Thursday, October 7, 2021

Pinnacle 'Pops" Moment - John McDonough

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

If the 1930s witnessed the rise of the big bands, the 1940s saw their demise. 

Louis Armstrong was there for both dynamics.

The big band wasn’t the best setting for Pops’ talents.

As documented in his 1920s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings his claim to fame was small group Jazz and when the big bands broke up in the late 1940s, he reclaimed that format in the form of his All-Star Sextet and once again produced some of his best music of his storied career, particularly on two mid-1950s Columbia recordings: Louis Armstrong Plays WC Handy and Satch Plays Fats.

The significance of these recordings and why they became so special both in the making of them and in the re-establishment of Louis’s career as a serious performing artist are explained in John McDonough’s review of The Complete Louis Armstrong Columbia And RCA Victor Sessions 1946-1966 (Mosaic 7-270] which appeared in October 2021 issue of Downbeat magazine.

“Dick Cavett once asked Oscar Peterson an odd question "How good a trumpet player was Louis Armstrong?" Peterson seemed astonished that anyone would ask such a question. But Armstrong had been dead eight years and a generation had come of age with no memory of his powers as a musician.

Fifty years after his death, readers of this magazine may be forgiven for asking similar questions Armstrong can be difficult for serious young ears. His most groundbreaking work is trapped in the technology of the 20s and early 30s. covering its splendors under a musty, time-clock veneer. He spent much of his Decca period fronting a big band. The technology was better, and sometimes the trumpet. But the trap now was popularity. The whims of juke box fashion came with a timestamp and short shelf life. In 1946-47, Armstrong decamped from the big band, made a movie called New Orleans and built the streamlined New Orleans-style sextet that would be his home until the end.

The Complete Louis Armstrong Columbia And RCA Victor Sessions 1946-1966 (Mosaic; 77:55/79:55/79:42/78:51/78:48/76:32/75:39 (*****) spans that arc adding new detail to particular periods of the journey. Some is amusingly off-beat ("Music To Shave By"), some merely academic The Real Ambassadors was Dave Brubeck's try at a cold war jazz musical. Columbia reluctantly recorded it, but it sounds like a high school revue. Earnest lines like "always be a credit to your government" now smell of false patriotism. And Armstrong's trumpet has little of the majesty that flowed so freely. The set documents the death rattle of the big band, the ad hoc stirrings of Armstrong's small group renaissance and a final, much diminished Armstrong ("Canal Street Blues").

Why then, such a princely rating"? Because in the middle of it all, producer George Avakian managed to catch Armstrong in his pinnacle moments. Modern technology at Columbia, mature technique from Armstrong and fresh repertoire converged to capture two masterpieces. Critics who had abandoned all hope of ever hearing Armstrong play up to his legend were astounded. Recorded in the summer of 1954, Louis Armstrong Plays WC Handy projected such unmitigated confidence and power, modern critics took the trumpeter seriously again. In the Dec 1 Down Beat (not Dec. 4, per the notes). Nat Hentoff delivered five stars, calling it "one of the greatest recordings not only of the year. but of Jazz history" It was followed a year later by Satch Plays Fats. John S Wilson of the Times wrote that "they are among the high points of his recording career, comparable to his youthful work with the Hot Five and Hot Seven.” And time has not undone a word of it.

Mosaic Records devotes nearly four of its seven CDs to the original albums and nearly twice that to alternate and rehearsal takes. It takes us into the creative process and Armstrong and Avakian’s roles in it. It was a complicated process because once the sessions were over, the scissors went to work. Avakian freely intercut pieces from different takes to produce "perfect" performances. His edits were as ubiquitous as they were invisible, which is why Ricky Riccardi's detailed notes are a necessary roadmap to anyone who wishes to reverse engineer Avakian’s original masters

For those content to just listen, you will hear Armstrong play with an almost arrogant assurance, flawless phrasing and flammable passion. Familiar blues become arias of operatic scope without straining. "The St Blues” was still a cornerstone of the classic repertoire and gets deluxe attention. But the more modest “Beale St. Blues” is the most perfect, simultaneously spectacular and intimate. Elsewhere, Trummy Young is rugged and brash. His solos start where most trombonists end. And Barrett Deems delivers a swashbuckling kick that gives Armstrong his best rhythm section since Sid Catlett. My only regret is that clarinetist Ed Hall wasn't there for the Handy and Waller dates. His reedy growl burns like a sparkler and helps make the "Mack The Knife" ride outs such a joy.

Peterson's answer to Cavett's question was, 'fantastic." If you've ever wondered what all the Armstrong talk is about, this is what Peterson had in mind.”

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