Friday, November 13, 2009

Louis Armstrong and the Decca House Band (1936/8)

The recent release of Louis Armstrong's Decca recordings of 1935-46 on Mosaic records has given new prominence to this wonderful but neglected chapter in Satchmo's recording career. Louis made many of his Decca sides with his own band, the exellent Luis Russell Orchestra. He also was backed up by some very fine studio groups and the bands of Jimmy Dorsey, Casa Loma and Bob Haggart.

These two delightful sessions find Louis backed by a group of studio pros casually known as the "Decca House Band". This group usually comprised of 7 to 10 players backed many Decca artists, especially Dick Robertson. (see our earlier post).

The session of February 4, 1936 found Louis waxing two popular tunes backed up by an exellent band including Louis disciple Bunny Berigan who was one of Louis' favorite trumpeters. Besides being a great jazzman, Bunny was a wonderful lead player and his huge, open horn is a highlight of the band's sound.(Bunny was doing a lot of studio work at the time).Also present were Bob Mayhew( trumpet), who worked with Bix in the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Al Philburn was on trombone, he played on most of the Robertson sessions.

The saxes consisted of leadman Phil Waltzer(alto), Sid Trucker(alto/clarinet), a busy studio man formerly with Russ Morgan and Paul Ricci (tenor), a veteran of the bands of Joe Haymes, Richard Himber and Bunny.

The rhythm section had Fulton McGrath on piano, he had worked with the Dorseys, Red Nichols and would have a brief spell in Bunny's big band. (he wrote the lovely ballad Mandy is Two). Dave Barbour on guitar(with Red Norvo at the time) would soon find fame with Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee.(also as Peggy's husband). Bassist Pete Peterson was also with Norvo and drummer Stan King was an old pro from the 20s. He was on many sessions with Red Nichols, the Dorseys and Miff Mole, his great time and swing are a plus on the session.

First up is Irving Berlin's I'm Putting all my Eggs in One Basket, a delightful tune with a tricky bridge. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers introduced it in the film Follow the Fleet. Louis opens with a classic operatic cadenza then takes us into tempo for a lovely exposition of the melody with subtle variations. (Ricci handles the bridge nicely on tenor). Sid Trucker's clarinet leads into a cheery vocal by Pops with his usual superb time and phrasing . (Trucker's clarinet chips in with some backup). Bunny's strong lead brings on the band backed by King's great backbeat and Louis picks up the rest of the theme going operatic again for an equally impresive coda.

Yes Yes! My My! is a novelty by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin. (the composers of Shoe Shine Boy, a Louis classic from this period).The band brings Louis in for a spoken Yes Yes, My My then right into the vocal. Pops' vocal is full of fun and McGrath has some nice piano fills. Bunny leads us into a tasty Philburn solo with Bunny contributing a few flares leading into a key change for Pops. His chorus is full of great note placement, blue notes and his gorgeous tone. By this point of his career Louis had pared his style to amazing simplicity mixed with his technical gifts. He finishes up high with a neat 4 note burst.
A Lovely session.

The session of June 24, 1938 saw a new "house" band, two new pop tunes and Louis revisiting two of his classic favorites. The band was an 8 piece unit ( the size of the Dick Robertson group).
On trumpets were Bob Cusumano , an exellent lead man formerly with Paul Whiteman, Larry Clinton and Tommy Dorsey and Johnny McGee who was on most of the Robertson sides and had been working with Richard Himber. Al Philburn was back on trombone. Sid Stoneburn was on clarinet, he had much big band experience including T. Dorsey, Bob Zurke, Joe Haymes and Larry Clinton, he gets in some nice jazz licks on these sides. Dave Barbour was back on guitar and Decca house man Haig Stephens played bass. Sammy Weiss, a top drummer with Goodman, T.Dorsey and Artie Shaw lays down some great rhythm.(he was also part of the Jack Benny show for years). Pianist Nat Jaffe only lived to be 27 , but shows a mature Jess Stacy-ish style. He worked with Charlie Barnet, Joe Marsala and Jack Teagarden. He contributes some nice solos and fills on the session.

First up is a rather obscure pop tune by Harry Barris, Naturally. The tune is pleasant with an unusual minor-sounding bridge. After a band intro Louis sings a mellow vocal with polite backup. The band comes in for an interlude with a nice Stoneburn spot. Louis enters backed by tasty Weiss rimshots and hihat. Pops gives us some tasty figures over the stoptime bridge and goes up high for the coda over the band ending.

I've got a Pocketful of Dreams(comp.Johnny Burke-Jim Monaco)was a new tune from the Bing Crosby film, Sing, You Sinners. After a band intro, Pops enters with the vocal. The tune is a bit rangy, so Louis plays around with a few notes, but with his usual swing and time. (Billie Holiday picked up this trick from Louis). The band gives us an interlude with spots by Sid and Jaffe and Philburn. The band modulates to Louis' chorus, his phrasing is tangy and close to the melody. Jaffe gets the bridge and has a nice spot with Pops closing out on a neat solo break backed by Weiss.

I can't give you Anything but Love was already one of Louis' standbys. This version , at a faster tempo from the original has some neat touches that make it unique. The Mosaic issue gives us some banter before the performance, Louis is kidding about "remembering the words". After a band intro, Pops' vocal is patented but has a few nice asides. The band modulates with nice Stoneburn fills and Pops picks up the rest (Weiss' hihat is very effective behind him). His time and accents are superb, giving us a more mellower but still exciting solo. Louis closes with another grand coda backed by Weiss' hihat. The renowned French critic Andre Hodeir singled this solo out in his exellent book, Jazz: It's Evolution and Essence.

Another Armstrong perennial , Fats Waller's Ain't Misbehavin' gets a redo. Following the band intro, Louis' vocal follows his original with some subtle changes. The band modulates with a nice horn figure and Philburn spot with Jaffe handling the bridge. Pops gives us subtle variations on his classic solo with a new bridge and a soaring outchorus going up high, backed by Weiss' tomtoms. Louis would continue to delight us with new versions of these old classics thru the years.

The arrangements on these sides were probably stocks with some doctoring done at the studio. (many studio jazz dates were done this way). Perhaps Barbour, Jaffe or McGrath had a hand in the changes or a house arranger may have been used. The two sessions are part of Mosaic's exellent set of the Armstrong Deccas 1935-46, highly recommended for any Pops fan. The entire collection shows the amazing quality of Louis' work during this period. These little "house band" sessions offer a fascinating part of this huge body of work.

Till next time, keep enjoying the Wonderful World of Pops.

1 comment:

charles Cusumano said...

Bob Cusumano, trumpets in the Decca House band, was my Uncle.
Charles Cusumano