Thursday, April 28, 2011

Muskrat Ramble - Part 5 - The All Stars 1955-1958

After jazz, my other two great interests in life are comedy and baseball. When I was five years old, the minute I learned how to read, I memorized every World Series winner and loser and soon became a party trick at family functions. I still eat up baseball stats at a maddening pace (and have my beloved Yankees on in the background as I write this). The following year, when I was six, I caught a Three Stooges short on TBS before school (I still remember it, "A Gem of a Jam") and instantly needed to know everything about them imaginable.

This led to grade school years filled with devouring Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, you name it. Old sitcoms were a great love, especially "The Honeymooners," "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Odd Couple," "The Phil Silvers Show" and "I Love Lucy" (with my name, I had no choice on that last one). Woody Allen eventually became a hero. The whole time I was growing up, I was also plugged into the current comedy scene, obsessed with sitcoms like "Seinfeld," sketch comedy such as "Mr. Show" and silly movies, some too embarrassing to mention here. The profane and vulgar didn't bother me; I've said it before, I have low class. Funny's funny to me, whether it's a Buster Keaton stunt or a sexual misunderstanding from Larry David.

I've also always loved stand-up comedy. My wife and I particularly share this love, often going to see favorite acts such as Louis C. K. and Jim Gaffigan live. Thus, I was in heaven on earth last Friday night when HBO aired a new special called "Talking Funny," a roundtable discussion about comedy with Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais, Chris Rock and Louis C. K. Some people have argued about comedy (and jazz) that the more you analyze it, the less fun it becomes. I guess that's true, but I'm sucker for comedy analysis, especially from the pros, not critics.

The special was fantastic but when it was over, more than ever before I saw a connection between jazz and stand-up comedy and especially as it relates to Louis Armstrong. Anyone who has stumbled upon this blog for even a minute knows the story: in his later years, Louis carefully perfected his act with the All Stars, improvising solos and routines and gradually sculpting them into perfect little performances. Critics balked--"That's not jazz, jazz is spontaneous!"--but Armstrong said that was how it always was done when he was coming up and besides, audiences always turned up in droves.

Well, stand-up comedy is similar in that way. Some comedians start with nothing, gradually improvise or try out a few bits, see what sticks and slowly but surely, build up an act, 10 minutes at first, then 20 and so on. When they have a polished hour, they hit the road...and repeat that hour night after night. When it's really flying, they might film that hour for posterity.

But naturally, not every comedian does this. Some like to improvise every night and don't want to get into a rut so they abandon jokes that work after short periods of time, afraid of going stale. While watching "Talking Funny," I felt like I could have been watching a roundtable discussion with Louis, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman. Almost immediately, the comedians got into it about how they approach their performances. Louis C. K. now writes a full new hour every year, which is pretty unheard of. He feels it keeps his audience coming back because they know it's going to be new. But once he gets that hour...that's the hour. My wife and I have seen him three times now, completely different each time. But we've also seen two of his filmed specials that were identical to the shows we saw live. No problem, we laughed just as hard at home.

Chris Rock will throw the audience some things they want to hear but prefers doing an entirely new show every time he goes out on tour, gradually changing it nightly until he gets it perfect, at which point he films it and moves on. Ricky Gervais is the renegade, a recent convert to stand-up, who feels the need to change it up every night, who hates going for easy laughs, who wants no polish whatsoever. He's there to create and try to do something no one in the audience can do.

And then there's Jerry Seinfeld...our Louis Armstrong figure. Seinfeld's an icon, arguably the biggest name we have these days. He perfected a popular observational style of comedy in the 1980s and helped create arguably the greatest sitcom of all-time. He's no longer an innovator, which he's fine with, and still sells out wherever he goes instantly. But on "Talking Funny," Jerry talks about professionalism and "the act." "The people that write about comedy, and I know it's not their business, these critics, they should understand what an 'act' is. When I go to see somebody work, I don't want to see your new hour. I want to see the act." He then expounds that every year, he might change 10-20% of it, but he has jokes that have been in the show for over 10 years. They're perfected, they're the "core things," as Seinfeld says and they work. He says you have to include some new stuff but people also want to see the "greatest hits." He asks about the audience, "Are they coming to see you or the act?"

The discussion goes on and on and I won't go any further--don't worry, this is still the Louis Armstrong blog--but I found fascinating parallels in this discussion and how some people approach jazz. Louis played a lot of the same songs and solos every night; they worked, he perfected it, it was a great "act." Duke had his way to keep the audience happy (the hits medley, for example), but he also liked to sneak in his recent compositions. Bird might play the same songs every night, but almost always improvised new stuff. And with an Ornette, no one knew what could happen night after night. All valid approaches, but critics will always find something to complain about.

And one more aspect related to comedy. Paul Provenza interviewed one of my comedic heroes, Bob Odenkirk, for his book "Satiristas," and asked him about the popularity of "improv" comedy troupes, the ones that come out, take a suggestion from the audience and spontaneously come up with routines out of thin air. Odenkirk appreciates it but calls it a "parlor tricks." Provenza argues that improv is "verbal jazz" and there's a tight-rope element to it. Odenkirk argues that the "tightrope aspect is not good. It causes a lot of artificial reaction. Most everybody who is getting a laugh through improvisation is getting it because the tightrope is what's generating it." Damn, I thought to myself, how many times have I seen a sad jazz musician get a hand just because he or she improvised something, even if it's lousy.

Odenkirk then argues that EVERYTHING is improvised at some point. "When you sit at a desk and try to write something, you make shit up, come up with a scenario, make some more up, sometimes talk out loud and try out a line--you're improvising. And then you clear out all the crap, find the point, and go further."

Now, let me quote Louis Armstrong after getting criticized for playing a set solo on "Indiana" and no longer improvising every night. "When I improvise something, I don't forget it! If it's good, of course I remember it. Every note! That's why I play it again. Nearly everything I ever play I improvised at some time or other."

See the parallels? This is a topic that, I don't know, might be ripe for a journal article or a blog or some other forum. But it hit me as I prepared for today's blog on the late 50s "Muskrat Rambles." Because honestly, with Edmond Hall aboard, these might be my favorite versions of the song in Armstrong's recorded output. But also honestly, I've shared about a dozen previous versions and these today are not very different from the last couple I shared in my last post. So it's easy for me to get all worked up about an Amsterdam version from October 1955, share a link and then have a reader say, "Hm, that sounds almost identical to the Crescendo Club version you shared two weeks ago from January 1955. Poor Louis Armstrong was repeating himself and couldn't create anything."

So my argument is, no! Louis Armstrong created THIS! It's a masterpiece. He plays his ass off. The whole band does. That Symphony Hall version of "Muskrat" from 1947 is pretty special (take a bow, Mr. Catlett) but if I had to choose, I think the Amsterdam version heard on the Columbia LP "Ambassador Satch" is my favorite. I've played it at lectures before and it never fails to get a huge ovation. It's a performance that was improvised--at one point--but is now a finely crafted work of art. And difficult as hell to play. Not a single musician in the band goes through the motions. Everyone plays it like it's the first time they ever saw it and that's what audiences responded to and why they kept coming back. Critics did a helluva lot of complaining in the the 1950s and 1960s but the fact is Louis never played in front of an empty house. The people came to see him, not the act, and didn't give a damn how much was improvised fresh each night. They wanted a show...and he gave them the best one in the business.

So with all preliminaries out of the way, let's travel to Amsterdam, October 30, 1955. This was a concert completely recorded by George Avakian at Columbia. Avakian used four tracks from it and some other selections from Milan and Los Angeles to create the masterpiece "Ambassador Satch," sweetening the mix with dubbed in applause at time to make it feel more "live." But the entire concert was recorded and is sitting there, rotting away in Sony's vaults. Makes me sick (but don't worry, their new 20-CD boxed set, "Miles Davis Farts and Coughs").

To hear the final version in all its splendor--and sweetened applause--dig up "Ambassador Satch" or download it. I love my readers and if you're still with me after this diatribe, how about a little treat? Here's the very same "Muskrat Ramble" as recorded off the sound system that night at Concertgebeow. The sound quality is a little rougher than the finished version but the spirit shines through. As Arvell Shaw said, this edition of the All Stars had the power of a big band packed into a little sextet. He wasn't kidding. Here's my favorite "Muskrat Ramble" as never heard before:

Now how can anyone argue with that? The whole thing is one climax after another. Listen to Armstrong, trombonist Trummy Young and clarinetist Edmond Hall completely burn through the ensemble at 1:24 into the performance. They're on fire and they're only getting started. Everyone solos well, but listen to Edmond Hall and compare his work with Barney Bigard's. Actually, Bigard had a pretty exciting set solo on this song but he had nothing behind it in previous versions. Hall swings dangerously backed by those super-tight riffs.

And Louis is in great form, too, rephrasing that elusive quote at 3:40 that none of my friends have named yet (though as Michael Steinman probably guessed correctly, it must be some commercial jingle or theme song that's been lost to time). And Louis has a new ending, too. After many versions with those abstract glisses, he now plays a little ascending run echoed by pianist Billy Kyle. Trummy's solo now features a little "Down By the Riverside" singalong and more good fun ("The Lady in Red" anyone?). And if you can find anything more powerful then those closing ensembles, contact me immediately. Even with the parade of quotes, this is a band intent on kicking your ass...mission accomplished!

That version of "Muskrat" was recorded during a three-month tour of Europe that found Louis followed not only by Avakian's microphone but Edward R. Murrow's camera crew filing a report for "See It Now." Meanwhile, back home, Armstrong's latest record, "Mack the Knife," was climbing up the charts. When he stepped foot back in America, he only had a couple of days off before flying to Hollywood to film "High Society." Armstrong's career was hitting new peaks of popularity with almost each passing week.

But what does this mean for us? It means that he started becoming a hit on the newly formed jazz festival circuit. He did a big tour with Woody Herman. He shared a bill with Teddy Buckner in Pasadena. He darted in and out of a Helen Hayes narrative at the "Chicago Concert" in June 1956. This is all my way of saying that almost every surviving All Stars set from 1956 and 1957 is a streamlined one. The 1953 version I shared last time with Milt Hinton, the Crescendo Club, the Amsterdam show, those were all full evenings with the All Stars, shows ranging from two to three hours. But at a Newport Jazz Festival or when he appeared on a bill with other artists, Louis would only have to do an hour. In that short time, he'd manage to play the hits, feature each All Star and contribute his usual freakish horn work on favorites like "The Gypsy" and "The Bucket's Got a Hole In It." When it was time to dedicate something "to all the musicians in the house," he frequently began choosing "Ole Miss," giving a plug to his album "Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy" in the process.

Thus, for all the hours and hours of All Stars material that survives in 1956 and 1957, I only have one real version of "Muskrat Ramble" in my collection and alas, it's incomplete, cutting out during the rideout choruses. I'm sure Pops continued to play it reguarly as his one-nighters didn't exactly stop during this period, but nothing much survives from this time so until some collectors step forward with some bootlegs, we have to fast forward to 1958. Hall, Young and Kyle are still there but now Mort Herbert is on bass and Danny Barcelona's on drums. In April of that year, they appeared on a "Timex All Star Jazz Show" and opened with an extra firery "Muskrat." Because of the time constraints of live TV, Louis was probably told to play a shortened version. Thus, he cut the routine severely and ratcheted the tempo through the roof. The result is short but one of the most exciting pieces of footage, if not the most exciting footage ever captured of the Armtrong-Young-Hall front line. Hold on to something before watching this...

That final note is positvely scary. Just a few weeks later, the All Stars found themselves playing in front of a smaller-than-usual crowd in North Bay, Ontario, far from the glitz of Amsterdam, a "Timex" TV studio or the Newport Jazz Festival. No cameras or recording microphones in sight. Yet listen to how they absolutely tear into this number like complete professionals. Danny Barcelona's drums are a bit over-miked but I like his driving style and heavy backbeat so I'm not complaining. And for the first time in our history of "Muskrat" we actually get an encore with Pops slipping in another quote, this time a new one, of "The Song is Ended." Here's the All Stars in Ontario:

So on those swinging notes, I'm going to conclude for the day (actually days it took me to write this). I know I'm only in 1958 and it probably looks like I'll never end but I think I can wrap it up in one more post. A preview: 1959 pre-heart attack, 1959 post-heart attack, studio recordings with the Dukes of Dixieland and Bing Crosby and final surviving versions from 1966 and 1967 with chops fading, no more trumpet solos and yet gallant playing til the end. Til then!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Cotton Tail

Recorded April 4, 1961
Track Time 3:42
Written by Duke Ellington
Recorded in New York City
Accompanied by Duke Ellington, piano, Trummy Young, trombone, Barney Bigard, clarinet, Mort Herbert, bass, Danny Barcelona, drums
Released on the Roulette LP "Recording Together for the First Time"
Currently on CD: "Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: The Complete Sessions"
Available on Itunes? Yes (The rehearsal is available only by purchasing the full album)

We interrupt our scheduled look at part five of Louis Armstrong's history with "Muskrat Ramble" to instead bring you something a little more topical. Today is Easter Sunday and after a few years of sharing "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket" on this day, I have decided to go another route and celebrate today with Louis and Duke Ellington jamming away on "Cotton Tail." The tune was the last song recorded on the second day of two long sessions that are now generally referred to as "The Great Summit." (And it was recorded 50 years ago this month so consider this an anniversary post as well!)

After recording so much marvelous music over the two days, it was decided to close out the session with this jam session favorite. A snatch of rehearsal was saved and issued when Roulette put out a two-disc version of the Armstrong-Ellington collaboration about a decade ago. Here it is, everyone sounding relaxed and Louis having a lot of fun scatting Ben Webster's famed saxophone lines.

Louis sounds like he wants someone to play it but after Barney and Duke fumble with it, the idea is aborted. Still, a pretty hip look at how Louis listened to everything and absorbed it all. When the light when on, Duke carried the melody, leading to a string of one-chorus solos. Pops sounds great, very fluent and relaxed; he didn't do much with "Rhythm" changes but what he did do was always interesting. But nothing tops Louis's unbeatable scat chorus with the immortal line, "Chops are flying everywhere, look at ol' Duke laughing there!" It's a beautiful moment, taking us into the studio and giving us a priceless image of Louis scatting and Duke digging him immensely. How could he not?

So put down the chocolate bunnies, put the hard-boiled eggs back in the fridge and put off church til a little later and listen to "Cotton Tail."

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Muskrat Ramble - Part 4 - The All Stars 1949-1955

Hello all and welcome back to the fourth part in my seemingly never-ending series on "Muskrat Ramble" (which I think will end with six parts). When we last left our heroes, they were performing "Muskrat Ramble" almost nightly in 1947 and 1948, gradually tightening it with each passing performance. Louis tried it at some different tempos and improvised many different solos (all with superb backing from Big Sid Catlett) but by the final version I shared, from December 1948 at the Blue Note in Chicago, things were really coming together.

Unfortunately, that December 1948 version is the last full All Stars version I have until 1952! I only have the opening two minutes of one from Paris in November 1949. In Pasadena in 1951, the All Stars played a fun jam session version with the Firehouse Five Plus Two but it's pretty short and Pops sounds like he's looking for a way to end it. But in between, I do have a fun performance to share that should give us an idea of how "Muskrat Ramble" was being performed in this period. It comes from a radio broadcast done for Standard Oil, titled "A Musical Map of America." It was recorded on January 20, 1950 and features Louis with Jack Teagarden and Earl "Fatha" Hines from the All Stars, along with clarinetist Lyle Johnson, guitarist Clancy Hayes and unknown bass and drums. The rhythm section is fine, if undistinguishable, while clarinetist Johnson is a bit of a mess. But Pops is superhuman and if you have that December 1948 version in your head (and I do advise going back to familiarize yourself with it), you'll hear the elements really clicking on this one:

The routine follows the All Stars one pretty closely, except there's no bass solo and clarinetist Johnson doesn't benefit from Armstrong and Teagarden's backing riffs. But Louis is on fire from the start, taking his first solo on the second strain of the piece, nodding back to his original 1926 version, but by this point, solidified into a hot new creation. His actual two chorus solo begins at 3:08 and is great. By this point, Louis's opening eight bars were set in stone (and why not? They're great!), but he improvises all new stuff until the beginning of his second chorus, when he slyly inserts a quote from "Bye Bye Blackbird" that started in 1948 (Hines is with him all the way). But even after that all new up until that bravado-filled closing.

Teagarden wails for two before Louis leads the way home with his clarion call phrase. With the regular All Stars, it was always echoed by Teagarden and clarinetist Barney Bigard but here, Johnson doesn't see it coming and there's an odd gap until Teagarden picks it up. Louis improvises an entirely new lead until the second chorus, when he and Teagarden team up for that fantastically exciting descending riff (also dating back to December 1948) and the high triplets. But what Louis plays after that is simply crazy! He flies up the horn and twists his way sneakily back down, a terrific moment that is in no other version of "Muskrat" (but again, might have been regular in other, non-surviving versions from this period). Pops is simply superhuman, and that is that.

By the time of the next surviving full version from the All Stars, it's not even the All Stars that you might recognize. Teagarden's gone, replaced by Russ Phillips. Earl Hines is gone, replaced by Marty Napoleon. Arvell Shaw is gone, replaced by Dale Jones. And Big Sid, who was the star of my last post, left in 1949 and was replaced by Cozy Cole. Thus, it's only Louis and Barney Bigard from the original days. This 1952 edition was kind of a rebuilding phase before the Trummy Young-Billy Kyle years began in late 1953. It's a fine edition, though unheralded, and I think we should give them the respect to hear their version of "Muskrat Ramble." It should surprise no one that it's very similar to the earlier ones....when Pops had an arrangement down, even if it wasn't written down, that's how he liked to play it. So here's the 1952 All Stars live in New Orleans on May 13, 1952, a fantastic concert that's sadly still unissued:

As usual, Louis is outstanding but there's some problems with the band. First off, I should say that I do like Cozy Cole very much but after all that Big Sid, he kind of pales in comparison here. Gone are all those unbelievably creative fills; Cole is content to mainly stick to time-keeping, which he did with a somewhat (to my ears) stiff pattern, more of a straight ding-ding-ding instead of a looser ding-ding-a-ding.

Then there's Dale Jones's solo, which, like most of his, kind of disintegrates before its finished. But Jones was apparently a great showman (you can hear the audience applauding him) and Louis, on one of his private tapes, said that Jones raised the quality of the band after the departure of Arvell Shaw, so what do I know? I enjoy Russ Phillips's smooth playing but he's obviously a Teagarden man and again, after hearing Jack, it's a tough act to follow. Louis personally asked Phillips to join as Phillips had once sat in with the All Stars when Teagarden was sick so he definitely liked his playing. But after a short time, I think Louis wanted something different. In February 1952, the All Stars went to Hawaii and that's where Louis heard Trummy Young and pretty much asked him to join on the spot. Young couldn't until September so Phillips stayed until then, giving his best, a sadly forgotten All Star.

But Marty Napoleon, still going strong (and about to turn 90!) is, in my opinion, the most exciting pianist the All Stars ever had; I think he sounds great. And Barney's still in there, not quite as bored and distant as he'd become in ensuing years.

But I want to focus on Pops, Pops, Pops. He jumps out of the gate with his standard opening eight bars sounding great. and then he plays this:

It's a perfect lick and I know that it just has to be a quote but damned if I know what it is. Please write in if you know it! Regardless, it fits like a glove and would occupy this space in almost all future Armstrong "Muskrat" solos. The descending three-note riff he plays coming out of it would be refined into a trickier triplet feel, as we'll soon here, but otherwise, it's the first major change to the solo we've heard in four years.

Louis's second chorus still opens with "Bye Bye Blackbird" but he tries some scorching new ideas in the middle until he hits upon his ideal closing phrase. After Philips's smooth solo, Louis sounds the clarion call into the final ensemble, echoed by Bigard and Phillips. After some strong lead, it's time for another new addition to the routine: Louis humorously quotes "I dream of Jeannie with the light brown hair." He had clearly been doing this for some time as Phillips is right in there with him. The final chorus has also been polished to a high gloss: the violent descending riffs, the triplets into the drum break, the high notes, the melodic paraphrase, all of it fantastic. We're five years into the history and it's almost there.

Now I know my analysis has been pretty thick so far, so I think it's time for me to shut up and for you to do more listening. Let's fast-forward to Louis's hugely successful European tour of 1952. Personnel had changed yet again with Arvell Shaw back on bass and Bob McCracken replacing Barney Bigard on clarinet. Also, Trummy Young joined the band just days before leaving for Europe, so he's still fresh, perhaps not knowing that the next 11 years of his life would be spent as an All Star.

I want to showcase two versions from this trip, just spotlighting Louis's solo, Trummy's solo and the rideout choruses. First up is Oslo, Norway on October 5, 1952:

The tempo is slightly slower than the New Orleans version and Louis sounds very relaxed. It's all there: the opening phrase, the quote he introduced in New Orleans (along with the trickier triplets coming out of it), the "Bye Bye Blackbird" reference, etc. All that's missing is an ending, so he tries something new: giant abstract glisses, leading into a perfect ending phrase. Then it's time for Trummy, sounding a little tentative at first. But he quickly starts jumping and wakes up Cozy Cole in the rhythm section, a small hint of the excitement he can generate. Humorously, Trummy doesn't have Louis's three-note clarion call down yet so when Louis plays it and McCracken repeats it, there's a bit of odd silence! But from there, the ensemble simply rocks.

Now, let's skip ahead a month to Lausanne, Switzerland. By this point, you might be saying, "Hm, these versions are getting awfully similar...don't I have more important things to do?" Well, just give a listen to this solo:

See? Aren't you glad you stuck around? The Lausanne show is a funny one; Louis seems to want to avoid the upper register so on song after song, he improvises swinging new solos around the middle part of his horn. I mean, literally every line of that solo is completely new. If the chops were hurting, I'm sure there's a thousand trumpeters out there who wish their chops hurt like that! I don't know, maybe he was just in an improvising mood because after Trummy's solo, Louis goes into the usual routine on the rideouts. Trummy's in there with Louis's opening phrase finally and the ensemble smokes to the finish, the faster tempo generating more excitement.

Soon after, though, "Muskrat" settled back into the more comfortable medium groove. On July 11 at the Blue Note in Chicago, the song was stretched to almost seven minutes long. It's a great performance but the sound quality isn't ideal and it's pretty similar to what we've heard, with every aspect of Pops's solo in place...with one new addition. In the first rideout chorus, Louis adds a new quote immediately after "I dream of Jeannie": "Every little breeze seems to whisper Louise." It's a great touch, and again, would get Pops one step closer to a perfect, "set" performance.

But there was still one thing to change: the tempo. As we've heard, it bounced back and forth a couple of times between medium and up but in the fall of 1953, the tempo went up and stayed there. I liked the medium tempo but I don't know, sometimes it dragged a bit. At the new faster clip, "Muskrat" became more exciting than ever, bolstered in the summer of 1953 by the addition of Milt Hinton to the band on bass (also, Barney Bigard's back on clarinet). Thus, I think it's time to listen to a full version. I must apologize for two terrible skips; I transferred this directly from LP and the copy I used had two skips that I couldn't do anything with (and for some godforsaken reason, this concert isn't out on CD!!!). But here's the All Stars, swinging hard in 1953:

That's the stuff! The faster tempo adds a whole new dimension of swing and the Marty Napoleon-Milt Hinton-Cozy Cole rhythm section cooks more than any other one since the Big Sid days. After the exciting opening choruses, Marty wails for two--even though I butchered his first outing with a gruesome skip, his second chorus shows how damn exciting his playing could be. Then Milt comes up and really, what can I say? Milt was THE bassist meant for Pops and I wish he lasted for 20 years with him. You can picture him smiling to beat the band, breaking up the audience with that quote from "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'." And catch the inside joke with Louis; I mentioned that a few months earlier, Louis started quoting "Louise" in the rideout chorus. Well, Milt quotes it first here, leading Louis to jokingly mutter, "Oh, leave Louise out of here, boy!"

Barney's solo is off-mike but it allows us to appreciate the power of the Armstrong-Young team as they push him along with those great background riffs (or, as my friends Dave Whitney and Phil Person refer to them, "trumpet foregrounds"). Then Louis, in peak form, every aspect of his solo that he had worked so hard on for six years coming together at the right time. He's absolutely on fire and you can hear Milt and Trummy shouting encouragement from the heart in the background. Trummy's also more comfortable, now with a quote from "The Lady in Red" and still a storming second chorus. The rideout choruses, too, generate more heat than ever before. And did you catch when Louis quotes "Louise"? You can hear Milt respond with a mock-incredulous "Hey!" in the background. Great showmanship, great musicianship, an all-around classic "Ramble."

Within a few months, this edition of the All Stars would lose its rhythm section. First, Billy Kyle replaced Napoleon and proved to be an ideal fit in the group. Then Arvell Shaw came back yet again as Milt decided to live in the studios. And after an erratic period with Kenny John replacing Cole on drums, Barrett Deems joined in May 1954. While Big Sid's the king and Cole was probably a better technician, Deems was a powerhouse with a heavy beat and driving sound, his drums bubbling over like a caldron of swing. This group went into the studio in July 1954 to cut the immortal "Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy." Then they returned to the studio two months later to cut the less-than-immortal "Muskrat Ramble" with lyrics by Ray Gilbert.

Gilbert's trite lyrics were recorded by the McGuire Sisters in 1954 and soon became a hit on the charts. Decca producer Milt Gabler always had one eye on the charts and as soon as this one looked to be a hit, Gabler thought of Louis. The All Stars recorded their version on September 1, but it didn't go anywhere on the charts. The lyrics might be dumb but Louis invests everything he has in them; still, stick around for the hot instrumental interlude, taken directly from the All Stars's routine:

Louis seemed to know that it wouldn't be worth keeping these lyrics in the show as I have never found an example of him performing them live (unlike his duet with Gary Crosby on "Struttin' With Some Barbecue," which was a bit of a hit and led Louis to try it out with Trummy Young as his vocal partner for a short time). The usual instrumental routine remained the norm, hotter than ever in this Trummy-Bigard-Kyle-Shaw-Deems edition. The boys turned in one of my all-time favorite performances of it in January 1955 at Hollywood's Crescendo Club. Though it was not released by Decca at the time, this one never fails to get my blood pumping. And for once, I don't think I have to say much about it. There are no surprises and finally, about 7 1/2 years after the birth of the band, Louis has sculpted the performance into a work of art. But the whole band is in fantastic form (even Barney and especially Trummy, who inserts a bit of "Down By The Riverside" into his solo that would remain) and the sound quality is the best I've shared yet. So here is the perfected "Muskrat" in it loud!

Yeah, man! I could listen to that one all day. And though you might think, "Well, that's it, no reason to keep going," Louis did change things up every now and then. During a run at Basin Street in New York in July 1955, Louis turned in an especially frisky solo, eschewing his usual quote eight bars in (the one I can't name!) for something that sounds even more like a quote (perhaps a TV jingle or theme song?). Here's Louis's solo, Trummy's solo and the rideout from Basin Street:

And here's that "quote" isolated in case anyone can place it:

However, it was during that same run at Basin Street that Barney Bigard turned in one of his worst performances, a mess on "Rose Room," cracking notes and strictly going through the motions. He was officially on fumes and ready for a change. Louis knew it and in September 1955, a change was made as Edmond Hall joined the band. That change would be for the better and Louis's history with "Muskrat Ramble" was about to get even hotter. Stay tuned for the Edmond Hall and Peanuts Hucko versions in the next installment...til then!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Viva Italia! (And other odds and ends....)

Ciao, you cats. I'm back from my 48-hour stay in Italy, where I'm happy to report that love and appreciation for Pops is alive and well. I took part in the Piacenza Jazz Festival's daylong tribute to Louis and Miles Davis, gracious to be asked to join the lineup of Italian heavy-hitters on jazz Stefano Zenni, Marcello Piras and Enrico Merlin. Big thanks to Gianni Azzali for bringing me out there and for doing such a wonderful job with the festival (it lasts over a month...can you imagine such a thing in the United States?). It was a fantastic time from start to finish and I only had to "work" for about 90 minutes, spreading the joys of Louis Armstrong's later years. Here's a pic of me in action, sitting back and digging Pops.

And here I am with two of the finest jazz historians on the scene, Italian or otherwise, first Stefano Zenni (who acted as my translator!):

And Marcello Piras, who did a wonderful presentation on Louis and Italy, and the influence Italian music had on him and the reciprocal influence Louis had on Italian musicians. Great stuff!

And naturally, only being in Italy for 48 hours, I did almost unheard of feats of eating, attempting to squeeze 14 days of eating into six meals (with many courses). Here I am with a pizza...poor little pizza didn't stand a chance!

For many more pictures of me eating like a fool, find me on Facebook. I guess this is a good time to point out that I have been on Facebook for three years and am fairly addicted to it. More and more readers have found me on there, so please, I encourage anyone interested to find me there. And I should also mention that I recently joined Twitter, at the advice of my publicist at Pantheon. Because I'm so set in my Facebook ways, I've been slow rolling out the Tweets (and have been rewarded for my efforts with 25 strong and faithful followers!), but I promise to do more when the book comes out, especially with news, reviews and tour dates. Look me up @RickyRiccardi and follow away!

Speaking of the book, we're getting closer all the time to the official June 21 publication date. Advance copies have already been sent out and the reviews have been trickling in. So far, all good! Two of my pals, Michael Steinman and Dave Whitney, wrote lovely words about it that really touched me deeply, while Publisher's Weekly wrote a nice blurb about it as well (though the one complaint about minutiae means the author never read my blog!). Here they are in case you want to see what the buzz is all about...

Publisher's Weekly

Michael Steinman

Dave Whitney

Though the book doesn't come out for two more months, it can be pre-ordered on Amazon by clicking the link at the top right of this page. Remember, all proceeds go to needy families....mine. (Joke courtesy of David Ostwald....)

So I know, I know, big shot Ricko is traveling the world, reading book reviews, living the high life...doing everything but blogging! I know it's been patchy, but I think I'm through with the busiest portion of my life, at least until the summer comes, when my wife has a baby, the book comes out and I spend the rest of the summer, changing diapers and hawking the book. But until then, I'll be able to take a breather and hopefully get some blogs cranked out, notably the next in my series on "Muskrat Ramble," hopefully ready to hit on Wednesday or Thursday.

But if I do disappear and you're looking for some Pops online to satisfy your fix, I have some new recommendations for you that cannot miss. First up is Margo Mensing and her fabulous Louis Armstrong Dead At...69 blog. Don't let the cryptic title worry you; the site is the latest in a project that Ms. Mensing began seven years ago. Each year on her birthday, she picks a notable figure who died at her current age and basically spends a year with this person's works, learning everything she possibly can from him or her. This year, Mensing is 69, the age Louis Armstrong passed away in and she has embraced all aspects of Pops since she chose him for her project.

She has actually come to the Louis Armstrong House Museum twice (you'll see some images from our online catalog on her page) and I got to meet her once, a charming visit. She told me that she admired what I do, but she isn't about the nuts and bolts of the music ("what a high note in the fourth bar of the bridge!"). Thus, if you click the above link, you'll find entries on Louis's father Willie, Louis's handkerchiefs, Louis at the typewriter and much, much more. If you want to know more about Louis, go to Margo Mensing's site NOW!

And finally, a plug for my pal Michael Conklin, a fellow survivor of the Master's program in Jazz History and Research at Rutgers. Michael's a jazz junkie, writer and teacher who already hosts a fantastic blog on Bill Evans. He has now started a second one with the fantastic title From Basin Street to Birdland, aimed at casual listeners and novice musicians. He dove right in this week with an entry on Louis and a 1959 version of "Basin Street Blues" and has followed with terrific looks at the music of Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and James P. Johnson, complete with audio samples. Dig him!

So the blogosphere is swinging these days but don't count me out...I'll be back with more on Louis and "Muskrat Ramble" in just a couple of days. Til then!