Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thankful - 2013 Edition

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded May 18, 1936
Track Time 3:06
Written by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken, Louis Bacon, trumpet; Jimmy Archey, Snub Mosley, trombone; Henry James, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Bingie Madison, Greely Walton, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Originally released on Decca 866
Currently available on CD: Available on the indispensable Mosaic Records boxed set of Louis's 1935-1946 Decca recordings.
Available on Itunes? Yes.

In honor of today being Thanksgiving, I think it’s only appropriate to discuss Armstrong’s 1936 record of “Thankful.” Actually, I've had this thought before: back in November of 2007, just a few short months after starting this here blog. I wrote a short piece on it, included the audio and that was that. Beginning in 2008, I switched to "Thanks a Million" and continued updating the same piece of writing every year from 2008 through 2012, always using "Thanks a Million" to commemorate the day of thanks.

But earlier this afternoon, I got a text message from my man in New Orleans, Jon Pult. Jon's a true Armstrong nut but heard this song on the radio today and wanted to know more about it. I shot him the link, but paused when I saw the date of 2007. My goodness, a lot has changed since then. I don't have to recount it all but if you've been a regular reader of mine over the years, you know the story. Thanksgiving 2007 was spent while I was a house painter, living with my wife in a one-room "apartment" attached to my parents' house, my book proposal getting rejected almost monthly. Low times.

I started this blog in July of 2007 and by October, was starting to hear from future friends such as the late Gosta Hagglof, Hakan Forsberg, Terry Teachout, Dave Whitney, Phil Person and more. One person reading the blog around this time was THE Jon Pult! In 2008, Jon asked me to come down to the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans, the most important weekend of my life, and one that ended with a standing ovation. Weeks later--while driving the damn work van home from a day of painting--my agent called and said we got the book deal. And then one year later, in 2009, I began working as Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum.

Today, Thanksgiving 2013, I'm still at the Armstrong House, the book is in paperback, I'm co-producing the Armstrong set for Mosaic Records, helping Universal do a compilation next week, preparing to meet Quincy Jones at the Armstrong House gala and trading all sorts of wonderful photos and stories with Armstrong lovers around the world thanks to this blog and Facebook (and my wife and I--and our two kids--are living in the house I grew up in while my parents have taken over the one-room apartment we used to live in...crazy, huh?). So yeah, I tend to eat myself into a coma every Thanksgiving (today was no exception) but I dare you to find a more thankful cat than I to be able to live this life I do. It's not a cakewalk (I still have to paint every now and then to help make ends meet) but I truly love what I do and feel blessed to do it on a daily basis.

But enough about me, you're hear for Pops. And of course, we should all be thankful for every note Louis Armstrong ever played, right? Let's now get to “Thankful," which was written by the team of Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin, who contributed some wonderful songs for Armstrong to record for Decca with his big band, including “You’re Just a No Account,” “You’re a Lucky Guy” and “Shoe Shine Boy.”

“Thankful” was recorded at a legendary session that featured a staggering six recordings, including the first “Swing That Music.” And the session started with two wonderful Hoagy Carmichael compositions, “Lyin’ To Myself” and “Ev’ntide” before Pops tackled “Swing That Music.” I don’t care if the session only featured two songs, after that “Swing That Music,” Pops should applauded for recorded anything else, never mind three more songs. “Thankful” was up next and I think at that moment, the thing Pops was most thankful for was that chunks of his lip hadn’t come flying off during “Swing That Music.” But “Thankful” is a lovely record and you can listen along by clicking here:

Behind Pops Foster’s huge bass sound, the band staggers through a two-beat introduction, before Pops comes in with a beautiful vintage 1936 vocal. He’s in fine tenor voice without a hint of gravel. He sings with a lot of feeling and doesn’t feel the need to add much. After the bridge, he sings a nice deep-throated “baby” that almost sounds like half-scat with a neat little “Mm-mm” coming a few bars later. The vocal ends, the band modulates and looking at my C.D. player, there’s a solid 91 seconds of trumpet ready to brew. He starts with some pure melody, adjusting the phrasing to achieve a more relaxed swing at times. He bridges the two A sections with a perfect adjoining phrase before he starts opening up his solo for more improvising. He begins the next eight bars by playing the exact four-note phrase he sang as “Thankful, baby,” another example of the link between his singing and playing. He continues on in those eight bars with snatches of melody, followed by his own obbligato, always a winning combination.

The bridge is the main event of the song. The band goes into stop-time and Pops proves ready for the challenge with some nimble double-timing at the start. But why settle for just double-timing when you have a sense of rhythm unlike anyone else in jazz? All of a sudden the notes and phrases start almost stuttering along (I’d hate to transcribe this stuff), though he slightly cracks a couple of notes, probably leftover remnants of the strain of “Swing That Music.” However, he fights it off with a stirring gliss up to a high Bb. He then plays something that reminds me of Red Allen as he works out a tension-filled motif on a high Ab. In a series of two-note phrases, he plays an F# leading to the Ab, an F leading to the Ab, then an E natural leading to an F# before resolving on an Eb and moving on from there. It’s exciting stuff and a little “out” for a Louis Armstrong record of 1936.

But even after that daring bridge, Pops proves he has more in the gas tank by going up for the last eight bars for a series of high Bb’s. He eventually comes back down to earth to stick to a little more melody as the band plays is in a stately fashion behind him. Cue up the patented Decca coda ending and what you have is a neat little record. And just think, he still wasn’t done yet as he still would contribute stirring solos on “Red Nose” and a remake of “Mahogany Hall Stomp.” I might be thankful for a lot of things but man, I’m thankful for Louis Armstrong’s music every day of the year.

(And I’m also thankful that his lip didn’t explode that May day in 1936.)

Happy Thanksgiving! And don’t forget the Swiss Kriss if you get built up with gas…

No comments: