Thursday, February 24, 2011

Oriental Strut

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Recorded February 26, 1926
Track Time 3:03
Written by Johnny St. Cyr
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8299
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes

History has kept the wonders of "Heebie Jeebies" and "Cornet Chop Suey" flowing for 85 years but what about the next two songs recorded that day, "Oriental Strut" and "You're Next"? These have kind of flown under the radar for too long so I think it's time they got a little attention. So let's jump in and give a listen to Johnny St. Cyr’s composition, “Oriental Strut.”


Joy personified. The title makes it sound like it’s going to be some kind of pentatonic-fest, complete with Asian-inspired hokum. Alas, there’s none of that and, except for the interesting chord changes, the only vaguely “foreign” sound to the piece comes during the exotic, minor banjo-and-piano vamp at the end. Banjoist Johnny St. Cyr got credit for writing the tune but like many Hot Five classics, it might have been a collaborative effort on the spot. Perhaps, St. Cyr thought of some of the chord changes or the vamp. Or who knows, he might have written the entire thing out as it does encompass three strains and, like I said, the changes are anything but ordinary in the blowing strain.

Regarding the title, these sort of ethnic things were common in the 20s (Johnny Dodds did a small group number, complete with vocal, called “Oriental Man” around this time). The Hot Five also did “Irish Black Bottom,” while there was also the Jamaican routine on “King of the Zulus.” Later Armstrong went Hawaiian with “Song of the Islands,” Native American with “Indian Cradle Song” and really, really caucasian with the vocals of Seger Ellis on “To Be In Love.”

Regardless, let’s get on with the music. The introduction is pretty tight so obviously the musicians had rehearsed this one pretty good. After the exotic vamp, Armstrong leads the group through two go-arounds of the eight bar A strain, based on a descending chord pattern in Dm (the chords don’t quite descend--Dm, Dm7, Gm6, A7--but Ory uses a D-C-Bb-G pattern from the changes to make it work). Also, am I on the only one who thinks of Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays” when I hear Armstrong play for the first few bars of this strain?

Then it’s off to the B strain, which slickly moves from Dm to a major, D7 tonality. I don’t know what’s written and what’s not but I like how Armstrong leans on the Bb in the second bar of this strain, which is the flatted sixth of the D7 chord in question. The second half of the B strain heads to Bb before a short circle of fifths (A7-D7-G7-C7) leads to the final blowing strain.

I’m usually not so technical, but I’ve always found the chords of this section to be rather interesting. Two bars of an F immediately go to two bars of Db, which is a neat little surprise. The next two bars of F resolve to a D7, which also works nicely. After two bars on Gm, the piece turns minor again for the next two, A7 and Dm. But then it gets sunny again with two more odd choices for the key of F, E7 and A, before the A leads to a C which leads to a turnaround and we’re off again from the beginning. If you’re not a musician, sorry if that bored you, but I think it’s interesting because a lot of these Hot Five tunes are pretty complex, with multiple strains and some challenging changes, with a little more meat than “old-timey” jazz is sometimes given credit for.

Ory plays the incredible sparse melody, made up of almost nothing but whole notes and half notes, with less than a handful of quarter notes. At the same time, it’s the kind of melody that sticks with you long after listening. After Ory’s somber statement, Dodds comes in with some variations but he seems a little weary of the changes. For instance, when he gets to the second change to Db, he responds by rhythmically repeating a string of Db’s! However, he makes it through the rest of his solo without a problem as the E7 and A7 are replaced by a simple 2-5-1 at the end of his chorus, Gm to C7 to F.

A short interlude by composer St. Cyr’s banjo sets up the main event, a dazzling stop-time solo by Armstrong. I’ll admit, this isn’t a flawlessly executed outing, like a “Potato Head Blues” or “Cornet Chop Suey” (whose solo was pre-written) but it’s quite exciting hearing Armstrong think, inventing ideas with abandon and taking chances as the bars pass him by. His opening phrase, of course, smacks of “Potato Head Blues,” which would be recorded the following year, but after that, it’s a whirlwind of invention. Unlike Dodds, he isn’t daunted by the Db, playing a descending phrase made up of all chord tones before turning an F chord completely inside out. He’s very melodic, but some of the notes are slightly cracked around the eight bar mark, not terribly, but not hit on the nose as he might have liked. The band swings for three bars setting up a simple break which leads to Armstrong’s second stop-time helping.

Pops begins the second half with a slicing rip up to an A an octave higher than written before he makes mincemeat out of the Db with a lightening fast triplet phrase he liked to employ during this period (it crops up near the end of “Ory’s Creole Trombone” to name one example). His rhythm then gets even more daring as he goes on; I love the way he hits the low A and kind of lets it linger in the third bar of this half. Soon, the band starts swinging behind him, but Armstrong continues powering through, playing a sweetly singing high E with an attractive vibrato. But then it’s time to get nasty as he trills a snarling C to signal one more joyous chorus.

And it’s a good one, with Armstrong at his most New Orleans-centric. Not too much longer after this, Armstrong would begin pulling away in his ensemble playing, exploring the higher register of his horn and generally dominating the records. Here he’s on good behavior, hitting a few higher notes here and there but mainly keeping it peppy, playing around St. Cyr’s melody but always keeping it somewhat in the forefront. A short four bar coda ends the song with a cute Charleston beat.

That’s all I have on this fun record, one unjustly dismissed by many of the elite jazz writers, though good musicians always know a good record when they here it; this is the record that so knocked Jack Teagarden out, Wingy Manone remembered Big T actually burying a copy of the OKeh 78 underground to keep it preserved forever!

That’s all for now but I’ll be back tomorrow to continue my look at this epic session with "You're Next."

4 comments:

John Whitehorn. Kent, UK said...

Dear Ricky,
I read somewhere that
Oriental Strut was named after the Oriental Cafe on South State St, Chicago.

Anonymous said...

Hey! I really like the music theory in this one - more of that would be great! Thanks again.

Sebastian said...

Thanks again for this detailed analysis.
Oriental Strut has always one of my favourites among the Hot Five series. I don't understand why this tune hadn't been covered until Lu Watters & others after WWII.

I like the way Johnny St. Cyr plays behind Armstrong - so simple, but effective and delicate. All the Hot Five tunes with a prominent part by St. Cyr belong to the best ones (as well as New Orleas Wanderers, JRMorton's RHP).

Sebastian (from Berlin, Germany)

Pamela said...

Great survey! Probably you can find more useful info and share it with your readers here:
Wikipedia article about Louis Armstrong with lots of additional citations available
Interesting facts about Armstrong and related stuff
All major events of Armstrong's life marked on google map
Hope you find it useful!