Saturday, March 24, 2012

75 Years of Louis Armstrong with Andy Iona and His Islanders

Louis Armstrong with Andy Iona and His Islanders
Recorded March 24, 1937
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Sam Koko, steel guitar; George Archer, Harry Baty, guitar; Andy Iona, ukulele; Joe Nawahi, bass
Originally released on Decca 1216
Currently available on CD: It's on the Mosaic box set of Armstrong's Decca recordings from 1935-1946
Available on Itunes? Yes

Okay everybody, sing with me in your best Louis Armstrong voice: ba-bop-du-DET-de-dot-du-yeah!

All right, that doesn't look as good transcribed--feel free to add the syllables of your choice--but it's the quintessential Armstrong break, a favorite of his both vocally and on trumpet and one that Armstrong impersonators can't resist (think Ella Fitzgerald at the end of "Tenderly"). And 75 years ago today, Louis Armstrong committed it to wax for the very first time.

On a Hawaiian song. With Hawaiian musicians.

Now, judging by how you reacted to those last two sentences says a lot about your worship of Louis Armstrong. If you're a die-hard nut like myself, you probably just smiled fondly at the memory of Louis's Hawaiian tunes. If you're more casual, you might be curious or might admit that you haven't spent much time with these sides. And if you're a jazz purist or an Armstrong detractor, you might have scoffed loudly at the mere notion.

I'm not going to insist that you have to like these songs...but really, what's not to like? I think they're irresistible but many others have not felt that way. Gunther Schuller paid no attention to Louis's Hawaiian records, nor his timeless meeting with the Mills Brothers, writing them off a "nearly a year-long dalliance with assorted Hawaiians and vocal quartets" and "wondering whether the time spent with these groups could not have been put to better use." When Mosaic Records did their usual heroic job with Louis's Decca recordings, a review on the All About Jazz website referred to the Hawaiian sessions as "undeniable misfires."

I'm sorry, but I'm denying that. I think these sessions are utterly charming and like a lot of Louis's Decca work during period, prove that Louis could make gold out of just about anything. I have used "On a Little Bamboo Bride" during a few of my Armstrong lectures, often to demonstrate that ability, and it has never failed to enchant my audiences. If you haven't paid attention to these sessions, give me a few minutes, listen to them in full and then let me know what you think.

I should start right out with a disclaimer: the two tracks I'm about discuss were from Armstrong's SECOND session with Hawaiians. On August 18, 1936, he recorded with "The Polynesians" in Los Angeles, an authentic Hawaiian group with Lionel Hampton sitting in on drums and vibes. That session really should have gotten a 75th anniversary post but when that anniversary came and went, I was immersed in book tour duties (and at home, new baby duties). That session produced two magical numbers, "To You, Sweetheart Aloha" and "On a Coconut Island," which seems to be everyone's favorite Armstrong Hawaiian number. In fact, I included it when I helped with the track list for Universal's "Ambassador of Jazz" boxed set because I wanted more people to hear it. And as some of you might now, I moonlight as a pianist averaging about two gigs a month, most often with my partner Bootsy Spankins, P.I. (stage name of Brendan Castner), and those two tracks are in our permanent repertoire with Bootsy handling the vocal and ukulele chores. Maybe one day I'll blog about those two but for now, you have my permission to head off and listen to them.

The records must have been a success. Louis didn't record anything else in the final 4 1/2 months of 1936 and started 1937 in an auspicious way with a throat operation that sidelined him for a bit (and greatly contributed to the ultra-rough rasp that became his trademark in later years). He finally made it back to Decca's studio in March 1937 and who was waiting for him? Luis Russell's big band? White studio musicians? Sidney Bechet? A gospel choir?

Nope. Andy Iona and His Islanders.

Thus, the 1936 session must have sold well enough for Jack Kapp to want to do it all over again the following year. Andy Iona was a Hawaiian native who became one of the must influential Hawaiian musicians for his ability to blend island and swing rhythms. Let's listen to what Iona sounded like without Louis, on a recording from 1936, "Vana Vana":

Hot stuff! And here's the timeless "Hawaiian War Chant" (which always gives me fond memories of Spike Jones, Tex Avery cartoons and Roy Eldridge solos):

So now you know about Andy Iona. Let's get to the first tune of the day, "On a Little Bamboo Bridge." Decca was already pushing this version as steel guitar/ukulele Roy Smeck had just recorded it for the label on January 12. Here's how Smeck did it:

Now with all of that out of the way, let's listen to Pops:



Did that not just make your day? I know it made mine. It's so charming and do damn swinging and Pops sounds right at a home. Sam Koki's steel guitar takes the atmospheric intro before Iona and his two guitarists start their infectious Hawaiian shuffle. And then it's time for Pops, his voice still surprisingly bell-clear and beautiful after the throat surgery (it would be much more gravelly on his next session with the Mills Brothers from two weeks later). He's obviously feeling the song, swinging gently, throwing in a few "Mmms" for good measure, but not changing the melody too much on this first go-around.

After that lovely chorus, Koki takes the lead for a half-chorus. It's almost easy to close your eyes, lose yourself in the Hawaiian sounds and forget about Louis completely...until he enters at 1:54 in with his trumpet and plays THE BREAK. Yes, folks, there it is, its first time on record, and as we're about to see, far from his last.

Muted, Louis takes the bridge in a relaxed fashion and even ends with a tricky, inside-out break. His trumpet serves as an instrumental extension of his voice, swinging the melody and holding notes where "Mmm's" would have been if this was a vocal. But when he gets to the last note of the melody, he doesn't play it. Instead, he pulls his horn from his chops and scats THE BREAK. So there it is again, 37 seconds after he discovered it with his trumpet, he's already giving out with it with his voice.

Now he's really feeling it. Louis's vocal reprises usually gave him the license to take more liberties with the written lyric and this one is no different. The space he leaves before singing the line "silvery ripples on the shore" all on one pitch has to be my favorite moment of the vocal. Very passionate stuff. When he gets to the last eight bars--prefaced with a big "Ohhh"--he's a full swing mode, his phrasing growing more declamatory as he goes on. And when he gets to the end of the vocal--and the record--how does he end it? Yes, with THE BREAK, scatted one more time.

Three times in little over three minutes! And with that, arguably Louis's most famous lick was immortalized on record. One day when I have a few years to waste, I'll count every other time he sang or played it over the next 34 years of his recording career....

The next tune to be recorded was "Hawaiian Hospitality" by Harry Owens and Ray Kenney. Once again, Decca had an interest in the song as Ted Fio Rito (hello, Honeymooners fans!) had just waxed a version on February 19, 1937. That version isn't on YouTube (but there are later versions by the Mills Brothers and some Hawaiian groups) so let's just dive in with Pops:



Once again, Koki sets it up before Louis comes in with a few delightful lines in Hawaiian. Throughout his long, storied career, Louis had to sing at various times in German, Italian and in this case, Hawaiian, and every time out, he swung. Like the rest of the Hawaiian tunes, this one will stick in your head for a while. Louis giving it the loving treatment again (I like the way he sings the Hawaiian words "wahine," "okolehao" and "welakahao"). The arrangement is almost identical to "Bamboo Bridge" with Koki taking 16 bars before muted Louis comes in to play the pretty bridge. Midway through the final eight bars, Louis goes up and ends with some well-phrased high notes, not in the stratosphere but appropriately effective. The vocal reprise is very pretty but the unique melody does not allow itself to the kind of swinging re-phrasing Louis offered on the Hawaiian tunes. He does change up the phrasing when he gets into the final eight but then he sticks to the melody until his effervescent reading of the tune's final line, "It's just the old Hawaiian Hospitality." A charming record.

And that ended Louis's rendezvous with Hawaiian music, unless you count later live and studio remakes of "Song of the Islands," which Louis first recorded in 1930, proving that he could be right at home with this music. Last week, I talked about these sides with Michael Steinman over at the Louis Armstrong House Museum and both of lamented that Jack Kapp never got Louis into the studio to record a full album's worth of Hawaiian songs. Oh well, we can't regret what never was, all we can do is enjoy Louis's four Hawaiian outings for Decca over and over and over again. Hope you enjoyed them as much as I do!

2 comments:

Michael said...

MAHALO, dear Ricky!

Pete Kelly's Blog said...

Hi Ricky- Great Session and Nice Blog.
Yours, Real Hawaiians including Myself.
Nyuk-Nyuk-Nyuk!!!