This post has been a long time coming and frankly, I'm a little surprised that it's taken someone this long to do it. I check out a lot of online jazz forums and sadly, Louis Armstrong rarely comes up. When he does, 75% of the time it's a new jazz listener who has heard so much about the vaunted Hot Fives and Hot Sevens and wants to know what is the best way to obtain them. After that, fireworks usually break out as listeners weigh in with their personal pros and cons for each available set.
[Warning: History lesson about to commence. If you're not interested, scroll until you come to the audio samples.]
For years, it's been a battle between two releases: in this corner, the late John R. T. Davies' budget-priced work, Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, and in the other corner, Sony's more lavish package from 2000, The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings.
The sets had their differences. The JSP set was transferred from private recordings, featured barebones packaging and none of Louis's other sessions from the period (except for one Butterbeans and Susie date; in fact, disc 4 of the JSP has nothing to do with the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens but instead concentrates on Louis's 1929 New York recordings). The Sony set used the original masters for transfers but the results featured more surface noise. However, Sony did include Louis's other small group sessions with Johnny Dodds, Lil's Hot Shots, Hociel Thomas and Lillie Delk Christian, making it more of a complete set, not to mention a beautiful hardback book.
And so it was...until this year. After Sony put out the box in 2000, they took the main Hot Fives and Hot Sevens and released them on three separate discs with new notes by Gary Giddins. As many of you know, I'm the Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum and those individual discs are what we've sold for years. But earlier this year, our gift shop manager informed me that Sony had made all three discs AND the boxed set out-of-print. Hmmm....
Why did they do this? To make room for a brand new box: Louis Armstrong: The OKeh, Columbia and RCA Victor Recordings, 1925-1933.. I was on the inside track for this set because I had the honor of wring the liner notes for it. However, I did so without hearing a note of the new box. I was frequently asked about the sound because promotional material advertised this set as featuring the best sound quality this material has ever received. I wasn't sure what to say. The track listings of each disc were straight copies of earlier Sony single-disc releases from the late 80s and 90s but the liner notes booklet did credit new names with remastering and restoration.
I should back up a bit and talk for a second about these 1980s and 90s CDs. Well, actually let's go way back to George Avakian and the first reissues of this material, first on 78s in the 1940s and then on long-playing albums in the 1950 (anyone remember the four-volume "Louis Armstrong Story"?). George was a pioneer in doing this (he even discovered some lost tracks) and is not only a friend of mine but a hero.
However, George is the first to admit that Columbia wasn't really thinking about pitch correction in those days. Because of that, some of those early LP reissues featured the music in the wrong key, usually a little flat. Flash forward 30 or 40 years and it's a new era: compact discs are in and now there's new technology to remaster and "process" old recordings such as NoNoise and CEDAR. In the late 80s, Columbia started a new jazz reissue program and naturally, the Hot Fives and Sevens were among the first to get reissued.
Unfortunately, for these first attempts, Columbia used a bit too much processing, causing the finished product to sound a little lifeless. On top of that, they used the original LPs as the basis for mastering meaning no pitch correction and dozens of tracks still being issued in the wrong key.
The good news was by the time they got to volume four in the series, Louis's 1928 recordings with Earl Hines, Columbia seemingly righted the ship. They continued issuing single discs of Louis's 1929-1932 big band recordings, all in very good sound (to my ears) and in the right keys. In 1994, they put out a Grammy-award winning boxed set, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, featuring many Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. For this release, they revisited the original recordings, mastered them freshly and pitch corrected them, a big improvement over the first single CD issues.
Still, there was grumbling in the jazz community. The 1990s were almost over and the only way to get the complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens from Sony were the problematic single discs. But the new millenium was on the horizon and with it, Louis's centennial. But before Sony could do anything about it, John R. T. Davies entered the picture with three discs of Hot Fives and Hot Sevens released on the JSP label in 1999. And finally Sony answered with its aforementioned set in 2000, helmed by Phil Schaap.
For the next decade, they fought it out but now the 2000 box has been retired in exchange for the new 10-CD set. It was released in October and I finally got to listen to it and can report that yes, the first 2 1/2 discs of Hot Fives and Hot Sevens (up to "That's When I'll Come Back to You") are exact rips of the single discs Columbia put out in the late 80s and early 90s. Meaning that yes, everything's a bit too processed (to my ears) and in the wrong key. Ugh.
The set has been getting great publicity, including rave reviews on Allmusic.com and Pop Matters, neither of which mentioned any sound issues. And I'm still proud of my notes and proud of the overall set. If you haven't noticed, I love everything Louis did and I have a special love of those late 20s, early 30s big band recordings. Sony hadn't done anything with those in over 15 years. In that period, they also acquired BMG, so this new set includes Louis's 1932-1932 Victor recordings, special favorites of mine and other Armstrong nuts. So Hot Fives and Sevens be damned, the new set is a great way to get all of Louis's recordings as a leader from 1928-1933 in fine sound and at a great price. If you don't have this material, grab it.
But what of the Hot Fives and Sevens? Sadly, the new box isn't the best place for those, mainly because of the pitch issues. I am NOT an audiophile in any way, shape or form. I don't say that too proudly--I wish I had a nice sound system and the ability to hear things mere mortals can only dream of--but hey, I listen to music from the 1920s and 1930s so I'm more than all right with hisses, pops, anything in between. What I'm not okay with is when the music is in the wrong key. I don't have perfect pitch so I usually don't notice when it's a little fast or slow but when it's a good half-step slower than it should be--and I know how it should sound--that's when I have a problem. And sadly, that describes the first 2 1/2 discs of the new 10-CD Sony box.
In a follow-up to this post, I will talk more about the 1929-1933 material and why the new Sony set is an ideal way (perhaps THE ideal way) to get all all of that material in one place. But for now, because most people get hot and bothered only about the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, I'm just going to focus on them.
[Note: History lesson over.]
The next 39 (!) sound samples will naturally focus on the three main boxes: the JSP, Sony's 2000 box and the brand new "OKeh" 10-CD set. When applicable, I've also added clips from 1994's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" since you can still download it and it demonstrates how Mark Wilder of Sony corrected the original flawed discs 18 years ago only to see the flawed versions now back in print.
And I've added a fifth release that I have not mentioned yet. Back in 2007, a French label, Fremeaux and Associates, got into the act with an admirable series, "The Integrale (Louis Armstrong)." Aimed at completists, Fremeaux started with Louis's King Oliver recordings and went chronologically, including everything they could find: Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, the blues singers, Clarence Williams, the Hot Fives, Hot Sevens, big bands, etc. The Hot Fives and Sevens were included on Volume 2, Volume 3, Volume 4 (not currently on Amazon) and Volume 5.
Personally, I've avoided the "Integrale" series. For one thing, I already had all of it but when they got to the 30s and 40s, they began including material that only my friend, the late Gosta Hagglof, previously issued and I didn't like how they ripped off Hagglof's Ambassdor discs. However, in the aforementioned online arguments, some have argued in favor of obtaining the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens through the "Integrale" series because the sound was very good and you get all the other goodies. For this blog, I borrowed volume 4, 1926-1928, I've included those samples when possible.
So let's jump in, shall we? I did not include full songs. Instead I made edits, usually ranging 30-40 seconds. In my selections, I've tried getting a little bit of everything: record openings, rideout choruses, Louis vocals, etc. I imported all of these as high-quality WAVs and did the edits in Audacity, doing no processing or mastering whatsoever, exporting the edits also as high-quality WAVs.
The first batch of Hot Fives from 1925-1926 were acoustic recordings. These have always been the most problematic because the original recording techniques were so primitive. Thus, these are usually the noisiest and also the ones that have usually been in issued in wrong keys.
We'll start with the very first Hot Five recording, "My Heart." Here it is on the new 10-CD "OKeh" boxed, featuring the original mastering from the 1980s:
Next, here it is as John R. T. Davies mastered it on JSP in 1999:
Now, here it is as it appeared on the Phil Schaap box of 2000:
I will try to refrain from offering my own opinions since this is for YOU, the consumer, to choose the one that sounds the best to your ears. (If you want to fight it out in the comments section below, be my guest!) I will point out that on the new OKeh box, it's in D while on the JSP and 2000 sets it's in Eb.
Next, from February 1926, one of the noisier records, "Heebie Jeebies." Here's the new OKeh set:
Now here's how Sony did it in 1994 for the "Portrait" box:
The JSP set from 1999:
And the Sony set from 2000:
The pitch correction on "Cornet Chop Suey" has led to it becoming one of the more controversial Hot Five numbers. When Avakian originally issued it, it was in the inglorious key of E. That's clearly not right (Louis didn't play guitar). Anyway, that version in E is the one heard here on the OKeh box:
By 1994, Mark Wilder realized that couldn't be right. With two choices--down to Eb or up to F--Wilder chose to put it in Eb for the "Portrait of the Artist" set:
John R. T. Davies also chose Eb, which is how it's issued on JSP:
However, there was another faction that believed "Cornet Chop Suey" was in F? Well, as I explained in this 2011 blog on the subject, Louis recorded the piece three more times, and each time did it in F. Why would he raise it a full step as he got older? Also, his handwritten lead sheet is in concert F. Schaap's Sony box is still the only to hear it in F, the key I, and many others, believe Louis originally recorded it in (the out-of-print Universal box from last year, "Satchmo: Ambassador of Jazz," also has it in F but they used the 2000 Sony set for their transfers of the Hot Five and Seven material):
We haven't heard Louis's voice yet, so let's compare that on these different issues. Here's the vocal on "You Made Me Love You" from 1926, first on the new OKeh box:
Next, the JSP:
And now the 2000 Sony box:
And to add a new character, here's the "Integrale"version from Fremeaux and Associates:
Hot Seven time! Everything we've heard up to this point was recorded acoustically; the 1925-1926 Hot Fives are where audiophiles really disagree about the sound quality. Beginning with the Hot Sevens in May 1927, Louis recorded electrically full-time, leading to very good sound quality, no matter the reissue. However, as you'll hear, the new OKeh box still has this material in the wrong keys. And other listeners can choose which issues they like from variables such as amount of processing, overall mix, brightness, harshness, etc., instead of just more or less surface noise.
So, let's begin with the hot rideout chorus on the very first Hot Seven, "Willie the Weeper," first heard on the OKeh box:
Next, the JSP:
The 2000 Sony box:
And bringing up the rear, the "Integrale" (and as you'll hear, Fremeaux and Associates didn't do any pitch correcting either):
Now, for a first: FIVE different versions of the same song, "Weary Blues." Up first, the OKeh box:
Next, "Portrait of the Artist":
The 2000 Sony box:
And the Integrale series:
After the Hot Sevens, Louis recorded another series of Hot Five dates in the latter part of 1927. By this point, the new OKeh box finally gets the material in the correct key, putting it on even footing with the others. Like I said earlier, this happens fairly early on disc 3 of the 10-CD set so don't write off the new box, especially if you already have the 1925-1927 Hot Fives and Sevens, but are looking for the big band stuff in one fell swoop. I'm starting with "Put 'Em Down Blues," which opens with an unaccompanied break by Kid Ory's trombone. You can really hear the differences in approach with the level of noise behind the trombone and also the brightness of the mix. Here's the OKeh box:
"Portrait of the Artist":
The last phase of Louis's Hot Fives and Sevens is the glorious series of 1928 recordings with Earl "Fatha" Hines." "Weather Bird" is the pair's remarkable duet number and has been issued a thousand times. Here it is on the OKeh box:
And on the "Portrait" box:
And finally, the 2000 Sony box. I'm sharing this on a tip-off from the great jazz musician/scholar Allen Lowe, who has said he's not a fan of the 2000 Sony material, naming "Weather Bird" as its prime offender because of a big ol' scratch heard near the beginning. I, admittedly not an audiophile, never noticed it until Allen pointed it out. This, too, might be a fatal flaw for you or you might not notice it either:
And finally, though the 1928 material survives in pretty great sound, occasionally, different transfers lead to different levels of noise on the remastering. "No One Else But You" is a prime example. Here's five excerpts and you can hear the surface noise or general quality vary from transfer to transfer. You know the drill: first, the OKeh box:
"Portrait of the Artist":
Sony in 2000:
And there you have it. Hopefully, this helped a little bit if you don't have this material yet and even you already do. There is no right answer--it's up to YOUR ears. When having this conversation with a musician friend in New York a few weeks ago, he stopped me in the middle of my iPod "A/B" comparison game, walked over to his records, pulled out a 1940 Columbia reissue of some Hot Seven material on 78 and put it on his record player. And even though they weren't in the right key (his player only played 78 rpm on the nose), my goodness did they sound good (I never heard Pete Briggs's tuba so crystal clear). He didn't care about pitch correction, he cared about clarity and to him, you couldn't top that 78 and after hearing it, I kind of agreed. So follow your own ears and whatever you decide, enjoy the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, aka the most important recordings of the 20th century (and please leave comments--I'm sure this is a discussion that could go on for years).
For those who want to go a little further, next time, I'll concentrate on the OKeh box vs. the JSP sets for the 1929-1932 big band recordings. Til then!