Thursday, April 25, 2013

Mississippi Basin: 80 Years of Louis's April 1933 Victor Sessions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Track Time: 
Recorded April 24, 1933
Written by Andy Razaf and Reginald Foresythe
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Keg Johnson, trombone; Scoville Browne, George Oldham, alto saxophone, clarinet; Budd Johnson, tenor saxophone; Charlie Beal, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; Bill Oldham, tuba; Big Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Victor 24321
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Continuing on, the next song recorded on April 24, 1933 was "Mississippi Basin," written by two esteemed songwriters, Andy Razaf and Reginald Foresythe. Razaf and Foresythe had joined forces to compose "He's a Son of the South," which Louis recorded successfully in January. Hoping to go to the well one more time, they composed "Mississippi Basin," another paean to the "dear old southland" (actually referred to that in the lyrics).

It's kind of a dramatic thing, alternating between minor and major passages. Fortunately for us, it survives in two takes. The first take was never issued; let's give it a listen:

The opening ascending phrase is quite dramatic and gives us a sense that we might be in for an exciting romp of sorts. Alas, it's just a ruse as Louis and the reeds gently descend following the stomping opening. But worry, there's still plenty of drama as they descend into a A-minor chord that Louis uses to launch into quite a wailing cadenza. He comes right in on a high A and turns it into a three-note A-Bb-A phrase, repeating it an octave lower for good measure. Chilling stuff, reminiscent of the howls of a cantor (not Eddie). Louis brings everything to a hush by ending on a quiet A yet another octave lower. I told you there would be drama!

Finally he comes in with the melody, with its pattern of four bars of minor alternating with four bars of major. This is one of those great melody choruses that Louis simply excelled in during his entire career (see my recent blog on "April in Portugal" for another example). He knows he has only one chorus to sell the melody and make his statement. He starts by playing the melody fairly straight (with the built-in responses from the windy reeds), though wish his typical floating phrasing, once again exploring the lower range of his horn in a way he rarely did.

For the second eight, the variations start, as does the ascent into the upper register. Once again, he starts turning on the heat but holds back for possibly the most relaxed bridge of any tune he ever performed. I mentioned that gage was being passed around that day and it sure sounds like Louis is floating!  The reeds come in and perform the last eight bars straight; just listen to how they phrase the melody, all insistent and staccato. Compare it to how Louis just played it and well, there is no comparison.

Then it's time for the vocal, which is quite delicious. Again, Louis starts out in a low-key mood, singing  very earnestly about the South, as he always did--though he perhaps makes an editorial comment with a record-breaking "Mmmmmm-hmmmmm" after the mentions washing his "face in that 'Mississippi Basin' back home" (nice internal rhyme, Mr. Razaf). He picks it up a bit in the bridge, exploring the upper register of his voice (listen to either trumpeter Zilner Randolph or Ellis Whitlock making like Pops in the back) and getting positively righteous with his quarter-note cries on "Dear old southland, baby." And listen to the master of the phrasing get ahead of the beat with "Soon I'm gonna make a beeline" before pausing, falling behind the beat and then coming in the with the next line. Are you listening, young Billie Holiday?

Up to this point, all is well, but Charlie Beal's piano interlude falls apart a little (paging Teddy Wilson!). But everything's built up to the ending where Louis, unaccompanied, trades one-bar phrases with the reeds until launching into a closing cadenza. He starts off strong with the melody and first double-timed passage but when he gets to the stop-time section, he loses his footing ever so slightly. I'm sure every trumpeter in the Western Hemisphere would like to lose his or her footing like that, as he still plays some killer stuff, including that closing gliss to high F. But there's just enough minor hesitation in there that he probably knew he could do it better.

Thus, another take was called and on this one, he nailed it. Here's the master of "Mississippi Basin":

There you go. Everything follows the same patterns but the differences are interesting to point out. During the opening minor cadenza, instead of playing a three-note phrase, Armstrong trots out a flashier eight-note run, then repeats it an octave lower before settling on that low A. Armstrong's reading of the melody is also a little more electric throughout. When he steps on the gas during the second eight, he really pushes it out there. His bridge, though still relaxed, isn't quite as woozy as the first go-around--I love the sly accent he gives to those repeated notes--but he still passes the ball to the reeds on a mellow note.

The vocal follows a similar pattern though again, there's a bit more urgency to the vocal, probably because the tempo is slightly faster. Man, just listen to how almost every line he sings during the first half of the vocal consists of repeated single pitches. Unreal. And the bridge is even more righteous as he explores his voice, swinging those quarter notes, emitting barely a rasp, going way down to a full-throated bottom and more, all in eight bars.

Charlie Beal's piano interlude is on target this time; he even jumps the gun into the end of Pops's vocal, so eager is he to get it going! And then it's time for the Louis show. His first salvo sounds slightly strained and a bit staccato. Remember, Louis was apparently engaged in life and death struggles with his lip in this period and my first thought is, "Uh oh, please hold up." Naturally, he comes roaring back with a double-timed phrase. And when it's time for the stop-time ending, Louis again goes way up but sounds much more poised this time around, taking a four-note motif, and playing it four different ways before that final high F. A fine record and the right choice to be the master.

I don't know of anyone else recording "Mississippi Basin" after 1933, but it's a neat tune. At the time, they tried making a hit out of it; the Casa Loma Orchestra in June with a vocal by Pee Wee Hunt and Chick Bullock sang it on a Oriole 78. The only other version to survive on YouTube comes from my heroes, the Washboard Rhythm Kings. They were aping everything Louis was doing in this period, including other Victor obscurities like "Hustlin' and Bustlin' for Baby." In August 1933, they tackled "Mississippi Basin" with bassist George "Ghost" Howell taking the vocal. The tempo is faster than Louis's--more in line with Armstrong's introduction--and it works (though the reharmonization in the last chorus is so-so). I don't know who the trumpet is--don't think it's Taft Jordan--but it's clear that the entire band was digging Louis:

But then again, who didn't dig Louis? Tomorrow, I'll cover a record that is the absolute essence of Louis Armstrong: "Laughin' Louie"!

1 comment:

pwlsax said...

Bert Lown's band did another good record of this tune for Bluebird. Probably most notable for a bass sax bridge by Adrian Rollini, while a second bass sax, played by Spencer Clark, holds down the rhythm.