with saxophone giant Antonio Hart, the other practicing songs like Horace Silver's "Quicksilver"...how would this go over?

Both of them came in separately on consecutive days and I played the album for each. Suffice to say, it knocked them on their collective asses. Their minds were melted, especially when I told them that this was the stuff that caused the hardened jazz fans and critics in the 1950s to wrongheadedly write Louis off. Let's just say, they're not going to be doing that any time soon...

But for me personally, it was double the pleasure because I've always loved "Louis and the Angels" and the opportunity to listen to two it twice in a row was fantastic. If you don't know the album, it was made at the end of the sessions that made up Louis's mammoth 4-LP set, "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography." I always thought that it was Decca producer Milt Gabler's way of saying, "Let's compromise: we'll record a giant set of pure jazz, but balance it with some less threatening sounds to appeal to middle America." (That's not an exact quote, obviously.) "Louis and the Angels" sounds SO different from "A Musical Autobiography" in every way except one: Louis is still at the absolute peak of his powers.

I could write a blog on every track on that album but there was one in particular that caused Greg to grow slack-jawed and stuck in David's head long after it faded away and that's "Angela Mia." The song was written by Erno Rapee and Lew Ppllack for the 1928 film "Street Angel." Courtesy of YouTube, here's how it sounded in that year as sung by James Melton:

That's about as far away from jazz as we can get...but can't you just picture Louis digging a record like that? Sure is a pretty melody. The song didn't become a standard of standards but it did have some lasting power, as evidenced in this 1952 television clip of Perry Como performing the number:


So that's what Louis was given to work with for "Louis and the Angels." Now, Louis did some absolutely gorgeous singing on the album--"Fools Rush In" immediately comes to mind--but for "Angela Mia," Oliver had an interesting idea: let the choir handle the vocal, let Louis stick to the trumpet playing. Those who don't like 1950s pop sounds, strings and choirs might have to wade through some stuff here, but trust me, the effort is worth it because this is Louis Armstrong at his finest. Give it a listen:


Simply breathtaking, isn't it? Louis's sound is captured superbly, right from the start as he gently caresses the melody. Just that first short solo is worth the price of admission, but Louis is pacing himself, handing it over to the strings and cooing voices for the bridge. He swoops back in for the final section, playing the melody straight but infusing it with some deep passion. A beautiful first chorus. For the second chorus, the choir sings the lyrics while Louis demonstrates that he still could produce a spine-tingling obbligato at a moment's notice. He doesn't play many notes, but each one is perfectly placed and full of soul.

But Louis is only getting warmed up...watch out for that bridge! As Louis hits bridge, his flare for drama--and opera--comes to the forefront. With the band growing incessant behind him, Louis begins to wail, leading up to the main event: a break that climbs its way into the upper register before resolving in perhaps the bluest blue note of Armstrong's entire career. I'm serious, it always catches me by surprise and knocks me to my knees. He takes that note, bends it, wrings it, squeezes everything out of it. I mean, really, is it even a single pitch? Is he half-valving, glissing, God only knows. But it's a breathtaking moment, and the one that had my two young interns shaking their heads in disbelief.

That blue note might be the highlight but Louis isn't finished. After some more melody, he slows it down and goes up high for the ending. Seriously, this stuff can produce tears, it's so beautiful. I pity the jazz critics and fans who turned their back on this stuff in the 1950s. But it's their loss; for now, it's my gain, your gain and Greg and David's gain. Play it again...play it loud!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Welcome back, Ricky. Wonderful history profile of the song itself culminating in Louie's version. Enjoyed immensly! Fortunate interns. Have a great day... I will after your write. Thank you. mb