Sunday, March 27, 2011

Muskrat Ramble - Part 3 - The All Stars 1947-1948

Welcome back to my look at Louis Armstrong's history with "Muskrat Ramble." When we last left our hero, he was performing the tune at various all-star small group concerts of the mid-40s, sometimes with shaky results due to sideman unfamiliar with the routine. By this point in his life, Louis disliked simply jamming and preferred more structure in his live performances. When he formed his small group, the All Stars, in August 1947, it seemed to critics like Louis had "come home" and was going to spend the rest of his life loosely jamming on the old New Orleans classics. But over 20 years with big bands taught Louis the importance of arrangements and routines and having a sure thing to present to audiences night after night instead of meandering aimlessly on his horn for a couple of hours.

Having said that, Louis still didn't like actual rehearsals. As he told "Time" magazine before the All Stars made their debut at Billy Berg's, "I don't need no rehearsals. I don't go through that and never will. All these cats I'm playing with can blow. We don't need no arrangements. I just say, man, what you going to play? They say Musk'at Ramble. I say follow me, and you got the best arrangement you ever heard."

This might have been first. But after calling "Muskrat Ramble" nightly, it didn't take long before an arrangement began to form. Not a written arrangement, mind you, but a routine that would be followed, with certain phrases and riffs becoming a concrete part of each performance. It wasn't something that happened overnight but watching it gradually occur is pretty fascinating (to me).

There are no surviving recordings of the All Stars in the first 2 1/2 months of their existence, but there's two from November 1947 and both featured "Muskrat Ramble" as the opening number (remember, Louis didn't get around to "Indiana" until 1951 and didn't perform it as the regular opener until 1952). The first version, from Carnegie Hall on November 15 survives in unlistenable sound; literally it sounds like someone recorded it inside of a toilet. The second version, from Symphony Hall on November 30, might be the best "Muskrat Ramble" played by anyone at any time. Because of the poor quality of the Carnegie Hall version (you can't even make out the piano or bass solos) and the fact that a chunk of the opening choruses is missing, I'm just going to share Louis's solo, Jack Teagarden's trombone offering and the closing two ensemble choruses. Listen to them through all the racket and take notes because some stuff you hear here will crop up again:

Pretty great, huh? First thing to pay attention to is Louis's opening phrase, which might be a quote, but even if it isn't, it became his standard way of opening many of his "Muskrat" solos. From there, Louis simply improvises...okay, I'm assuming that (he had been playing the song for three months), but his playing is full of creative new ideas (no quotes) that didn't make it into future versions. Except for one the start of Louis's second chorus--0:22 of that clip--Louis plays a little melody (again, a quote?) made up of some held notes that crops up again. And the last three notes of the solo are pretty perfect and became a part of the routine. And finally, how about Big Sid Catlett? Even through the lousy quality (his cymbals are silenced), Sid's creative accents are something to marvel at.

After two choruses from Jack Teagarden, let's listen to the closing ensemble. Clarinetist Barney Bigard is kind of lost in the mix, but Louis and Teagarden are a helluva time, especially with Big Sid backing them up. Everything seems to be loose and improvised except they all know to hold a note (with Sid rolling away underneath them) to push it into the final chorus. Again, Louis is a man on fire until the end with Big T playing the little tag and Louis glissing up to the final high note. Great stuff...

...but not quite as great as what occurred two weeks later on the stage of Boston's Symphony Hall. This version was recorded by Ernie Anderson and eventually released on Decca in 1951. Of all the countless versions of "Muskrat" that have been played for 85 years, I don't know if this one's ever been topped. Let's listen to it from the beginning so we can hear the whole routine:

Well, did it live up to expectations? I know it did for me and I've heard it about 785 times. The tempo is perfect, fast but not too fast (half-fast?). I'll get it out of the way so I don't just repeat myself for the next few paragraphs but Big Sid is a MONSTER on this track; some of the most swinging drumming I've ever heard, with every accent and bit of accompaniment simply spot on.

As for the routine, Pops leads the ensemble through the first strain twice and then it's time for the stop-time strain, which, as I demonstrated in the last post, has different chord changes. Like the the original, it sets up a solo by Teagarden followed by a chorus by Louis that nods backwards to his original Hot Five solo from 1925 (which was on this strain). Then another part of the original routine, going back to the first strain's changes with Teagarden blasting out smears a la Kid Ory and Louis answering with the appropriate riff. At 1:55, Louis holds a note and blows into another high-octane ensemble chorus (Sid!). Louis ends this ensemble chorus with the three-note phrase he ended his Carnegie Hall solo with, a fitting cap to two minutes of 15 seconds of fantastic blowing. I think any other band would have been happy to quit right there; sure enough, every pre-All Stars version I shared last week ended around the 2:10-2:20 range so the All Stars could have called it a day right there. Instead, that's only the end of act one as it's time for solos.

Dick Cary's up first and his solo, as usual, is swinging and tasteful (Sid!). Bassist Arvell Shaw follows with a two-chorus solo he'd gradually refine over the years (Sid! The man changes cymbals for every soloist!) Then Bigard steps up for his outing, Louis and Teagarden riffing behind him. The riffs are still loose here, with Louis leading the way and Teagarden following, but not quite in there with him. Two weeks earlier at Carnegie Hall, they were even farther apart. Louis loved setting riffs behind his clarinetists (rarely his trombonists) and in time, Louis and Teagarden and every succeeding trombonist would hit upon a series of perfect riffs that didn't need changing.

Then it's time for Pops! Now, I realize time is precious and my dear readers don't have time to listen to one six-minute version of "Muskrat" after another. Thus, like my old "Indiana" and "Royal Garden Blues" posts, I'm going to excerpt Louis's solo here, as well as Teagarden's follow-up and the closing ensembles. The whole thing cooks and should be appreciated from start to finish but if you only have limited time, at least try to listen to how Pops changed his solo and how the rideouts developed over time:

First off, I told you to keep in mind Louis's opening phrase on the Carnegie Hall solo but he doesn't play it at Symphony Hall, instead opting for a series of quarter notes before a dancing little phrase that's perfectly echoed by Catlett. Like the Carnegie Hall solo, Louis improvises entirely fresh phrase. This time, pay attention to the middle of Louis's second chorus (0:26 if you're listening to the above excerpt), as he plays a wild tremolo into a high note, a little touch that would sometimes find its way into the closing ensembles.

After two great choruses by Teagarden (Sid's backbeats!), Louis charges into the ensemble with the same little melodic passage he played in the middle of his Carnegie Hall chorus; he clearly dug it and perhaps thought it fit better here. The ensemble builds up quite a head of steam especially as it heads into the second chorus, Shaw repeating a single note and Teagarden positively blowing his ass off. Oh man, do I love Big T, but honestly by the time he left the All Stars, he sounded a little tired. But in the early days, he was definitely playing with brio and wow, does it come through on this recording. Louis continues marching along on his own path, Teagarden and Bigard in there with him, until the patented coda and high note ending. Magic.

The All Stars continued playing "Muskrat Ramble" into 1948, when Earl Hines replaced Dick Cary on piano. Hines might have had star power--in fact, he thought he had a little too much star power--but he was as sympathetic a player as Cary. Louis and Hines might have been friends and musical mavericks in the 1920s but there was definitely some friction between them during the All Stars years. Anyway, let's listen to one more complete "Muskrat Ramble" from this period, live in Paris on March 2, 1948:

Hines immediately makes an impression...but to Louis, it's the wrong one! Perhaps they hadn't played it much, but Hines, who had been in the band over a month, kicks it off overly fast. You can hear Louis sternly say something like, "Slow down, Pops" and Catlett immediately drops the tempo into the pocket where he knows Louis wants it. Hines stops for a second feels it, and continues at that pace. Louis was not afraid to assert himself in this band of stars. The intro continues wandering aimlessly until Pops barges in and leads the opening ensemble, probably daydreaming about Dick Cary.

The opening ensembles are still excellent with Pops particularly frisky in his opening solo, with slight nods to the 1925 original, but full of more daring flights. He even reprises the angry lip trill from the original as he pushes the group into the second ensemble chorus before the solos. After Hines and Shaw, it's time for Bigard with more riffs from Louis and Teagarden. It's a little hard to hear Teagarden at first but Louis seems to have his riffs set and it sounds like Tea is in there a little tighter than at Symphony Hall.

Then it's time for Pops and again, for those in a hurry, here's Louis's solo through the end of the performance:

Okay, the original opening phrase from Carnegie Hall is back (Catlett in there with him), along with a little triplet flourish, but from there it's all new, though he does seem to peter out a bit towards the end of the first chorus. But no worries, he pauses for a second and comes back with a series of searing high quarter notes, kind of echoing his entrance at Symphony Hall, only higher. In the middle of the second chorus, Louis toys with his Symphony Hall tremolo, but instead of doing just that, he instead hits a series of more high notes preceded by tiny grace notes, all still building to that high concert C. Louis's concluding phrases are all new and SCORCHING.

After Teagarden, it's time for the closing ensembles. Are going to get that same little passage Louis played in his Carnegie solo and Symphony Hall rideout? Nope, Louis opts for an entire chorus of new ideas until it's time to get ready for that final go-around. At Symphony Hall, I praised the group all holding notes to build up the excitement but Louis simply tops himself here, holding a high C and glissing to a high Eb, for an effect that is positively orgasmic. He then heads downward, seemingly with "I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair" on his mind, though he only hints at it. From there, it's all new, with Sid especially making his presence goodness, I can't stop writing about Sid and the man never even takes a solo throughout the entire performance! A helluva performance; take away Fatha Hines's initial confusion and the fact that this version has never been issued on CD and it definitely rivals Symphony Hall.

The next surviving "Muskrat Ramble" in the Armstrong discography comes from a broadcast in Chicago on April 4, 1948. This was a studio show hosted by Dave Garroway and the All Stars were obviously pressed for time. Thus, they only take one chorus each as a solo, but still save room for a two-chorus rideout. Here it is, from Louis's solo onward:

Okay, now we're getting somewhere. It's interesting to hear Louis's mind editing his two-chorus solo down to just the big stuff in order to get it across in one chorus. He opens with his usual phrase (we've heard it open three out of four solos now), Catlett even more in there with him than ever before. Then the part he had been playing in the middle of his second solo chorus, first a tremolo, then a series of quarter-notes with grace notes and now a kind of straighter eight-note feel, alternating G's and Ab's before peaking with a high C. He improvises for a bit with a nice downward skipping phrase but his closing lick is perfection.

As for the ensemble, it's all new and incredibly exciting. The super high note from Paris is gone, but he still holds one into the final chorus, as he would continue to do. Notice, the tempo was much faster too, probably another nod to the constraints of the broadcast. While playing it live, Louis continued to like it at a more medium-up pace. By the time we reach my next version from Philadelphia's Click club on September 18, 1948, the tempo had dropped to an even slower pace than before. This tempo didn't last long but this might very well be the most rocking "Muskrat Ramble" in the Armstro,g discography. I won't share the whole thing but here it is beginning with Louis's solo:

Yeah, man. Pops opens as usual, though the tempo brings out an extra sense of relaxation to his playing. The phrase he plays in the last four bars of his first chorus fits like a glove, and he'd refine it to make it become part of the solo in ensuing years. But the almost abstract glisses at the start of his second chorus are definitely a new touch! And listen to how Sid catches about telepathy. Even when Louis breaks out his G-Ab tremolo up the high C, he leaves a tiny opening of space and Catlett's right in there with four emphatic beats. After that Louis improvises four bars before uncorking his fantastic closing phrase.

Don't get upset during Teagarden's solo as damage to the original tape caused the end of Teagarden's solo and the beginning of the ensemble to disappear for ever. But what has survived is incredible as Pops leads the ensemble through an earth-shaking second chorus...too bad they didn't utilize this tempo more often! Even Hines sounds engaged and incredibly enthusiastic throughout. Louis is still full of new much for the old theory that Louis couldn't improvise anymore!

Louis was improvising like mad but certain things were starting to fall into place by December 1948. I'm going to close today's thesis with two completely different versions from Chicago's Blue Note in the same month, December 1948. We know this first one was from an ABC broadcast on December 11, but the second excerpt is only known as being from the month of December. I'm going to assume it's later because as we'll hear, something slips into the closing ensemble that would never leave.

But first, let's listen to the December 11 Armstrong solo and closing ensemble:

Okay, the tempo's up again and Louis's opening phrase is in place, but after that stand back! It's all fresh including fantastically exciting series of glisses at the start of his second phrase. And just when I thought he was getting complacent with the alternating G-Ab business, Louis goes another new way and instead plays with a triplet phrase. The opening phrase and the closing phrase are now in stone but everything in between, wow.

After Teagarden's outing, though, listen for the start of the closing ensemble. Louis plays a little phrase, ascending then descending, then holds the last note. Bigard immediately echoes it...and Teagarden follows in suit! It's a brilliantly little worked out routine that obviously started sometime after the Click broadcast but from this moment forward, it's how Louis launched into every concluding "Muskrat" rideout. I love it as it really sounds like the calvary is coming...Pops is saying, "Follow me to freedom!" After that it's all new except for the held note in the middle (man, Catlett really doesn't want to let go of that drum roll!). Everything else is improvised but Pops now has a set open to his solo, a set close and a set way to get into the closing ensemble. So far, so good...

...but wait, there's more! As advertised, here's the next "Muskrat Ramble" from the same engagement at the Blue Note in December 1948:

Okay, the tempo's the same and Pops is off and running with the same phrase but then again, he finds new things to say on these old changes. But listen closely to the start of Louis's second chorus...a quote! Once I read some writer say Louis quoted "Buffalo Gals" on "Ramble" and that was good enough to me until one of my interns at work, David Engelhard, pointed out that it's really "Bye Bye Blackbird." That is similar to "Buffalo Gals," but I now completely hear it David's way so I'm calling it a quote from "Blackbird." It's the first quote to creep into Louis's solo...and it won't be the last. It really does sound like the first time Louis ever played it (I know, I have no proof) as it launches him into a tumbling improvisation that is simply thrilling. In fact, Catlett seems almost ready for the G-Ab alternation and launches into a dramatic drum roll to accent it, but Pops skates right by it and continues flying by, with some glisses, some downward skipping phrases, a bit of everything until his patented closing phrase. Wee!

But don't quit now. After more great Teagarden (and Catlett), Louis once again charges into the closing ensemble with his little fanfare, picked up by Bigard and Teagarden. All is well and swinging until the start of the second chorus. Again, maybe he had played it before or maybe it's just divine intervention, but after holding that high Ab, Armstrong begins a descending pattern, two Ab's, two G's, two F's. It works so he repeats it twice, the last time turning it into a skyrocketing gliss. It might not sound like much now but that Ab-G-F riff would soon become an integral part of all future "Muskrat" rideouts. But if you really want to have you mind blown to bits, listen to the next gliss Pops uncorks....what planet is THAT from!? As we've heard, he hasn't played anything remotely like that in any previous version so I don't know where it came from but it sure is insane (in a good way).

I don't know about you, but I think that's as much good music as I can handle for one evening. I hope you enjoyed this look at how "Muskrat Ramble" evolved in the first year-and-a-half history of the All Stars...and we ain't finished yet! Though I will calm you down and say it's not going to continue at this pace. I only have one "Muskrat" from 1949 (and it's incomplete), one from 1950 (without Bigard) and one from 1951 (a short throwaway jam session with the Firehouse Five Plus Two) so the next phrase and going to move into the 50s much quicker. But 1952-1958 was another great time for "Muskrat Ramble" in the Armstrong discography and we'll have a lot of fun seeing how Pops took the seeds of what he played on these 1947 and 1948 versions and sculpted it into arguably the most exciting and tightest performance in the All Stars book.

But before then, a quick note that I am heading to Milan, Italy on April 4 for the Piacenza Jazz Fest, where I'll be giving a lecture on Loius's later years. It'll be my first trip to Italy and needless to say, I'm thrilled. But as I prepare for it this week, I'll let this post linger until I get back. Until then!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Muskrat Ramble - Part 2 - The Pre-All Stars Versions

Hello and welcome back to part 2 of what is going to turn out to be a long, long look at Louis Armstrong's history with "Muskrat Ramble." I guess you could say this is the long-anticipated sequel since part 1 was published about a month ago...and just lingered here for weeks until I played catch-up in every other aspect of my life. But here I am, ready to march forward with what should be a fun series.

In the first posting (which is still up, if you want to get caught up to speed), I discussed the tune's mysterious origins, Louis's claims to have written it and finally, the first, famous Hot Five version. It was a seminal recording, introducing "Muskrat Ramble" as a tune that seemed to have wide appeal to jazz musicians young and old. In the next 20 years, versions were recorded by everyone from Bunk Johnson and Wild Bill Davison to Lionel Hampton and Woody Herman. Though "Muskrat" was alive and well, one person refrained from recording or even performing it during the swing era: Louis Armstrong. Louis led a successful big band through the 1930s and much of the 1940s and though he occasionally looked backwards with new arrangements of old favorites like "Struttin' With Some Barbecue," "Mahogany Hall Stomp," "West End Blues" and "Our Monday Date," "Muskrat Ramble" didn't share the same honor. Of all the Armstrong recordings and broadcasts that survive from 1925 to 1944, there's not a hint of "Muskrat."

Until January 18, 1944, that is. The occasion was the first, famed Esquire All American Jazz Concert at the Metropolitan Opera House featuring a band consisting of Louis, Roy Eldridge, Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard, Coleman Hawkins, Art Tatum, Al Casey, Oscar Pettiford and Sid Catlett (if you dare say "ho hum," please leave). Louis, suffering from a kidney stone, wasn't in peak form yet, though he was far from bad, as some critics made him out to be. The always feisty Roy Eldridge made the most of his outings, taking extra chorus on the jam session numbers in an effort to make Louis look bad and perhaps lure him into a cutting contest. Louis didn't take the bait, but still played excellently on "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "I Got Rhythm" and others.

In the second half of the concert, it was decided that a short look backwards was in order so "Muskrat Ramble" was called. Though they must have rehearsed it, I still hear it as a ragged affair. Because of it's two strains and built-in arrangement (the stop-time bit), it's a song you really have to know the routine of to play. Not everyone seems quite comfortable with it and they kind of get stuck on repeating the stop-time chorus over and over. Also, another tell-tale sign, provided to me by my pal Phil Person, is the key of Bb, which is rare for "Muskrat" which is usually played in Ab. But since Bb is THE jazz key, whoever started it off, must have guessed Bb was the safe choice. Alas, we'll never know how it started as the opening bars (perhaps more?) are missing forever as the surviving recording starts right in with Pops leading the troops through the stop-time bit. Let's pick it up right there:

Immediately, you can hear Louis sounding strong and confident, swung along by the cymbals of Big Sid Catlett (is that Catlett's voice letting out an audible "Yeah" early on?). After Louis, everyone uses the stop-time chorus as a framework for solos, Teagarden up first followed by Bigard and Hawkins. The stop-time stuff is only supposed to be used once but here it's like a kind of crutch. Finally after Hawkins, Teagarden goads everybody into the next part of the routine. After a chorus of muted ensemble playing, there's kind of an audible pause as everyone wonders what's going to happen next, solo or ensemble? Louis keeps playing (Roy on good behavior playing second), leading everyone into a jammed finish. Louis plays almost in his 1920s style, without any high notes or pyrotechnics, just that strong lead. Jack Teagarden almost forgets the closing tag, but he manages to recover with something similar to the original. All in all, not a shining moment in jazz history, but a fun performance, though super short at only 2:09 (again, the first chorus might be missing, but even with it, it still would have been less than three minutes at a concert where some numbers clocked in around seven or eight or even in double-digits).

The next time Louis confronted "Muskrat Ramble" was three years later at a Carnegie Hall concert done with Edmond Hall's sextet. This performance is almost eerily similar to the 1944 one we just heard: once again, it's in Bb (hmmm, maybe Pops called it in that key, forgetting the original key since he hadn't played it in 20 years?) and there's some confusion in the routine. Let's listen:

This time we get two full choruses of melody at the start, Louis sounding strong with typically fantastic backing by clarinetist Hall, who would join Louis full time in 1955. Then it's the stop-time choruses, as used in 1925, as just a setup to more ensemble jamming and a trombone solo from Henderson Chambers. Then it's Louis's time for a solo. He starts out with some quarter notes, perhaps thinking back to his original Hot Five solo, but perhaps realizing he's in another key, he goes for something different.

Unfortunately, the backing musicians go for something different, too, namely the chord changes! "Muskrat's" two strains aren't too similar, as the main strain starts on an Ab and features a fat minor chord in the middle while the second strain starts on a Bb and rides the Ab in the middle. Well, Louis is clearly improvising with one set of changes in mind, but the rhythm section plays the other, everyone playing somewhat hesitantly and listening to see how to get out of this alive. Louis simply stops playing towards the end, probably to make a "this way out" gesture, and comes back in with a held low note to signal the final chorus. They jam one out but again, Louis sounds harried, garbling his last phrase, again, probably to signal to Chambers to play the closing tag. Chambers improvises a new one and Louis glisses everyone to a tight ending. Once again, on a 2:26 performance and once again, everyone floating by the seat of their pants.

But even with its ragged moments, Louis's playing with Hall's small group created sensational buzz and led to the next great event in Louis's life, the Town Hall concert of May 17, 1947. This time Louis played with an all star group of musicians assembled by cornetist Bobby Hackett mostly from the Eddie Condon circle. These musicians knew "Muskrat Ramble" inside and out...including in the correct key of Ab! This version proved to be the smoothest one yet. Here's "Muskrat" at Town Hall":

This version charges right out of the gate at ferocious uptempo, Pops in the lead. Teagarden sounds ready to go the stop-time chorus after one time through, but Louis powers through a second ensemble chorus before the stop-time bit. After leading to a jammed chorus, it sets up an outing by Dick Cary before Louis explodes with a solo that references his Hot Five version! Maybe it's the correct key of Ab, maybe he had been listening to the original recording, who knows the reason, but it's the first time Louis seems to have that old solo in his mind and he nails it. It's not identical, mind you, (the tempo is almost doubled), but Louis clearly uses it as a frame of reference and creates something entirely fresh out of it, like much of the Town Hall concert.

After Teagarden plays the role of Kid Ory, blasting through the next chorus, Louis again recalls the 1925 record with a violent lip trill leading into the final ensemble...only it sounds like the other musicians don't know if it's the final ensemble! After the trill, Louis keeps blowing, but he's all alone out front, the other musicians perhaps in awe of what he was doing and just wanting to let him keep going. But Louis must have gave a signal of some sort as soon enough, everyone falls in for the rideout, Teagarden finally nailing the tag at the end. Definitely the best version yet, but still, with that hesitation in the final chorus, not quite perfect.

But the Town Hall concert was such a success, it led to the end of Louis's big band and the start of his own small group, the All Stars. But before the All Stars made their official debut in August 1947, Louis took part in another, shorter small group concert at New York's Winter Garden theater, with almost the entire Town Hall group intact--Bobby Hackett, Jack Teagarden, Peanuts Hucko, Dick Cary and George Wettling--along with the baritone saxophone of Ernie Caceres adding to the ensemble and Jack Lesberg replacing Bob Haggart on bass. Perhaps because many of these same musicians played the song the previous month, this one comes off without a hitch, with Pops in especially thrilling for that high note that leads into the final chorus!

Now that's it! Once again, the tempo is up but the structure is entirely in place and everyone sounds confident and swinging. And did that high note knock you out as much as me? Even Pops almost sounds surprised! I'm going to be sharing many, many more "Muskrat Ramble" in the next few weeks, but I don't think there's another where Louis heads into a final ensemble with such a high, hard one. Great stuff.

But what did we learn today? "Dixieland" tunes like "Muskrat Ramble" are not easy to jam on. You have to know the ins and outs of them and be comfortable with the routine. Each one of the four versions I shared today was from a jam session concert and though Pops acquitted himself ably on each one, there was always a degree of sloppiness in the execution of the routine that must have bothered him. But don't worry; two months after the Winter Garden show, Louis Armstrong and His All Stars debuted at Billy Berg's in Los Angeles with "Muskrat Ramble" an immediate early staple of the repertoire. It wouldn't leave the book for the next 20 years. Stay tuned for the next part as we'll hear how the earliest edition of the All Stars with Sid Catlett on drums approached the song and refined it into a thing of perfect over the course of the band's first two years in existence.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Moon Song

Recorded October 14, 1957
Track Time 4:37
Written by Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow
Recorded in Los Angeles
Louis Armstrong, vocal; Oscar Peterson, piano; Herb Ellis, guitar; Ray Brown, bass; Louie Bellson, drums
Originally released on Verve
Currently available on CD: Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson
Available on Itunes? Yes

So they tell me there's a "Super" full moon tonight, 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than the average non-super moon. That's pretty cool and I figured a lot of people out there are going to poke their heads out to see what's going on in the sky. In case you need a soundtrack for the experience, I could suggest perhaps 700,000 songs about moons to set the mood. But allow me to select one of my favorites, "Moon Song," recorded by Louis Armstrong and Oscar Peterson on October 14, 1957.

The song, written by Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow, was a favorite of Norman Granz, who had Roy Eldridge do it with Art Tatum in 1955. As I've written on this blog before, I'm a huge fan of "Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson" as I think it might be Louis's most neglected album, at least in the jazz community. So you complain about "Dixieland" settings and corny tunes like "Hello, Dolly"? Fine, here's Louis doing the American songbook with a terrific 1950s rhythm section. But instead of embracing the concept, those who complain about later Louis seem to ignore this album. Their loss.

Anyway, "Moon Song" is as good as it gets. Listen along and watch out for that super moon!

Isn't that dynamite? A perfect Peterson intro sets Louis up with the vocal, obviously new to him but he sings it like he's known it for years. The Peterson rhythm section (with Louis Bellson on brushes) is light and swinging, but stand back! After the vocal, Pops picks up his horn and starts improvising almost immediately. He dodges in and out of the melody but he sounds so relaxed, Bellson's drumming commenting on Pops's lines in a more modern way than he was used to but it doesn't throw him for a minute. On the bridge, Louis can't resist hammering home the tune's similarities to his theme song "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," emphatically hitting the last note of the section. One more time, Louis introduces us to the melody but as the chorus ends and Pops was supposed to head back to the vocal, Louis surprises us--and other musicians--by holding a high note and swinging into a second, unplanned chorus!

It's an exciting moment as Louis clearly didn't want to stop blowing; he's digging the song and the accompaniment and decides to go for two, the Petersons growing more intense in their backing as Louis starts uncorking an extended improvisation on the tune's changes. He starts with quarter notes, he he plays some eighth-notes, he throws in a couple of glisses, he floats across the bar lines, he does it all. A favorite moment for me comes at 2:31, after Louis's harried run, he plays a low, two-note phrase that expertly mimics his vocal "oh yeah" trademark aside. On the bridge, Louis uncorks a quote that I should know (hell, I've used it in my own improvisations), though he slightly cracks a note. I should mention that Granz always got to Louis was Louis was blowing at night with the All Stars, never an ideal circumstance. Louis recorded his 12 songs with Peterson in one afternoon and this was take 7 of eighth song recorded that day so one little crack is all Pops allows that he's perhaps a little tired. He responds with perhaps my favorite part of the solo over the second half of the bridge with a dramatic, building phrase that's all opera to me, ending with a pinched gliss. His playing grows downright earthy in the last eight bars as he simply gives a lesson in swing.

Louis knows he uncorked a gem and his concluding vocal is simply effervescent. The whole track is guaranteed to make you smile and pat your feet but again, the jazz world ignored it. In fact, when "J. A. T." reviewed the album, he gave it two stars in "Down Beat" and said, "When he does embark on a more ambitious undertaking, blowing a second chorus on 'Moon Song,' the clams and flubs are embarrassing." What was that man listening to!?!?! Well, whatever, those days are behind us (I hope). Listen to "Moon Song," enjoy the "Super Moon" and I'll be back in a few days with more of "Muskrat Ramble."

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Irish Black Bottom

Recorded November 27, 1926
Track Time 2:37
Written by Percy Venable
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Henry "Hy" Clark, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet, alto saxophone; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8447
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

Hi everybody! The e-mails have started trickling in from dear friends wondering if I'm okay since I just went two weeks without a blog after posting six in little over one week. I just want to say that everything is copasetic and the goose hangs high, as Pops would say. It's been a crazy busy few weeks with work, lectures, George Avakian's 92nd birthday bash at Birdland, my family (with my wife, very pregnant with our second daughter, due in June!) and putting the finishing touches on the book, which are due on Monday. I've already done a lot of prep work on my "Muskrat Ramble" series and hope to start rolling them out next week. But until then, it's St. Patrick's Day so let's make it a yearly tradition and listen to "Irish Black Bottom." Sound good? Here's what I wrote last year....enjoy!


Happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone! I don't know why it took me so long to celebrate this holiday on this blog but I've finally come to my senses (I guess it shows my heritage that I've already done a Columbus Day post, but nothing for St. Patty's!). It's not a hard topic by any means since Louis recorded a perfect song for the occasion: "Irish Black Bottom," a fun Hot Five record from 1926. Raise a beer, slice some corned beef and enjoy!

Isn't that a lot of fun? No, it's not earth-shaking art as "Potato Head Blues" or "West End Blues" but who cares? "Irish Black Bottom" comes from a series of Hot Fives Louis made in 1926 that most stoic historians tend to frown on or, in the case of some like Gunther Schuller, attempt to ignore completely. Why? Because they get in the way of the myth of the young Louis being a serious artist, not some commercial clown.

But all it takes is one listen to the complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens to see that Louis was doing plenty of clowning during his "artist" days. On February 26, 1926, Armstrong's horn changed the world with his solo on "Cornet Chop Suey" and his stirring lead playing on songs like "Oriental Strut" and "Muskrat Ramble." But his voice also had equal impact that day as he rasped out the blues on "Georgia Grind" and popularized scat singing with "Heebie Jeebies." Naturally, the records all sold well with "Heebie Jeebies" causing a sensation.

OKeh was thrilled and corralled Armstrong into their studios for a string of sessions in June and another in late November. And these are the sessions that make the "serioius" Armstrong fans sweat: there's Louis shouting about doing the "mess around" or getting off eye-rolling lyrics on "Dropping Shucks." There's Louis playing a slide whistle on "Who'sit." There's Louis inviting vaudeville entertainers--friends of his--to the studio, people like Butterbeans and Susie, Clarence Babcock and Mae Alix. Here's Louis performing material he did nightly at the Sunset Cafe, songs written by that club's choreography Percy Venable. THIS is the Louis Armstrong of the 20s, not some frowning artist who forced to "go commercial" in later years.

And oh yeah, he still sounds like a genius on all of these cuts, taking a dramatic solo on "Skid-Dat-De-Dat" and one for the pantheon on "Big Butter and Egg Man." The critics particuarly adore that latter solo, with good reason, but they don't seem to want to discuss Mae Alix's booming vocal--she was a favorite of Louis's--or Louis's own Al Jolson-tinged offering. Nope, to them it's just about the trumpet, trumpet, trumpet. The trumpet IS brilliant...but they're missing a helluva lot of fun!

Which brings us to "Irish Black Bottom." Admittedly, this is not songwriting as its finest but as a novelty, it's good fun. The "black bottom" was a popular dance of the 1920s so this tune humorously pretends that it's also taken Ireland by storm. If Louis had to record something so silly in the 1950s, critics would scream at the producers for forcing it on him. But "Irish Black Bottom" was written by the aforementioned Percy Venable so more than likely, it was a staple of Louis's act at the Sunset. And can't you imagine Louis bringing down the house with that vocal? That "ha, ha" he gives after singing "And I was born in Ireland," breaks me up every time. I can only imagine what it did to the audiences who heard him do it live.

The song begins with the funny sound of Louis and his Hot Five swinging through a sample of the Irish classic "Where the River Shannon Flows" before Louis swings out with the main melody, which is predominantly in a minor mode until the end. Louis's lead sounds great and Dodds is bouncing around as usual but trombonist Hy Clark, a substitute for Kid Ory, sounds hesitant and doesn't add much. After a chorus and an interlude by pianist Lil Armstrong, Louis takes the vocal. If you can't make it out, here's what he says:

All you heard for years in Ireland,
was the "Wearin' Of The Green",
but the biggest change that's come in Ireland
I have ever seen.
All the laddies and the cooies
laid aside their Irish reels,
and I was born in Ireland
(Ha, Ha), so imagine how I feels.

Now Ireland's gone Black Bottom crazy,
see them dance,
you ought to see them dance.
Folks supposed to be related, even dance,
I mean they dance.
They play that strain,
works right on their brain.
Now it goes Black Bottom,
a new rhythm's drivin' the folks insane.
I hand you no Blarney, when I say
that song really goes,
and they put it over with a wow,
I mean now.
All over Ireland
you can see the people dancin' it,
'cause Ireland's gone Black Bottom crazy

I don't know how you can't get swept up in that offering. Armstrong doesn't so much sing it as shout it, or talk it, but his spirit sure gets the message across (though sometimes, he's so far from the written melody, it sounds like he's singing a different song on top of Lil's chording on the piano). After the vocal, Clark and Dodds take forgettable short solos and breaks before Louis carries the troops home with brio. Louis's lip trill towards the end is particularly violent and right before his closing breaks, he dips into his bag for a favorite phrases, one that ended both "You're Next" and "Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa." The concluding break is so perfect in its phrasing and choice of notes that I believe it might have already been set in stone by Pops during his live performances of the tune at the Sunset. Either way, that's no reason to criticize him; it's a perfect ending and puts an emphatic stamp on a very entertaining record.

That's all for now. Have a happy St. Patrick's day and don't forget to mix in a little Louis with your Guiness. I hand you no blarney, it's a great combination...