Friday, May 3, 2013

Tomorrow Night (After Tonight): 80 Years of Louis's April 1933 Victor Sessions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Track Time: 3:19
Recorded April 24, 1933
Written by Ralph Mathews, Lil Hardin Armstrong and Clarence Williams
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 Bluebird B-5363
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

And we're back! As you might remember, I wanted to knock off 11 blogs in 11 days for the 80th anniversary of Louis Armstrong's April 1933 Victor recordings, but the International Jazz Day celebration grew so much, I had to halt the series to promote that. And it seems to have worked because in addition to a capacity crowd, almost 200 people watched with streaming webcast! That means a bunch of you know the big announcement I alluded to at the end: I'm in the process of co-producing and writing the liner notes for a Mosaic Records box on live Armstrong on Columbia and RCA in the 1940s and 50s. However, though I was approved to announce it at the event on Tuesday, the truth is, it has been 99% cleared with Sony and the powers-that-be at Mosaic would rather it get to 100% before I dive in head first with blog previews and such. So please know that it's coming but for now, I can't say any more than I said on Tuesday (and if you heard what I said on Tuesday, you know it's going to be quite a set!).

Back to 1933! Louis had just finished recording the epic "Laughin' Louie" in two takes and was probably feeling pretty tired (in addition to feeling pretty high and happy!). But there were still two more tunes to cut that day, opening with "Tomorrow Night (After Night)," written by the triumvirate of Ralph Mathews, Lil Hardin Armstrong and Clarence Williams. I don't know much about Mathews--this seems to be his only composition of note--but Lil, of course, was the second Mrs. Armstrong. They were still married at the time of the session, but were estranged, Louis traveling the world with Alpha. And of course, Louis made some classic records with pianist-composer Williams in the 1920s. The songwriting team must have had some clout because for some reason, black newspapers of the time published small blurbs about Louis recording this song, something I don't think they did for any of his other records of the period.

"Tomorrow Night" (which, honestly, should have been titled "After Tonight") also survives in two takes, the alternate noticeably rougher, thus probably the first one in the can. Let's listen to that one first:

If Louis did need a break after "Laughin' Louie," this song sure gave it to him. After the someone ominous introduction (punctuated by Catlett's cymbals), the band takes a full chorus, the reeds playing the melody in their best sweet style (you know Guy Lombardo-loving Louis approved) with the brass taking the lead for the more swinging bridge. Once again, Bill Oldham's tuba adds a plodding feel to the rhythm section, a shame since his big-toned bass playing was a highlight of the January 1933 Victor sessions (could have been an engineer's decision, with the Camden engineer more confident of how to record it than the one in Chicago).

Pianist Charlie Beal takes another of his Hines-esque modulations and then Pops comes in with the vocal. Now, do you know why I feel "After Tonight" should have received more than a parenthetical portion of the title? Armstrong's vocal is charming without being one for the pantheon. The bridge is especially interesting as he seems to lose his spot in the lyrics for a second, resulting in some major behind-the-beat phrasing that he pulls off with the help of a terrific scat break. The final eight features Louis in a growling mood, exploring the lower regions of his voice, adding hint of gravel for good measure.

But then the band comes back in and everything falls apart. There's definitely something amiss from one of the trumpets and an intonation problem with the reeds. At the 2:29 mark, Louis picks up his trumpet for the first time all record. Knowing time is running out, he starts off high and stays right there, floating over the insistent beat then glissing up to a high concert Bb. However, more confusion reigns as he sounds like he forgets that he's supposed to be trading with the band. There's some uneasy moments, but Louis keeps pounding through; that two-note descending motif is nice but also feels like Louis isn't going to kill himself because he knows the record isn't salvageable.

But damn, he tries! If he REALLY thought the record was a dud, he might have played something that didn't tax the chops so much. But no, he stays in the upper register throughout the bridge, glissing to a high C, that he loses for a second. Undeterred, he closes the bridge with a break and then alternates phrases with the band in the final 8 (trumpets cracking notes everywhere) until pinching out that last, high, painful concert Eb. Slow down, Pops, you're going to get hurt.

Fortunately, Victor was up for recording another take so this is what followed and eventually became the master:

The band attacks this take at a slightly faster tempo and they acquit themselves fairly well in the first chorus. Beal's modulation also sounds a little more confident. Louis's vocal is better on this take, still charming but a little more sly. He's got a better grip on the bridge, giving himself enough time to insert an "Oh baby" (though I think I liked the scat break better on the alternate) and he still ends way down low.

Fortunately, where the band fell apart after the vocal is improved--I didn't say it's perfect by any means, but it's not as bad as the first try. Louis again enters up high and follows a similar floating pattern to the first take. He doesn't lose any glisses or anything this time, pacing himself through the bridge to save up enough steam for that ridiculous break. The whole thing wobbles a bit, everyone on the edge of falling apart, but Louis keeps it all together, changing his phrasing to end a C-Eb-C-Eb-C-Eb pattern instead of just blasting out the Eb.

"Tomorrow Night" has some fine moments but it isn't Armstrong's finest. Victor agreed and decided to shelve it along with "Laughin' Louie," which probably had them scratching their heads. I think about five years went by before they dumped them on their cheaper Bluebird label. "Laughin' Louie" has gone on to cult fame but "Tomorrow Night" is still one of the lesser known Victor recordings, deservedly so.

Next: The April 24 session ends with Pops on fire--and the rest of the band still struggling--on "Dusky Stevedore."

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