Tuesday, August 8, 2017
Earlier this year, I wrote about The Decca Singles, 1949-1958, a new digital-only Louis Armstrong release that I co-produced with Harry Weinger for Universal. It was a very personal project for me co-produced it with Harry Weinger and wrote about 50,000 words of liner notes, which I made available for free on this blog here.
The set was released at the end of 2016 and received some strong publicity. It didn't take long before Harry called me and asked, "Um, why did we start with 1949?" I explained because Mosaic Records already did the 1935-1946 material. Harry understood but asked how much of it was available digitally. I told him it wasn't much, mostly because Universal only did three CDs of this material way back in the 1990s and though they're now on all the digital platforms, they were far from complete. So it was decided that the prequel, The Decca Singles: 1935-1946 would be given the green light, once again, co-produced by Harry and myself.
Upon its release on August 4, Armstrong's (possible) real birthday, I noticed some questions arising on social media about any similarities or differences between this and the Mosaic box, which I felt I should address in this here blog.
Mosaic Records released The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions, 1935-1946 in 2009 to great acclaim, including a well-deserved Grammy for Dan Morgenstern's liner notes. I bought it immediately and reveled in the usual Grade A Mosaic production values: Dan's notes, beautiful photos, great sound, rare alternate takes--the complete and total package! I've worn it out and recommend to all I know. However, the only grumbling I ever heard about it was from friends with perfect pitch: the majority of the songs on the final set were a little flat. Now, my ears are far from perfect so I never detected anything amiss and kept on listening without complaint.
Well, once Universal decided to go forward with the new digital release, I saw an opportunity. I reached out to my good friend Phil Person, a fantastic trumpeter player, Berklee professor and true Armstrong nut, to borrow his ears. It turns out Phil personally pitch corrected the Mosaic set and he was gracious enough to share his efforts. With Universal's Seth Foster following Phil's lead, we were able to pitch correct over 100 of these Decca performances. Now having A-B'd them, the difference in some cases is startling. (For instance, "Perdido Street Blues" was issued in the key of E for decades but these guys didn't play it in E; Phil sensed it should be F and presto, it sounds brighter and better than ever!)
So this is very exciting to me (and to those with perfect pitch) but please do not throw out your Mosaic sets! In fact, diplomatically, I can state that there is room for both sets in this Universe. Here's a quick rundown of the differences:
*Unlike the 1949-1958 set, I am NOT writing liner notes for this one. Dan won a Grammy for his and he remains my hero so I want him to have the final say on these recordings.
*Every time I post something about a digital set on Facebook, I have to wade through comments from people yelling at me about how much they hate digital. Fine. The Mosaic is back in print--order it!
*And on that note, Mosaic recently reported some financial difficulties and this Armstrong Decca set is nearing almost a decade in print--it won't be around forever so if you're on the fence and to help Mosaic, order it!
*On the digital side, as I mentioned, everything is pitch corrected. Hooray!
*The Mosaic set breaks everything down in session order, chronologically with master takes first and alternates at the end of each disc. (Though I will say, I consulted some of the original 78s for the digital release and Mosaic had the wrong masters for "Solitude" and "Down in Honky Tonk Town.") The Decca Singles instead presents each single in the order of their original release, A-side followed by B-side. I will say, I think it's fun to hear them that way (for one thing, I never relized Jack Kapp sat on the version of "Swing That Music" with Jimmy Dorsey until 1940, releasing it as the flip side of "Wolverine Blues").
*Thus, there are NO alternates on the digital release, just the masters. Completists, take note!
And finally, not everyone has $119 in this day and age to purchase these beautiful, painstakingly produced CD boxed sets. Universal previously never gave much attention to Armstrong's Decca period but now, in less than a year, every single Louis made for the label between 1935 and 1958 is available online, as downloads or streaming and will probably remain in print forever.
Listen, I love physical CDs. I just came back from New Orleans with over ten new compact disc purchases in my suitcase. But I must admit, I rarely listen to CDs anymore. I commute with my iPhone. My car has bluetooth. The best Bose speaker in our house is connected to bluetooth. I pay for subscriptions to Spotify and Apple. I will continue buying CDs and supporting labels like Mosaic but I'm also about to turn 37 and almost anyone I ask who is younger than me tells me they haven't bought a CD in at least five years. This is not the place to get into the debate of artist compensations and business models and so forth. But most people get their music online now and thanks to Universal, it is now easier than ever to access Louis Armstrong's Decca catalog.
And for those who have trepidation, remember, streaming services like Spotify are free. You don't need to pay for a download or worry about MP3s. This very helpful link from Universal lays out where to either stream or download The Decca Singles: 1935-1946 so click around and listen. (And the set is arranged as six separate "bundles," each one the length of a standard CD. If you insist, you can purchase the downloads for $69.99 and burn them to 6 CDs.) Don't worry, I'm involved in at least three more Louis sets that will be physical CD releases by the end of the year but if you need me, I'm commuting to work tomorrow for the first time in a week and my headphones will be plugged into my iPhone and Pops's Decca recordings will be sending me tremendously (and in the correct key, too!).