Friday, April 19, 2013

Coming Soon...11 Posts in 11 Days!


Back in January, I was hit with a sudden burst of inspiration to cover Louis Armstrong's January 1933 sessions, when Pops recorded 12 songs in three days. I knocked them off one at a time for twelve straight days and then needed to recuperate. But now, it's that time again: 80 years ago, at the end of April 1933, Louis once again recorded for Victor, this time knocking off 11 tracks in two sessions. And once again, I'm going to try to tackle them by posting about one song a day for 11 straight days, beginning on April 24. 

This next batch doesn't have quite as many classics as the January sessions, but they still capture Pops in ridiculous form, including a few for the time capsule, most notably "Laughin' Louie." But still, after giving the January sessions so much attention, it's only fair to pay the same respect to the April offerings. 

Now, if you want to go back and refresh yourself with the January series, start here. If you don't, here's something I wrote about Louis's Victor recordings way back in the early days of this blog, in 2007. This was originally part of the introduction to my entry on "There's a Cabin in the Pines," the first Victor recording I ever wrote about. That song will be covered in this upcoming series but I thought a soliloquy on these sessions in the middle of everything would stick out like a sore thumb (or sore chops). Fortunately, it mostly holds up though since 2007, the Decca recordings got the deluxe Mosaic Records treatment. That, and the release of the live 1937 "Fleischmann's Yeast Broadcasts" have led me to waver a bit and start thinking that the late 30s was really Louis's prime, a time when he could truly do anything. Still, there's nothing else quite like the Victor period, that perfect balance of 1920s wildness and 1930s operatic grandeur.  So here it is, to get the ball rolling. See you in a few days!

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I might as well as lead off with the hyperbole: with all due respect to the Hot Fives and Sevens and to the later recordings that make up the bulk of my Armstrong research, these Victor records capture Armstrong at the absolute peak of his playing powers. And as I’ve made abundantly clear, I’m a fan of every note that ever came out of the Armstrong horn. From week to week, I go through phases—maybe a week of Decca big band records, maybe a week of Earl Hines sessions, maybe month of All Stars live dates, maybe an hour of Dick Jacobs arrangements (I have my limits), but anytime I dig into the Victor sessions, they absolutely blow my mind like nothing else in the Armstrong discography. I think every trumpet player hits a prime period where they are in complete control of their instrument and can do no wrong every time they press their horn to their lips. For me, Armstrong hit that peak in 1932 and 1933, beginning with some of the final OKeh recordings, which include some of my all-time Armstrong favorites, including “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” “All of Me” and “Lawd, You Made the Night Too Long,” three songs that act as signposts towards the shape of jazz to come. But the Victor recordings are extra special for a number of reasons I hope to touch on here.

First, there’s the sound quality of the recordings. I love everything Armstrong did for OKeh, but the sound of OKeh’s Chicago studio pales in comparison with the brilliant work of Victor’s recording engineers in Camden and Chicago. These records are 75 years old [now 80!], yet sound remarkably clean and vibrant (much like other Victor recordings of 1932, including sessions by Duke Ellington and Bennie Moten). Then there’s the material: standards such as “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” jazz favorites like “Basin Street Blues,” “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” “High Society,” and “St. Louis Blues” and some just plain funny showpieces such as “Laughin’ Louie” and “Sweet Sue.” Armstrong’s big bands often got knocked and sure this edition had some problems staying in tune and the tuba in the rhythm section sounds a little out of date, but any band with the likes of Teddy Wilson, Budd and Keg Johnson, Sid Catlett, Mike McKendrick, Scoville Browne and others can’t be that bad.

But naturally, the main reason I find the Victor period so irresistible is Armstrong himself. Vocally, he was the king (his vocal on “Some Sweet Day” might be in my list of top ten Armstrong vocals), but the trumpet work is what really pushes these recordings over the top. He is in absolute complete command of his instrument and he’s eager to show it off on every recording. The wild double-timing and quick flurries of notes associated with the Hot Fives and Sevens is still there (“Basin Street Blues” is remarkable) but he’s slowly entering the next phase of his trumpet playing career: more high notes, more drama, a more sure-footed style with operatic tendencies and no shortage of endurance. He’s harmonically advanced on “Swing You Cats,” he glisses with freakish power on “Right to Sing the Blues,” he bubbles over with enthusiasm at the start of “Dusky Stevedore,” he creates a typically beautiful opening cadenza on “You’ll Wish You Never Been Born,” he plays arguably the greatest solo he ever played on “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” on the 1932 "Medley" version and he shows off with abandon at the end of “Sittin’ in the Dark,” hitting high note after high note and topping it off with some giant glisses all for the sole purpose of making the listener marvel at the greatest trumpet player jazz ever produced (Sun Ra, by the way, was profoundly affected by that last record). Armstrong is at his peak and every solo he plays for Victor demonstrates it beyond a shadow of a doubt. By the time of the Decca records of 1935, Armstrong’s style had matured greatly, eliminating much the velocity of his playing while emphasizing melody, high notes and dramatic climaxes.

Why have the Victor recordings been given the shaft? Well, first off, I should say that they haven’t been given the total brush off—no, that distinction goes to Armstrong’s big band Decca recordings, which have never been issued in complete form in America (thank you Ambassador label!) and which most jazz critics and historians completely ignore. At least the Victor recordings were the recipient of a beautiful box set produced by Orrin Keepnews with essential liner notes by Dan Morgenstern. But even when that box was released, it didn’t get the publicity garnered by the later release of Sony’s Hot Fives and Sevens box. The sheer number of standards recorded and introduced by Armstrong has led to the OKeh big band recordings to receive a fair amount of notice, but those Victor big band records remain in the shadows of everything that came before them.

Again, why? I think there are multiple reasons starting with the aforementioned knocks about the out-of-tune big band and occasionally dated song choices. Armstrong’s greatness is all that stands out on some of these tracks; there’s no Earl Hines or Johnny Dodds to talk about in relation to Armstrong and certain songs, like “Snowball” and “Mississippi Basin” aren’t exactly “Stardust” or “Body and Soul.” Also, jazz’s resident tastemaker, Gunther Schuller, didn’t exactly wax poetic about the Victor records. He only devotes four pages to them in The Swing Era and though he finds praise for some of the recordings, he mainly complains about Armstrong’s high notes (“It was the tendency towards showy grandstanding cadenza-endings, imitating the worst of operatic traditions contrived by sensation-seeking divas and prima donnas”) and the playing of the band, calling some of the records “disasters.” And as it’s been for the last 40 years, whatever Gunther says, goes.

... I don’t know what Schuller was listening to. He knocks the band’s entire performance of that April 26 day but I think they sound pretty good, swinging hard behind Pops on “St. Louis Blues,” executing a tricky passage for the reeds on “I Wonder Who” and finding a foot-tapping groove on “Don’t Play Me Cheap.” That last song was written by the band’s drummer, Harry Dial, and recorded by Armstrong as a favor. And of course, on “Sweet Sue,” Budd Johnson sings one in “the Viper’s language,” and even Budd later talked about all the marijuana smoke in the studio during some of these sessions. Everyone was having a good time, Pops was amongst friends like Randolph and the Johnson brothers, recording songs as a favors and playing at his peak. If you haven’t done so in a while, give the Victor sessions another spin because Armstrong’s playing will truly blow your mind.

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