Tuesday, November 11, 2014

80 Years of Louis Armstrong's Paris Recordings: Super Tiger Rag

In my last blog, I set the scene with lots of backstory on Louis Armstrong's epic Paris session of November 7, 1934 and then tackled the first tune recorded that day, "St. Louis Blues." Louis was having severe lip troubles during this period but overcame whatever pain he was in by the end of the track, shooting out the lights with a string of high concert D's.

Next up was another song Armstrong had been performing for years and once he had already recorded for OKeh twice in the 1930s, "Tiger Rag." Four years ago, I wrote a TEN part series on Louis's history with "Tiger Rag" (I was out of my mind) so look those up to see how Louis arrived here, but suffice to say, each early version was different as he continued to work out and sculpt his routine. The 1932 "New Tiger Rag" would serve as the basis for most of Louis's following romps with the tiger, but in Paris, he was feeling frisky and contributed something totally different, so different, Brunswick issued it as "Super Tiger Rag" on the label. This is Dan Morgenstern's favorite Louis version of "Tiger Rag" and it rates very, very high for me, too. Here's the audio:


The first thing you'll notice is that Louis dropped the tempo a bit to a more manageable, though still demanding, gait as compared to his 1930-1933 versions.. Louis leads off with the first strain, playing it fairly straight with his own, customary changes in phrasing. Clarinetist Peter duConge takes some hot breaks in the opening ensemble, including one from "Rigoletto" that was always a favorite of Pops's. The gruff tenor of Alfred Pratt takes a fine solo on the main strain, steeped a bit in Coleman Hawkins (with a hint of Bud Freeman?), before another daring outing by the great American pianist Herman Chittison. Chittison really tears it up, offering up some of Earl Hines's ambidextrous movements, along with some Tatum-esque virtuosity. Like I said in the last entry--and will probably continue to say throughout this series--Chittison should be better known.

After Chittison's offering, Louis jumps in with what seems like a snatch of "When You and I Were Young Maggie." He's super relaxed and his playing is very daring; listen to how he approaches his first break and how he keeps that rhythmic motif going for a few extra bars, breaking the tension by turning it into an exciting upwards run. Armstrong's second chorus is a stunner; no quotes, no riffs, it's just pure improvisation, with more tension-filled rhythms. I mean, this cat is really on the high wire a couple of times but he never falls. Perhaps the slower (slower!?) than usual tempo allowed Pops to relax and improvise more? Perhaps there was a LOT of marijuana in the studio that day (remember, the final tune recorded would be "Song of the Vipers")? Whatever the reason, I'm not complaining!

But finally, with one more chorus in him, Louis pulls out all the stops....and how! He holds a supercharged high Ab before playing a final chorus chock full of high C's. This is as close to the 100-high-notes-Louis of the early 30s ever captured on records and I think it's pretty exciting. All in all, he hits 30 high C's in the final chorus, holding the last one to great effect, before building up to that final high Eb (again, F on the trumpet). And as he comes down the home stretch, he raises the tempo a few notches, the band speeding up with him. Like "St. Louis Blues," the rhythm section flawlessly follows him into the stratosphere, again, probably from doing this one so often. But of all the versions of "Tiger Rag" in the Armstrong discography (again, see my ten-part series from 2010), this one really stands out for its free-floating rhythmic and effortless improvisation. Chops trouble? What chops trouble? Super!

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