Saturday, March 7, 2009

Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography (1957)

This collection recorded in December 1956 and January 1957 contains some of Louis Armstrong's greatest and most inspired playing of his later period. The collection issued on Decca is similar to the Autobiography album Bing Crosby made, where he revisited many of his landmark recordings, along with his own narration. Louis' album followed the same format. He remade classics from the Hot 5 and 7, some of his great blues accompaniments and the wonderful big band classics of 1929-34.On the sessions were his All Stars of the time (Trummy Young, Edmond Hall, Billy Kyle, Squire Gersh and Barrett Deems) along with George Barnes on guitar. Bob Haggart arranged the bulk of the small group sessions and Sy Oliver, the big bands (a sax section was added to the All Stars for these). The album was packaged in a decorative box with a lovely cover shot of Pops and an informative booklet/essay inside.

Despite almost 50 plus years of hard blowing, Pops manages to infuse fantastic energy and power into his early classics, in some cases improving on the original. Producer Milt Gabler was smart to book the band for evening sessions. Many times Pops had to record in the afternoon after a long night of blowing. The results show a fresh, invigorated Louis and the band responded to the warm atmosphere of the sessions. (There was food and drink and selected friends dropped in). As on the Crosby collection, Louis did a narration between tunes with lovely piano segues and backrounds by Billy Kyle. (Leonard Feather authored the backround) Some of the critics thought the scripted narration was too stilted (Mosaic left it out of their Armstrong collection), but I find it charming and Louis even talking is the personification of jazz.

Decca did cheat a bit, using 6 tracks from earlier albums. They are Sleepy Time Down South (from the Crescendo lp), Monday Date (from the Pasadena concert), Muskrat Ramble (Symphony Hall), Struttin' with some Barbecue and Basin St. (from the Glenn Miller Story session) and New Orleans Function (New Orleans Days). However there are still 42 wonderful recreations from the '56-7 sessions, and what recreations they are. Here are some of the many highlights.

The first session on December 11, 1956 was alloted to the early big band selections. Three saxes were added to the All Stars to get the big band sound. With Louis you didn't need a brass section! The years 1929-34 were covered. Sy Oliver was aboard as arranger. He came up with some great charts, some transcriptions and some new takes on the originals. The titles are If I Could Be with You, Lazy River, I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Sunny Side of the Street, I Can't Believe that You're in Love with Me and Body and Soul. All the selections feature Pops in prime form. Lazy River was still in the All Stars book, but Pops makes it sound new with his great scatting and a powerful trumpet climax, featuring one of those awesome glisses that Pops trademarked. I Can't Give You Anything But Love is a superior version to the 1929 outing with Louis' great crooning and an exciting out chorus reprising the high note climb of the original. At the slower, deliberate tempo Pops really lays into those high ones (not sneaking up, like the original). This is a classic performance. There will be loads more. Sunny Side got edited a bit on the original LP, but has two juicy vocal choruses, some nice Trummy and Pops' classic out choruses and high note codas. (This version was also in the All Stars book). I can't Believe is a new take on the original with fine Hall clarinet and a fine solo by Pops that reprises the original coda. If I Could be with You from 1930 retains Louis' opening vocal refrain and features great Trummy(inspired by Lawrence Brown's original solo) and a classic Pops ending. Body and Soul, another 1930 classic gets a relaxed muted solo and vocal by Pops, Trummy sets up Louis' majestic finale. A great opening session.

The next session on December 12 gave us 6 more big band classics. Hilton Jefferson was added on lead alto. The New Orleans standard High Society, first recorded by Louis with King Oliver, was included in the mix. The big band tunes are Mahogany Hall Stomp, Some of these Days, When You're Smiling, I Surrender Dear (one of many Bing classics that Pops covered), Exactly like You and Georgia on my Mind. Mahogany is primarily an All Stars feature with the saxes providing some background. (The original with Luis Russell's band was similar in style). Pops had been playing this with the All Stars, so we get a lot of his own arrangement. Ed Hall, Trummy and Billy all take great solos, but Pops is awesome recreating his original solo complete with that long held note. When You're Smiling is an amazing performance. Once again Louis slows the tempo down allowing him to really lay into that spectacular reading of the melody up high, his vocal is also real mellow. Exactly like You gets a nice Oliver arrangement and Pops' closing cadenza is right up there with some of his most dazzling work. Georgia on my Mind from Louis' buddy, Hoagy Carmichael, originally was missing the verse on the album, but was restored on Mosaic. Some of These Days, another high note masterpiece, is given a masterful version along with some wonderful scatting. The years had given Louis more power and maturity to his playing. His work in the upper register was more impressive. (The earlier solos were daring and revolutionary, but sometimes he just skated by). High Society is strictly an All Stars cut and they perform their standard arrangement with Ed Hall tackling the Alphonse Picou solo and Louis playing that lead as only he can. I Surrender Dear composed by Harry Barris of the Rhythm Boys was also in the All Stars book as a Barney Bigard feature, with a vocal by Pops. This lovely version features a beautiful muted solo by Pops with a bluesy bridge and a lovely vocal complete with "Hot Mama." Louis takes things out with an operatic climax. Another masterful session.

On December 23, four more big band classics from the early 30s were waxed, Song of the Islands, That's my Home, Memories of You and Them There Eyes. Pops' rendition of Song of the Islands is a classic, as is his narration--"real hawaiians, including myself." His lovely muted statement, always a bit behind the beat, but oh, so swinging, followed by a riotous scat. Louis manages to drop the names of two studio visitors, Slim Thompson and Lorenzo Pack, into the scat. He closes with a magnificent high register statement. That's my Home was one of the many great Victor sides of the early 30s and this version is a worthy successor. (Pops briefly revived it in 1961.) Memories of You, of course, introduced Lionel Hampton's vibes on the original. Here we get pure Pops, singing and swinging. Them There Eyes is a lively cut with contributions from Trummy and Ed Hall. Sy Oliver gives the saxes a swinging riff and Pops is all over the place with a glorious rideout.

The session of January 23 started the small group series, mostly Hot 5 and 7, along with some free-lance sessions. Bob Haggart of Bob Crosby fame came in as arranger and George Barnes on guitar got some choice solo spots. Hotter Than That follows the original pretty faithfully, including Louis' scat chase with guitar. (The great Lonnie Johnson was on the original). Pops is in great form, blowing with great power on the out chorus. Gut Bucket Blues keeps in the original chatter by Louis and later Trummy introducing all the boys. The classics, Potato Head Blues and Cornet Chop Suey, are given spirited readings, but it's hard to improve on the original classics, just neat to hear Pops revisit these themes. Of All the Wrongs comes from a 1924 Clarence Williams Blue Five date. Louis and the All Stars give it a nice instrumental touch. Pops' stop time solo and bravura coda are highlights.

The small group sessions continued on January 24, with Two Deuces, Mandy Make Up Your Mind (Blue Five), Wild Man Blues, Gully Low Blues, Everybody Loves my Baby (Blue Five) and Heebie Jeebies. Lil Hardin's Two Deuces (four-the hard way, as Pops tells us) is a pretty melody and this version is a welcome follow-up. Pops follows the original form with some lovely blowing and Billy Kyle salutes Earl Hines with some of his trademark tremelo. Wild Man is a hard act to follow but Louis and the All Stars make this a worthy version. The passing years haven't taken away any of Pops' intensity. Gully Low has a nice touch. Haggart scores Louis' closing solo for the three horns and it makes for an exciting version. From the Blue Five book we get Everybody Loves my Baby and this version swings nicely with a great Pops vocal and strong lead work. We all know the story of Heebie Jeebies and Louis' first scat vocal. (At least it makes for a good story). This new version is equally great with Pops throwing in some new scat and Trummy getting in some comments; all in all, a wonderful session. Mandy from the Blue Five has Louis' great leadwork, some nice Hall and Barnes, a wonderful guitarist. We love his work with Ruby Braff.

On January 25, we had more small group classics and a recreation of the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band with Yank Lawson coming in on lead trumpet. First up was King of the Zulus, a Hot Five classic. This version has a fiery trumpet by Pops--this was a favorite of Roy Eldridge--and some hokum by Ed Hall and Trummy recreating the original. Dan Morgenstern thinks this solo tops the original and I tend to agree with him. Georgia Grind , also from the Hot Five, was a fun tune and originally had Lil joining Louis on vocal. Here Velma Middleton does a fine job on Lil's part. (She and Pops had great chemistry). Jelly Roll Morton's Frog-I -More Rag was recorded by the Oliver band with Louis. It didn't make the Autobiography album, but popped up on a Decca compilation called I Love Jazz, also issued on the Mosaic set. It's a nice All Stars performance with great leadwork by Pops and a fine Hall clarinet solo.

The three King Oliver selections feature fine work by Pops. Yank Lawson does a fine job on lead, but one could never recreate such a classic band! Nevertheless, we can enjoy some great jazz. Snag It was recorded by Oliver, but not Louis. Pops and Yank play the classic Oliver break as a duo. Dippermouth Blues has both trumpets on the first chorus of the classic Oliver solo. Then Louis goes his own way for two more. Ed Hall does the patented "Oh, play that thing" shout. Canal Street has Yank on lead and Pops taking a lovely two chorus solo.

At the 1962 Newport Festival, Yank sat in with Louis and the All Stars for Canal Street and Dippermouth. The results were spirited, but disorganized. It sounded like they had no time for a run-thru.

The last session on January 28 involved several special projects. First up were two big band selections, You Rascal, You and Hobo, You Can't Ride this Train. You Rascal was one of Pops' setpieces for years. This version ranks with some of the best, featuring comic vocal refrains and some scorching trumpet on the outchorus backed by riffing saxes. Hobo, a Louis original, follows the form of the 1932 rendition, complete with brothers Young and Hall receiving Hobo status!

Next up was the classic 1929 blues, Knockin' a Jug. This was recorded prior to a Luis Russell session and involved Jack Teagarden, Eddie Condon, Joe Sullivan, Eddie Lang, Happy Cauldwell and Kaiser Marshall. It is credited as the first "mixed" jazz recording. Some critics give that nod to Jelly Roll Morton, a creole, sitting in with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings in 1923. This version gives studio pros Seldon Powell (tenor) and Everett Barksdale, guitar, a chance to join the All Stars. They acquit themselves nicely. Trummy and Billy Kyle also get in their licks and Barrett Deems handles the "jug" knockin' playing on his drum rims. Pops starts out low and blue and rises to a classic climax and cadenza before closing out soft on the coda. This Jug ranks right up there with the original!

Dear Old Southland was originally recoded as a duet with Buck Washington on piano. Pops occasionally performed it with Dick Cary and Earl Hines. Here his partner is the wonderful Billy Kyle. Billy never got his due as a master musician. He always played tastily and swingingly and contributed many of the riffs played under Pops' solos and vocals. This version features bravura playing from Pops on the minor strain and short uptempo passage. Louis' closing coda is full of fire and power! This Southland may be the best of all. To wrap up the project Louis went back to his days as a blues accompanist. He was a master of this idiom and knew exactly how to fill the open spaces with his beautiful phrasing. Velma Middleton handles the vocals. Although not a blues singer per se, she does a fine job and Pops' backgrounds (with the All Stars) are sublime.

The tunes are See See Rider (Ma Rainey), Reckless Blues (Bessie Smith), Trouble in Mind (Chippie Hill) and Courthouse Blues (Clara Smith). Louis never lost his talent as an accompanist. One of his last TV appearances was on the Johnny Cash show in October of 1970. Louis backed Cash on Blue Yodel No.9, a tune he originally recorded with Jimmie Rodgers in 1930. Pops' background to the Cash vocal was marvelous!

The Autobiography was certainly one of Louis' major contibutions to his later period. There would be many more. We can thank Milt Gabler and Decca for this wonderful set.

Decca got plenty of mileage out of the material. Various selections were used on the albums King Louis and Satchmo's Golden Favorites. I had these LPs as a kid and loved them! Later Decca issued a 2-LP set, The Best of Louis Armstrong, which was 3/4 Autobiography material. They also issued four single LPs of the material by years. Mosaic records issued all the sessions unedited, but minus the narration. (Mosaic No. 146) Verve issued the set as is with the narration. It's all glorious music and a great testament to Pops and how much trumpet and creation he was still capable of during his later period.

Till next time--Keep diggin' those Good Ole Good Ones!