Louis Armstrong (David Lennick/ Louis Armstrong/ Louis Armstrong Orchestra/ The Mills Brothers) (Naxos: 8.120816)
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LOUIS ARMSTRONG Vol.6
'You Rascal, You' Original Recordings 1939-1941
The Louis Armstrong of the late 1930s was aman at a crossroads in his career, faced withseveral creative dilemmas. Popularity was not oneof them. He was now a bonafide superstar, withradio programmes, tours, and concerts crowdinghis schedule. Already recognized as a pioneer ofjazz and one of the supreme jazz musicians of hisday, Armstrong could pretty much do what hewanted. But the years just prior to America'sentry into World War II showed Armstrongstruggling, at least in the studio, to find his nichein the rapidly changing musical landscape.
Riding on top of the tidal wave of the BigBand Era, Armstrong had assembled his ownorchestra early on, making records for OKeh andthen Victor before signing with the new Deccalabel in 1935. By the end of 1939, Armstrong'sorchestra was relying mainly on its leader'scharisma and celebrity as more progressive bandstook the spotlight. Listening to Harlem Stomp,from the following May, is a perfect example. Thenondescript big band leads off with theintroduction to the song, sounding not muchunlike any other group of the period. It isn't untilSatchmo comes in with his gravelly vocal andclarion trumpet chorus that the sound becomessingularly his. Aside from Louis himself, theArmstrong orchestra had no identity of its ownand exhibited little growth during the '30s, unlikebands led by Benny Goodman, which featuredpowerhouse soloists and Fletcher Henderson'sextraordinary charts, Duke Ellington, with itsunique arrangements of original tunes, andGlenn Miller, which had its own musical identityas well. Occasionally, J. C. Higginbotham or LuisRussell was given a chance to shine, but ingeneral, it was Satch's show from start to finish.
But, like a superstar basketball player on a teamof anonymous underachievers, Armstrong wasable to transform his records by himself with hispersonality and musical genius.
Although Armstrong was a great innovator ofjazz vocals, fans of his trumpet playing weregetting dismayed that there was less and less ofthis on his records. Armstrong's records weremainly vocal-oriented, with novelty-tinged songsplaying on Satchmo's effusive personality and jivelanguage (Hep Cats' Ball, Cut Off My Legs AndCall Me Shorty, You Run Your Mouth, I'll RunMy Business).
Decca's penchant for teaming up its mostpopular artists resulted in Armstrong cutting asession with another of its successful acts, theMills Brothers, in April 1940. Armstrong had firstteamed up with the Mills clan three years beforeand the combination was still effective; the foursongs they recorded are all here, including anearly Jesse Stone composition making fun ofAmerica's Works Progress Administration(W. P. A.), and the tendency for workers togoldbrick on the job, knowing they would not befired. Both Armstrong and the Mills Brotherswould continue to do duets with other Deccastalwarts in succeeding years.
As much as Decca's decision makers tried toshoehorn Louis Armstrong into the Swing Era,they took advantage of the revival of traditionalNew Orleans jazz in 1940 to bring Armstrongback into his most comfortable element, leadinga small group of top-notch jazzmasters (allhailing from New Orleans). Armstrong'scompetitive spirit was given a challenge whenreedman Sidney Bechet was invited to join himon the session. The resulting album, called NewOrleans Jazz, foreshadowed the sound of hissuccessful post-war group, Louis Armstrong andhis All-Stars, which he would use for the rest ofhis career. Small group jazz was making acomeback, thanks in part to the success of NewYork's Commodore record label, and the everincreasingcost of running a big band.
Bechet and Armstrong proved to be still apotent combination, each possessing egos thatwould not allow one to get the better of theother. The two had played together fifteen yearsearlier, on recordings made as part of ClarenceWilliams' Blue Five. Bechet, always in top formwhen playing the blues, soars in his solo on LilArmstrong's Perdido Street Blues, while Louisfinishes the tune off with one of his best solos inyears, played over Claude Jones' trombone riffs.
Similarly, 2:19 Blues, featuring a solid Armstrongvocal, also comes off well. However, the othertwo tunes, Down In Honky Tonky Town andCoal Cart Blues caused Bechet to later remark inhis autobiography, 'Louis, it seemed like he waswanting to make it a kind of thing where we weresupposed to be bucking each other, competinginstead of working together for that real feelingthat would let the music come new and strong'.
Despite the rivalry, this short four-song sessiongave Armstrong a chance to break free from thebonds of the Swing Era, even for but a brieftime.
The next year, Decca featured Armstrong inanother New Orleans-style small group mode,this time with no musician the calibre of Bechetto share the spotlight with. On Hey LawdyMama, Armstrong sings a blues made popular byAmos Easton, aka \Bumble Bee Slim," one of thefew recordings in which Louis played in a bandfeaturing an electric guitar (Lawrence Lucie).
Back with his big band in November 1941, Louisreprised his classic You Rascal You, which he hadfirst recorded for OKeh ten years earlier, and thesong that would become his theme, the evocativeWhen It's Sleepy Time Down South.
At the outbreak of World War II, LouisArmstrong was still on top of the jazz world. Hehad survived the Swing Era, unlike most of hisfirst generation contemporaries, but wouldemerge after the war going back to what he didbest: playing the New Orleans jazz standards hemade popular in the '20s with a stable group ofequally like-minded musical veterans.Cary Ginell - a winner of the 2004 ASCAP/DeemsTaylor Award for music journalism)