Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Louis and the Angels (1957)

In the course of Louis Armstrong's illustrious career he made many sessions for the Decca label. The sessions of 1949-58 with studio groups led by Gordon Jenkins and Sy Oliver have been lopped into the "commercial" category (or what used to be labeled Popular at record stores). Commercial yes, because they are pop tunes with strings, voices and saxes but Louis never played anything without the pulse of pure jazz and these sides show more of his unflagging genius. The Decca album, Louis and the Angels, is a personal favorite.

Concept or theme albums were very popular in the 1950s and 60s. Many singers and bands made albums featuring songs with girl or boy names, geographic titles, college songs, composer tributes and songs of certain decades. In this case Louis sings and plays songs with "angel" or "heaven" as a common theme with the assistance of the great arranger Sy Oliver and his studio orchestra and chorus. (Pete Fountain made a similar album in the 60s).

Despite the angelic voices, flutes, harps and cute orchestral interludes, Pops scats and swings thru these evergreens with the same artistry of his Hot 5 and 7s. The sessions of January 29/30, 1957 came on the heels of Louis' immense Autobiography collection (see our earlier post) and Pops was at the top of his game and his great comic gifts are a plus to this fun set.

Sy Oliver, the great arranger of Jimmie Lunceford and Tommy Dorsey fame (and a fine trumpeter himself) did much of the Autobiography arranging, especially the "big band" sides of 1929-34. He worked extremely well with Louis and contributes some wonderful charts to the album. He also does a nice job of varying the order of Louis' vocal and horn work with the choir. We also get the bonus of two Louis trumpet features. Several of the studio musicians worked on the Autobiography, including saxists George Dorsey, Dave McRae and Lucky Thompson. Guitarist Everett Barksdale worked many of Louis' sessions into the late 60s and Louis' regular pianist Billy Kyle is aboard. Lillian Clark, the lead female voice was Sy's wife and sang with the Sentimentalists (alias Clark Sisters) in the Dorsey days. Another bonus of the album is hearing Louis play many great standards that were not part of his All-Stars book.

Here's the playlist:

When did you Leave Heaven?-A nice Richard Whiting tune recorded by Mel Powell in the 40s.(with Benny Goodman sitting in as "Shoeless Joe Jackson!). Pops opens with a lovely muted chorus. The strings take the bridge with trumpet obligatto. The choir vamps as Louis comes to the mike for a lovely chorus playing off the choir. Pops closes with one of his classic horn-like vocal cadenzas.

You're a Heavenly Thing- Written by vocalist/bandleader Little Jack Little and featured at a memorable Benny Goodman Orch. date of 1935 with Jack Teagarden filling in. Louis gives us a nice muted horn intro over band chords. The choir takes the lead with Pops' scat replies. On the bridge Pops and the singers swap leads. A tangy muted solo follows with a cute Louis break by the strings and Pops takes the bridge home. The strings do the coda with Pops adding a Big YEH!.

I Married an Angel-
A lovely Richard Rodgers standard. Chet Baker and Zoot Sims made a beautiful rendition in the 50s. Pops sings it in with the choir doing the bridge. (Sy's handoffs of the lead between Pops and Choir are neat). Pops' trumpet solo is mellow with subtle variations. (the choir joins him with light melody). The coda is classic Louis ending up high. (This chart is reminicent of some of Sy's Autobiography work).

A Sinner Kissed an Angel- Frank Sinatra introduced this Mack Gordon tune in 1941 with Tommy Dorsey as did Dick Haymes with Harry James. Louis' opening trumpet has that behind the beat feel that only Pops could navigate and swing. A nice Alto break leads us into a delightful Pops vocal. The choir has the bridge with Pops scatting. Louis rides us out vocally. A nice rendition of a tune deserving more plays.

Angela Mia- The first of two trumpet features and a nice change of pace. The tune is quite obscure but pretty. Louis' opening expose of the melody is wonderful and the choir takes the bridge (Pops backs them up)with Louis finishing. The choir gives us some of the lyrics with Pops' lovely obligatto then it's open horn out. The closing solo over stop time takes us back to the Hot 5 days and the operatic coda is Pure Pops. Lovely stuff!

Angel Child.- Another relative obscurity but a cute tune. Reggie Phillips, a wonderful Boston stride pianist used to play this tune a lot. Pops gives us a bright opening vocal chorus in G then trades leads with the choir. Billy Kyle takes the break into Dflat and Pops is wailing the melody up high. His last 6 repeated notes up to a shaken high Dflat are awesome. Those high note shakes never fail to thrill.

And the Angels Sing- A big hit for Benny Goodman in 1939, written and played by trumpet great Ziggy Elman (with lyrics by Johnny Mercer). Louis gets to salute another horn man on his other trumpet feature. Pops plays Ziggy's melody fairly straight (the voices echo some of the Goodman licks as do the strings). Billy Kyle picks up Pops' chorus with some of his tasty keyboard work. Pops returns echoing the voices and uncorks a great break, finishing up high with some of Ziggy's original lines. Ziggy was still alive and well in 1957, I'm sure he was thrilled with Pops' rendition.

Fools Rush In-A great standard by Rube Bloom(with more lyrics from Mr.Mercer). Frank and Dorsey introduced it and Ricky Nelson had a revival hit in the 50s. The voices lead off with an original intro (hear the song of a fool...) and Pops sings a chorus with a nice scat break. The strings pick up the lead and on the second chorus Pops' gives us more muted obligatto followed by a lovely solo. The choir and Louis split the finale with Louis returning to the vocal intro. A nice Oliver chart.

I'll String along with You- Another standard, this time by Harry Warren and Al Dubin. No trumpet but plenty of great vocalizing by Pops. The voices bring Louis in for a chorus and he trades scats and leads with them on the second chorus. Pops rides things home with the choir handling the coda.

Angel-A cute but rather obscure tune from 1940 (comp. Peter DeRose and Mitchell Parish) and recorded that year by Georgie Auld and the Artie Shaw refugees (Artie had junked the band). The voices lead off in Dflat with nice muted fills by Pops. A modulation to F has more trumpet backed by rocking saxes and another killer break leading to more Billy Kyle piano. We move to back to Dflat for Louis' vocal. (the girls have a cute response to his opening line). Sy's Jimmie Lunceford style is very evident here.

The Prisoner's Song- One of the highlights of the album. The old folk song made famous by Vernon Dalhart and later by Bunny Berigan in the swing era gets a swinging ride by Pops and Sy. Sy's chart with the rocking saxes is very reminicent of his You Rascal ,You chart on Autobiography.
Like on Rascal, Pops goes back and forth with vocal and trumpet (Eflat to F). His solos are red hot and full of intensity. When he comes to the line..If I had the wings of an Angel, Pops tells us "I was wonderin' how that song got in" then proceeds to wail over the band and singers in Aflat with another huge highEflat ending. Pops also calls out the name Robert twice-perhaps a studio guest?

Goodnight, Angel- We wrap up the Angelic party with a lovely ballad from 1937 (recorded that year by Artie Shaw and Dick Robertson). Many Louis fans have noted a similarity to his Someday,You'll be Sorry on the first four bars. Pops may have remembered this tune, but it's probably just a case of sound-alike. Louis intros with a horn-like vocal, the choir takes the lead with some muted backround (unfortunetly it dissapears after a few bars). Louis sings the next chorus with much feeling and scats a nifty coda.

I'd also like to mention the cute cover art with Louis, wings superimposed behind him and a halo over his head with a visible string. (reminds me of those great Ed Wood special effects). The album is on a Verve CD and also a British MCA (along with Louis and the Good Book-another great Pops/Sy collaboration).

Louis has been up there swinging with the angels since 1971, but thankfully his amazing musical gifts will be around forever.

If you've passed on this album, thinking it's a lame concept lp, well you're in for a Heavenly treat with Louis and the Angels.

Special thanks to my good friend and fellow Louis nut, Phil Person, for his help on key identifications. Great ears, Phil!


1 comment:

bookings said...

I couldn't agree more. Pops in on top form (well, when wasn't he) and it real is a case of sweet (voices, strings etc) complimenting hot (LOUIS!). Sy did some great arrangements for Louis, another favourate album of mine is "Satchmo Serenades" which is all Sy's wonderful arrangements too. He knows how to set things up for pops and give him space and also things to play off. Great Stuff!!
Peter Howell - www.jiveaces.com