Thursday, February 16, 2012

Angel Child

Louis Armstrong With Sy Oliver's Orchestra
Recorded January 29, 1957
Track Time 2:54
Written by George Price, Benny Davis and Abner Silver
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet;Geoge Dorsey, Phil Urso (alto saxophone, flute); Lucky Thompson; tenor saxophone; Dave McRae, baritone saxophone; Billy Kyle, piano; George Barnes, guitar;Sid Block, bass; Rudy Taylor , drums; Unknown, harp; Unknown strings, Unknown choir - three male and four female - vocals; Lillian Clark, lead vocal; Sy Oliver, arranger, conductor.
Originally released on Decca DL 8488
Currently available on CD: On Louis and the Angels"
Available on Itunes? Yes

Thought I was through with "Louis and the Angels," huh? Never! In case you don't know what I'm talking about, two weeks ago I posted an appreciation of Louis's 1957 Decca album of angel-related songs, one that can be read here. In it, I chose four representative songs from the album and basically said that if you like these, check out the rest of the album and you'll love it. The end.

But almost as soon as I hit "Publish Post," I had regret because I didn't include "Angel Child." That's always been one of my favorite tracks on the album and I originally wanted to include it but as is often the case in my life, I had a three-hour window with my daughters sleeping to pump out that blog and I had to be happy with four songs. Thus, "Angel Child" got the axe.

Two days later, I had to drive to Queens to give a lecture on Louis for the Queens Historical Society. On the way there, I listened to "Louis and the Angels" again. And for some reason, this time "Angel Child" nearly made me drive off the road. I had heard it dozens of times and always loved it but it was like someone was telling me to PAY ATTENTION. I couldn't believe the power and glory of that trumpet and couldn't believe I didn't write about it. Especially after I listened to it five times in a row on the way home....

So it was settled, I'd write about "Angel Child." And then life began and I was drowning, putting the blog on the back burner, except for a rehash of my annual "That's For Me" post. I wanted to write about "Angel Child" but I needed a kick in the butt.

Cut to Valentine's Day and a groggy Ricko getting home at 8:10 in the evening, 15 1/2 hours after I left. I checked the mail and there was a letter waiting for me, a handwritten letter written by Reverend Harry S. Finkenstaedt, an 88-year-old Episcopal Priest, who was knocked out by my book. I cherish every complimentary e-mail and Facebook comment I get about the book but there's something about a handwritten, mailed letter that is extra special.

And Rev. Finkenstaedt's letter was extra special in every way. In addition to simply telling me how much he enjoyed the book, he added some personal touches: he met Louis and Lucille in Honolulu in 1954, right after Lucille was arrested for marijuana possession. He became friendly with them and enclosed a typed transcript of a beautiful, personal letter Louis wrote to him in April 1955, thanking him for his support during Lucille's ordeal, detailing a gig with Guy Lombardo and bragging that he had lost 77 pounds. "Lucille said to be sure and give you her fondest regards," Louis concluded. "And the love's for me also. I have your address in my personal address book. So you might here [sic] from me almost anytime. I am so happy since I had time to at least say hello, to you. I shall be praying for you everyday, that you're safe + sound and happy. Always your boy, Louis Satchmo Armstrong."

I was nearly shaking when I went over the contents of Rev. Finkenstaedt's package again and again. But there was one line that jumped out at me. In an e-mail to Brian Peerless, Rev. Finkenstaedt wrote about how he had dinner with Louis and Lucille in Corona on January 1, 1956 and Louis, in turn, invited him to his upcoming Decca recording sessions for "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography" and "Louis and the Angels." In the margin of this page, Rev. Finkenstaedt wrote to me, "Also I stood right behind him when he was recording 'Louis and the Angels'--the numbers 'The Night a Sinner Kissed an Angel' and 'Angel Child.'"

Okay, it was a sign. The craziest part was I knew he was the real deal. We have a photo in the Jack Bradley Collection at the Louis Armstrong House Museum of Louis signing an autograph in a recording studio. The recipient of the autograph's head is cut off in the picture but Jack's ex-girlfriend Jeann Failows wrote on the back of the photo, "Louis at Decca's recording sessions of January 1957, just after 'Heebie Jeebies' signing autographs for a clergyman fan." Well, I had to e-mail Rev. Finkenstaedt and I sent him a copy of the picture....and sure enough, it was him! And when I looked deeper in the Archives, I found a handwritten letter he wrote to Lucille in 1975, one that Lucille saved until her death in 1983. Wow!

After I wrote Rev. Finkenstaedt this morning, I went back to work, a very busy day. But when I got back to my e-mail, there were all sorts of goodies waiting for me: more stories, photographs, scanned Louis autographed photos....and even a blog comment on my "Louis and the Angels" post. It read, "I was right there with Louis,standing behind him, and apart from his 'attack' or power, I was impressed by his control of the music that he was coping with on the stand in front of him. Sy Oliver was there and I wondered if he had an influence in how that music swings, being such a great arranger. Louis was reading off the sheet too. It was not just improvising totally, Made me realize what a master musican! What beautiful Harmony and Control,.That was an unforgettable evening as was at the' Satchmo Autobiography" Harry Finkenstaedt, {a friend of Louis..)."

Well, that sealed the deal. I look forward to much more cherished correspondence with Rev. Finkenstaedt but for now, I think I HAVE to write about "Angel Child." But first a little background: what the heck is "Angel Child"? Well, the song was written in 1922 and popularized by the great Al Jolson. Jolie gave it a peppy uptempo treatment and I think it's great:



But other than a few "society band" recordings of it, there was nothing until Glenn Miller, gave it a spin, slowing down the tempo and giving it a more romantic, yet swinging feel:


And that was that. The song never seemed to become a standard and goodness knows if anyone else performed it after Miller. But someone remembered it when choosing songs for "Louis and the Angels" and it's a good thing they did! If you're the type of person who gets uncomfortable hearing Louis in a "commercial" setting, sit tight through the utterly charming vocal choruses and make sure you're sitting down for a trumpet solo that could move a mountain. Don't say I didn't warn you....here 'tis:



Right? Did you get the message? Holy geez, that is some powerful stuff. But first, there's the vocal choruses, which are really sweet. Louis sings right from the start, obviously enjoying the melody and giving the "shadows of gray" line a lot of emotion. Meanwhile, arranger Sy Oliver gives the proceedings a nice two-beat bounce with the strings popping in and out without ever becoming overbearing. Then the chorus shares the lead for the next go-around, with Louis taking more liberties with his phrasing. I'm sure there are people out there who hear the choir, get violent flashbacks to 1950s pop music and lament the fact that Louis "West End Blues" Armstrong had to suffer such an indignity. I pity those people....

Because after a brief Billy Kyle modulation, it's time for the main event. From his opening notes, you know he's going for it, he's going to play the melody an octave higher like he would have in 1929 or so. He hits every note right on the button--his "attack," as Rev. Finkenstaedt is something to marvel at. And Oliver's arrangement, even with the strings and voices, swings like nobody's business (notice that Rudy Taylor, not Barrett Deems, is on drums; no knock on Deems but Taylor sounds great throughout the album). As Louis approaches the halfway point, you might expect that maybe he'll pass the ball to Trummy Young or Kyle for a few bars to recuperate a bit. But nah, he just keeps going, higher and higher, stronger and stronger, changing up the phrasing, hitting and HOLDING those notes, right up until the perfect high-note ending. Bravo, Pops.

And bravo Reverend Finkenstaedt for sharing your memories of what it felt to be right behind Pops as he recorded masterpieces like this. But how many people know its a masterpiece? That's the sad fact, my friends: recordings like this have slipped under the radar for 55 years. Before writing this, I did a quick Google search for "Louis Armstrong Angel Child" to see if someone--anyone!--ever wrote about it. Couldn't find a word. Went to Google Books, searched magazines. Nada. Okay, how about YouTube? Ah, there it is....291 views. Hmmm, maybe it was recently uploaded? Nope, 291 views in TWO YEARS!

Well, hopefully others out there are as excited about performances like this one as I and Rev. Finkenstaedt are. If you are, again, please write in and let me know so I don't feel like the only nut out there! Thanks Rev. Finkenstaedt....and thanks Milt Gabler, Sy Oliver and Pops for making such a beautiful record in the first place.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

That's For Me - Again (Again, Again)

Recorded April 26 or 27, 1950
Track Time 5:08
Written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstien
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Jack Teagarden, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Earl Hines, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Cozy Cole, drums
Originally released on Decca
Currently available on CD: On the Hip-O box set, An American Icon
Available on Itunes? Yes

Valentine’s Day is here again and instead of choosing one of the very many love songs Pops recorded in his career--“Let’s Fall In Love,” “I Was Doing All Right,” “I Married An Angel,” “If I Could Be With You,” “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby,” “Fantastic, That’s You” immediately spring to mind—I decided to revisit the same song I covered for my last four Valentine's Day entries, "That's For Me."

For me, “That’s For Me” is one of Pops’s all-time greatest records, treasured by those who know it, but unknown to most of the world. I couldn’t believe when I just searched for it on Itunes and it only came up twice, once on a cheapie compilation and again on Louis Armstrong: An American Icon, a wonderful box set on the Hip-O label that is now out-of-print on C.D. (though it’s available on Amazon). It was on the Mosaic collection of Armstrong’s Decca recordings with the All Stars, but that’s out-of-print, as well. (I insisted it be included on Universal's 10-disc "Ambassador of Jazz" box from last summer so if you have that one--hello, Elvis Costello!--you can enjoy it there.) But hopefully, by the end of this blog, you’ll have a new appreciation for this neglected gem.

The song “That’s For Me” was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the 1945 musical, State Fair. Dick Haymes sang it in the film and had a hit record of it, as did Jo Stafford. After listening to various versions of it on Itunes, it appears that it was originally conceived as a sort of snappy number, not fast and uptempo, but with a lilting beat that makes the singer sound pretty confidant that he knows what he likes and likes what he sees (substitute “she” if necessary).

I never understood how it got into Armstrong’s hands, but I’m glad it did. Armstrong was performing it live for at least a few years before he recorded it; the Louis Armstrong House Museum holds an arrangement used by Armstrong's big band before it broke up in 1947. None of the big band versions survive, but there is an early version by the All Stars. Now, this is some pretty sad audio quality, but please, have a listen to this early version from a broadcast from Philadelphia’s Click, August 7, 1949:




Again, the quality is atrocious (why does it sound like someone’s beating time with a coke bottle?). One thing’s for sure is that the band sounds like they have the routine down, meaning they had probably been performing it for some time. When I tackled this song back in 2008, I complained that the tempo was a little too fast for my taste until it was pointed out to me that, being an unmastered bootleg, it's pitched too high and thus, artificially fast...oops! Earl Hines sounds particularly good but the record obviously centers around Pops’s heartfelt vocal, which showcases his range, especially his beautiful tenor register. The tempo’s a shade too fast to allow him to feel completely at ease with the lyrics, but he does a beautiful job. Much like the later “Gypsy,” the song has a built in space for applause after the vocal, as Earl Hines repeats the last few bars to allow Pops to get his chops in his horn. And it’s a wonderfully poised trumpet solo, no high notes or real drama, just a lot of melodic flurries that stick with the listener long after the song has ended. Pops reprises his vocal at the bridge and continues on until the nice, slowed down ending. Even through the abysmal sound quality, Pops’s warmth shines through.

I didn’t want to spend too much time on the blow-by-blow of that version because the real main event comes with the Decca studio recording of 1950. Over two days in April of that year, the All Stars recorded ten of their finest concert numbers in a studio setting. Pops had already embarked on his string of pop records for Decca but for this occasion, producer Milt Gabler allowed Armstrong to record whatever they wanted from their live repertoire. Armstrong’s picks are interesting because instead of just featuring himself all day, he gave each of his sidemen one feature of their own choice. Like most sidemen features, Armstrong doesn’t exactly stay in the background, taking a series of stirring breaks on “Bugle Call Rag/Ole Miss,” singing a chorus on “I Surrender Dear” and stealing the show from Jack Teagarden with his trumpet solo on “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home.” For the other five numbers, Armstrong chose one romp the band had been playing since their inception, “Panama,” one stage set-piece, “New Orleans Function,” one comedy number, “Twelfth Street Rag,” and a lowdown blues song that was about to become a staple of almost every All Stars show, “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.”

For a tenth song, Armstrong could have chosen any of the All Stars’s great numbers from the period: “I’m Confessin’,” “Back O’Town Blues,” “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” “Basin Street Blues,” “King Porter Stomp,” “That’s A Plenty,” anything. But instead he chose “That’s For Me,” which he really must have loved to perform. So without any further ado, let’s listen to this classic, classic recording from April 1950.




Now, I’m sorry, but that’s the most beautiful piece of music you’re going to hear all day. The slow tempo strips Armstrong’s vocal from any confidant leanings and instead makes it a charming, fragile ode from a man who truly cannot believe how lucky he is to be in love with the woman “that’s for him.” If you’re reading this on Valentine’s Day morning and still need an inscription for your card, you can’t go wrong with this offering from Oscar Hammerstein:

I saw you standing in the sun
And you were something to see.
I know what I like, and I liked what I saw
And I said to myself "That's for me."
"A lovely morning," I remarked,
And you were quick to agree.
You wanted to walk,
And I nodded my head
As I breathlessly said "That's for me."
I left you standing under stars,
The days adventures are through.
There's nothing for me but the dream in my heart,
And the dream in my heart, that's for you.
Oh, my darling, that's for you.

Doesn’t get much better than that. But listening to the record is a marvelous experience. The opening ensemble is perhaps the most tender one in All Stars history, clearly one that had been perfected on the bandstand. Bigard sticks to his low, chalameau register, playing the melody straight in the second half while Armstrong plays lead, opening with those gorgeous quarternotes, phrasing the melody where it feels best for him and sounds best for us. Teagarden plays quietly, but he later makes his presence felt with a lovely obbligato. Hines, maintaining the proper mood for a change, sets Armstrong’s vocal up with a perfect interlude and then we’re off to heaven.

Just listen to quality of Armstrong’s voice, brilliantly captured by Decca’s engineers. There’s barely a trace of gravel and though you can hear him struggle to sing those high notes, that all adds up to the charm of the record. He clearly loves the melody, not even infusing it with a single scat syllable or a even a “mama.” Tegarden’s obbligato is a highlight of the record, as he quotes liberally from the Armstrong vocabulary, especially the phrase he plays at 2:17 in, a quote from the Drdla Souvenir that Pops loved to sing and play (thanks to reader Anthony Coleman who pointed that out to me, something I did not know a year ago!). Hines again sets the stage for Armstrong’s lightly muted trumpet offering, which, repeats some of the phrases from the 1949 broadcast, but is much more effective at this gentle tempo. The double-timed opening phrase never fails to give me the chills as Bigard noodles around in the low register and the rhythm section begins swinging ever so lightly. The rhythms in this Armstrong solo are mind-boggling. Really, how many more times am I going to write this? I guess one more can’t hurt…I would hate to transcribe a solo like this one! It’s so flowing, so melodic, yet it’s also so unpredictable and quite daring. Armstrong goes into the upper register to bridge the two halves of his solo, but otherwise, he’s content to play circles around the melody, offering snippets of Rodgers’s original notes here and there as points of reference. Please, listen to this one 10 or 11 more times. It never ceases to surprise and it never ceases to move.

After the solo, you can hear Armstrong quietly clear the rubble out as Hines and Teagarden play a Satchmo-fied phrase (shades of Django’s “Nuages”?) Pops reenters with the “I left you standing under stars phrase,” which sounds like a bridge, but the melody reverts right back to that of the first two A sections (this is an oddly structured song, but it works). Teagarden plays that Pops phrase in obbligato once again at the 4:10 mark. Finally, though he’s made it this far, Armstrong sings a perfectly placed “Babe” before his final climb into the highest registers of his voices. I don’t think there’s a lovelier phrase in the history of Armstrong’s recorded vocals than that “Oh my darling,” leading to the sublime coda, with a little subdued scatting. You can hear Armstrong smiling as he hits the final “You,” Hines’s playing pretty descending runs behind him while Bigard and Teagarden harmonize. I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful ending to a more beautiful record.

In my research, I’ve come across a concert review from, I believe, 1951 that mentions a live performance of “That’s For Me,” but it soon after disappeared from the All Stars’s band book. That’s not to say he forgot about it completely. In a 1968 interview for the BBC radio program “Be My Guest,” Pops spoke about the inspiration for his recording that song: his fourth wife, Lucille. At that time, I didn't have my Mac so I was clueless about editing tracks but now I'm a whiz so here it is, a beautiful, short excerpt from the interview climaxed by the 67-year-old Armstrong singing "That's For Me" completely a capella:



“That was for Lucille.” Ah, love. Pops had it for Lucille and it's safe to say, the world still has it for Pops. I hope you enjoyed "That's For Me" half as much as I did and I wish all of you a very Happy Valentine's Day!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

In Praise (and Defense) of Louis and the Angels

55 years ago last week, Louis Armstrong recorded a concept album for Decca, "Louis and the Angels." Have you heard it? Well, if you're here, the odds are, probably yes. But I can think of few other Armstrong albums that have flown so under the radar, even though it was released on a major label, it received lots of publicity upon release and Louis loved it. So do I, for that matter.

So why a post about it? Because though I'm the first to admit that my book is pretty packed, you can only imagine what my cutting room floor looks like (again, if you've been here before, than, yes, you probably can). "Louis and the Angels" was something I had to cut down to about a paragraph, causing one well-respected jazz scribe to write me privately to say, "I like Louis and the Angels better than you do."

Hold the phone, I thought! No one likes "Louis and the Angels" more than me. I listen to it at work maybe once every two weeks. It gets better with every listen. "Angela Mia" was a climax of many of my book tour lectures last year. How could someone think I was lukewarm about it?

It had to be because of how I seemingly brushed it off in the text. But that's probably because I had just spent a fair amount of pages on one of the high points of Pops's career, "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography." You see, Pops hadn't recorded for Decca since September 1955, recording for Columbia and Verve in the interim, when Milt Gabler lured him back to the label with "A Musical Autobiography." But Gabler also had another idea, one that probably would have made Columbia's George Avakian or Verve's Norman Granz vomit up their lunch: an album of tunes associated with angels, performed by Louis backed by orchestra, strings (a harp, natch) and a choir. Gabler probably promised this as a commercial hit that Joe Glaser couldn't pass up.

So Louis recorded "Satchmo" through December 1956 and January 1957. The day after the final "Autobiography" session, Louis was right back in the studio to begin recording "Louis and the Angels." Even though a choir and strings were now present, Louis didn't seem to realize there was a difference. "A Musical Autobiography" turned into a lavish, 4-LP box that wasn't released until September of 1957. But "Louis and the Angels" was rushed into stores by April of that same year. Immediately after, Louis appealed on Al "Jazzbeux" Collins's radio show to promote the album (audio survives at the Louis Armstrong House Museum and it's fantastic). Louis and Jazzbeaux raved about the sessions but then Louis said offhandedly that there was another session made up of new recordings of all the old tunes. He didn't separate into a different project; one day he's remaking Hot Five numbers, the next day he's singing about Angels. A week in the life...

What was similar about the two projects was Gabler's production values: he insisted on paying extra so Joe Glaser wouldn't book Armstrong elsewhere and would be completely rested for these sessions. That, my friends, is genius. Just listen to Louis's summer 1957 recordings for Norman Granz where the grind of performing nightly in Vegas then recording in the daytime in Los Angeles was too much for Louis to overcome at times (though there's some beautiful stuff in those sessions, too). Because Louis was well-rested, he blew with superhuman force during the "Autobiography" sessions. And that goes for "Louis and the Angels," too. To me, the "Autobiography" still doesn't get the attention it deserves; it occasionally comes into print and then goes right back out. But at least people know about it and discuss it a bit. "Louis and the Angels" gets nothing.

And I know why: it's a damn commercial record. Seriously, you remove Louis and you can put in any 1950s pop singer--Pat Boone, Perry Como, Patti Page (and those are just the P's!)--and, well, zzzzzzzzz. But Louis? It's gold, Jerry, gold, I tell ya. Last week, I analyzed how Louis took pop songs of 1932 such as "All of Me" and "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" and approached them like he was from another planet, offering versions unlike anything else on the pop music scene at that time. Well, "Louis and the Angels" is just the 1957 version of that. I know it seems like it's coming out of left field after "Louis Plays W. C. Handy," "Ambassador Satch," "Ella and Louis" and even the "Autobiography"; but it's just Louis doing what Louis had always done by transforming commercial pop numbers into something much more special.

"Louis and the Angels" consists of 13 tracks; I'm sure there are readers out there who'd like me to share them all. Sorry, friends, I'm drowning these days, but I do urge you to buy it
Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Louis-Angels-Vme-Armstrong/dp/B00005CDMD/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1328328159&sr=8-1
or listen to it on YouTube or Spotify. But I will share four tracks because I just can't help myself. I'm sure there are those out there who will hear these and say, "Nope, back to 'West End Blues' for me!" And that's fine. I'm not arguing that "Louis and the Angels" changed the world. But it's damn good music and it'll make you feel better after you've listened to it. Trust me on that one.

So track number one is the opener and it never fails to bring me to my knees. The tune is "When Did You Leave Heaven," a very pretty song to begin with. Those with weak stomachs for commercial sounds might have a tough time with the beginning but I think Louis's muted entrance, sticking to the melody, is a magical moment. The rest of the performance is casually beautiful but oh, that entrance:



Still with me? Okay, let's try another standard, Johnny Mercer and Rube Bloom's "Fools Rush In." This is another ballad recorded by Sinatra, Elvis, Glenn Miller, many others. But as usual, we love Louis because he plays AND sings. Louis's vocal is so warm and tender and, for that matter, so is the muted trumpet solo. At first, he sticks to playing around the choir's straight reading of the melody but then he gradually takes lead for a short, potent statement ending on an ascending run. But really, it's the vocal that kills me on this one, especially the reprise. His "Yeeeeesss" entrance is worth the price of admission and he really emotes and he sings the high notes, "When we met, I felt my life begin." And the "song of the fool" ending is a neat touch, too. See what you think:




For those who want some hardcore trumpet playing, stand back for "The Prisoner's Song." Louis told Jazzbeaux that he was very proud of the tempo of this version, as arranged by Sy Oliver. He mentioned that he loved Bunny Berigan but thought that Berigan's romp on "The Prisoner's Song" (the flip side to "I Can't Get Started") was too fast and that it sounded like Bunny and his guys were just barely getting by. I don't know if I feel that way but Louis did have reason to be proud of his version. This time, we get the lone voice of Lil Clark (Mrs. Sy Oliver) singing the pretty melody at the start before the choir joins them for a sober reading. It sounds like we're in ballad tempo again but then Louis comes and in and it begins to jump. Louis sings it just fine, but with an exhortation to "Look out, boys," he picks up the trumpet and good night, nurse. With the band swinging (Barrett Deems laying down that backbeat), Louis unleashes a furious chorus of melody. The routine continues with another vocal and then Pops, telling the band to "Romp it, romp it," plays another great chorus, this time with more variations. Then watch out for his third vocal chorus when Louis, after singing the line about "wings of an angel," wonders aloud, "Angel? I was wondering how this song got in here!" His last trumpet chorus is even more stunning....romp it, Pops!




For my final choice, "Angela Mia," which, as I mentioned, became a standard part of my Armstrong lectures after an experience I had with two of my interns in late 2010. I wrote a blog about it then (and check it out for more about the history of the song) but if you don't mind, I'll quote from it now:

"Here's the story: in my duties as Project Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, I have the luxury of having interns come in a few days a week to help with numbering artifacts, organizing materials and other such catalogue-related matters. This semester, I have two dynamite interns working for me, Greg Hammontree and David Engelhard, both young, top-flight jazz musicians from Atlanta, now conquering the master's program in jazz at Queens College.

Greg and David are great guys and marvelous musicians but as you'd expect in this 21st century of jazz studies, they came into the job with an appreciation of Louis but not much experience in listening to him. Well, naturally, I sought to change that. I always have music on in the work room where I spend all of my days, but when David and Greg started coming in, I'd give them a quick lesson before they'd begin the task of hand-numbering photos. "Today, guys, an evening with Louis at the Crescendo Club" or "These Fleischmann's Yeast broadcasts are going to knock you out" or "Count the high C's on the 1936 'Swing That Music'" or "You mean you've never heard 'Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy'???"

Greg and David have been terrific students and Pops has been blowing them away at a daily basis. Well, this week I decided to go one step further and spring some "commercial" Louis on them. My choice: "Louis and the Angels," Armstrong's 1957 collection of angel/heaven-themed songs performed complete with choir and strings. Hmmm, two hotshot, 20-something-year-old jazz students, one studying with saxophone giant Antonio Hart, the other with Michael Mossman and practicing songs like Horace Silver's "Quicksilver"...how would this go over?

Both of them came in separately on consecutive days and I played the album for each. Suffice to say, it knocked them on their collective asses. Their minds were melted, especially when I told them that this was the stuff that caused the hardened jazz fans and critics in the 1950s to wrongheadedly write Louis off. Let's just say, they're not going to be doing that any time soon...

I could write a blog on every track on that album but there was one in particular that caused Greg to grow slack-jawed and stuck in David's head long after it faded away and that's "Angela Mia."....Now, Louis did some absolutely gorgeous singing on the album--"Fools Rush In" immediately comes to mind--but for "Angela Mia," Oliver had an interesting idea: let the choir handle the vocal, let Louis stick to the trumpet playing. Those who don't like 1950s pop sounds, strings and choirs might have to wade through some stuff here, but trust me, the effort is worth it because this is Louis Armstrong at his finest. Give it a listen:


Simply breathtaking, isn't it? Louis's sound is captured superbly, right from the start as he gently caresses the melody. Just that first short solo is worth the price of admission, but Louis is pacing himself, handing it over to the strings and cooing voices for the bridge. He swoops back in for the final section, playing the melody straight but infusing it with some deep passion. A beautiful first chorus. For the second chorus, the choir sings the lyrics while Louis demonstrates that he still could produce a spine-tingling obbligato at a moment's notice. He doesn't play many notes, but each one is perfectly placed and full of soul.

But Louis is only getting warmed up...watch out for that bridge! As Louis hits bridge, his flare for drama--and opera--comes to the forefront. With the band growing incessant behind him, Louis begins to wail, leading up to the main event: a break that climbs its way into the upper register before resolving in perhaps the bluest blue note of Armstrong's entire career. I'm serious, it always catches me by surprise and knocks me to my knees. He takes that note, bends it, wrings it, squeezes everything out of it. I mean, really, is it even a single pitch? Is he half-valving, glissing, God only knows. But it's a breathtaking moment, and the one that had my two young interns shaking their heads in disbelief.

That blue note (a lip bend, as Al Basile points out) might be the highlight but Louis isn't finished. After some more melody, he slows it down and goes up high for the ending. Seriously, this stuff can produce tears, it's so beautiful. I pity the jazz critics and fans who turned their back on this stuff in the 1950s. But it's their loss; for now, it's my gain, your gain and Greg and David's gain. Play it again...play it loud!"

That's what I wrote in 2010. I can happily say that Greg is still with us, a devoted Pops nut, who now gives tours at the Armstrong House on weekends and is preparing "Cornet Chop Suey" for his graduate recital. So in conclusion...."Louis and the Angels" is a beautiful, charming album and you shouldn't sleep on it. Anyone else feel the same way? Please feel free to share some comments or e-mail me because I think this one has been undervalued for long enough.