Sunday, November 7, 2010

Cuban Pete

Last week, my blog on "She's the Daughter of a Planter From Havana" seemed to be well received by my loyal readers. Because I haven't had time to whip something up new and fresh, I've decided to repost one of the first blogs I ever wrote on that tune's session mate, "Cuban Pete." Here's how it went down back in 2007:

Recorded July 7, 1937
Track Time 3:09
Written by Jose Norman (Joseph Norman)
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 (Backed by "She's the Daughter of a Planer From Havana")
Currently on CD: It's on Mosaic's essential boxed set of Louis's 1935-1946 Decca recordings (perfect gift for the upcoming holidays.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on some cheapie compilations.

I know what you're name is Ricky Riccardi, one letter away from Ricky Ricardo, the immortal television character portrayed by the immortal Cuban bandleader, Desi Arnaz, who, yes, is invariably associated with "Cuban Pete." Just in case you're wondering, I'm not a Cuban bandleader (though I am a pianist), I did not marry a Lucy (hello, Margaret!) and I will not sing "Cuban Pete" for you. But I love Armstrong's almost completely neglected recording of this rhumba. This was one of the great Decca big band recordings of the 30s, a series that has never received proper attention on United States CDs. The above CD listing is from the incredible Swedish label, Ambassador, all of which should be sought out on Amazon as they offer a complete picture of this fruitful period in the Armstrong discography.

"Cuban Pete" might sound like an odd choice for a Louis Armstrong record, but Decca was adept at throwing him all sorts of eclectic material (just four months earlier, he had recorded two charming Hawaiian songs with Andy Iona and His Islanders). On the same day he recorded "Cuban Pete," Armstrong cut another Latin specialty, "She's the Daughter Of A Planter From Havana," featuring a wonderful muted trumpet solo. On that performance, the band played in a pretty convincing rhumba style but on "Cuban Pete," they swing from note one. Here's the audio:

Unfortunately, Armstrong doesn't enter until almost one minute in (approximately, note 108). The arrangement features the band playing a straight version of the melody, sounding like almost any other commercial band of the period, except few bands had as propulsive a rhythm section as the one in this band. As you may or may not know, Armstrong front pianist Luis Russell's orchestra for the bulk of the 1930s. Russell's band made some tremendously exciting records in 1929 and 1930 and the rhythm section of Russell, Lee Blair, Pops Foster and Paul Barbarin, deserve a lot of credit for transforming the somewhat stiff, two-beat rhythm sections of the 1920s into the more streamlined, four-to-the-bar swing of the 1930s and beyond. Foster's bass had a huge, popping tone, heard to good effect on "Cuban Pete."

Okay, one minute in and here comes the other Pops, Mr. Strong, and he's muted. He sticks pretty close to the melody but he accents certain phrases ahead of the beat to turn the somewhat clunky tune into something infinitely more swinging. The bridge is a beaut with Armstrong playing a phrase at 1:16 that's right out of his bag of licks (it comes back during his mind-blowing 1960 "Avalon" solo with the Dukes of Dixieland, to name one example). Finally, he starts improvising during the final eight bars and one wishes he did it for three minutes. But instead we get an uncharacteristically gruff vocal. Armstrong's voice in the 1930s softened into a charming tenor with a dash of gravel (not quite the sandpaper gurgle of later years), but he barks out the lyrics of "Cuban Pete" with some rasp, though he effectively sings the "chick chick-a-booms" on one note. The band takes eight bars, Barbarin takes a drum break and Armstrong modulates into a higher key for thet final spot of trumpet blowing. He's still playing the melody almost straight, but there's a great little slow motion descend at 2:50 (my, my, my what he could do with time). Then another break leads into another modulation and Armstrong's now wailing in the upper register of his horn, ending on a triumphant high D.

Like many of Armstrong Decca recordings, "Cuban Pete" didn't change history like "West End Blues." But not every record had to do that. It swings, Armstrong gives another lesson into how to take a banal melody and make swinging jazz out of it, he barks out a fun vocal and at the end, makes one shake his head in amazement at his trumpet prowess. What else can one want from such a great artist? If you still believe Armstrong's post-1928 recordings are a waste of time, you're missing some wonderful music. And if you only know "Cuban Pete" through Desi Arnaz, Ricky Ricardo or Jim Carrey in "The Mask," check out Armstrong's recording to see how the "king of the rhumba beat" could swing like hell, too.

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