Tuesday, October 26, 2010

She's the Daughter of a Planter From Havana

Recorded July 7, 1937
Track Time 3:19
Written by Saul Chaplin and Sammy Cahn
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong And His Orcestra: Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal, Shelton Hemphill, Henry "Red" Allen, Louis Bacon, trumpets; George Matthews, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombones; Pete Clarke, alto saxophone' Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone, clarinet; Albert Nicholas, Bingie Madison, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Bleair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums.
Released on Decca 1353
Currently on CD: It's on Mosaic's essential "Complete Decca Recordings of Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra 1935-1946" boxed set.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on "Highlights From His Decca Years"

Ah, the ol' Itunes shuffle never lets me down. Needing a subject for a blog, I decided to shuffle up my Itunes and after a bunch of misfires--songs I've already written about, as well as songs that would require a thesis to cover--it offered up "She's the Daughter of a Planter From Havana" and I couldn't resist. This has long been one of my favorite of the magical Armstrong Decca big band recordings of the late 30s and early 40s but I'm sure it has been avoided by many so-called jazz aficionados because of the silly title.

And that is one silly title; doesn't exactly scream "timeless" like a "Body and Soul" huh? But once you get past the title, there's plenty to celebrate. First off, start with the songwriters, Saul Chaplin and Sammy Cahn, a team responsible for other fine Armstrong Decca recordings such as "Shoe Shine Boy," "Thankful"and "You're a Lucky Guy." Cahn and Chaplin usually churned out tunes for films or stage shows but as far as I can tell, "She's the Daughter" began and ended with this Armstrong recording. It might have easily been used for a stage show but according to the Internets, no one else touched it but Louis.

And really who else could have done anything with it? It's a fun little novelty but in lesser hands, this could have been something truly embarrassing. But Pops sells the vocal and then gets to blowing, turning in an absolute gem a solo. Dig it:

Isn't that wonderful? When I first got into Pops, these Decca recordings were almost impossible to find on CD. But there was a two-disc set titled "Highlights From His Decca Years" that included this song so I was familiar with it pretty early on. At first I didn't quite know what it was doing on such a high-powered set as--you guessed it--I couldn't get past the title and never thought it could ever be a classic. But after awhile, I really sat down and listened and was knocked out by the trumpet solos. And I'm knocked out to this day.

The tune was recorded in July 1937, six months after Armstrong went in for throat surgery, which I've heard referred to as either having tonsils taken out or polyps removed from his vocal chords. Either way, it was a success but as I've pointed out here before, Louis's emerged from the surgery extra gravelly, a quality that can definitely be heard during this July session and others from the period. Occasionally, the gravel disappeared, but for the most part, the real sandpaper quality of Louis's voice could be traced to the beginning of 1937.

Armstrong rasps out the vocal fairly straight, with no scatting or asides to speak of. He sells the silly rhymes much as he would on "Azalea" with Duke Ellington in 1961, making "Havana" rhythm with "planter," "manner" "pan her" and so on. He sounds all business, finally rephrasing the melody with a passionate "is teaching her swing" at the end. So far, so good, but nothing for the time capule....

...until about five seconds later. The band keeps the Latin rhythm going, sounding pretty authentic, if I say so; this isn't a mariachi band but they get a "commercial" groove going that I'm sure an Xavier Cugat or Desi Arnaz could have worked with (no Ricky Ricardo jokes please). Drummer Paul Barbarin especially sounds comfortable making his drums dance with that Spanish tinge he must have encountered in New Orleans.

As the band lays down this dancing rhythm, Louis enters muted and completely floats over the proceedings in the most relaxed, singing manner possibly. Armstrong didn't use mutes often but he did sometimes approach his improvisations differently when muted, concentrating on some more fleet-fingered phrases rather than going all operatic. The reeds play the melody which is always an ingenious touch on an Armstrong record as it really allows the listener to appreciate the chances Armstrong takes. The muted episode only takes a chorus but Louis tells quite a story during it, building up to a climax with some searing high notes the bridge, working out a descending motif immediately after and building back up to a triumphant high note at the conclusion of the chorus. Bravo, Pops.'

But don't go anywhere! This is the Swing Era after all and the band can't resist swinging out on the last chorus. Armstrong enters on a break that is so simple but swings so hard. He lets the band answer him, driven by Barbarin's patented cymbal splashes that Louis must have loved so much. Armstrong works that phrase over a few times, treating it like a riffs, but spinning it a different way each time he goes back to it. The second eight bars are made up of a series of repeated notes, starting high before gradually getting lower until Armstrong resolves it all with some very melodic playing.

I like the song's bridge and Pops obviously did too, as he goes back to the melody for it, though he plays it an octave higher than you might expect, really wailing in the upper register. Once up there, Louis has no intentions of descending to terra firma, so he sticks up in the stratosphere. He plays a three-note phrase but what he does with that third note is magical, kneading it and stretching it out until it gives the impression of being about six different notes. Man, that one note swings by itself! Being a Decca record from the 1930s, you know how it's going to end: Armstrong goes up and nails the final high note (after listening to Armstrong's Deccas at work with my young, jazz-playing interns I've mentioned before, they were in awe that Louis never cracked one of those final high notes!).

"She's the Daughter of a Planter From Havana" might seem like the kind of song to use as evidence of poor Pops being saddled with inferior material and commercial pop tunes; "Potato Head Blues" it ain't. But Louis really transforms it into quite a lovely record and I don't think there's anybody else, alive or dead, who could have done as much with this song. Dan Morgenstern once featured it at one of his Satchmo Summerfest presentations titled "Armstrong The Alchemist" and I think that title says it all. The man could make magic out of anything.

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