Every artist goes through periods of peaks and valleys. The reasons can be musical or personal. It happened to Ellington, it happened to Miles, and it happened to Louis Armstrong. This 9 cd collection of (mostly) concert material from 1947-1958 captures the trumpet king just as he was starting his major comeback, and reaching a peak that lasted as a crest for the remaining years of his career.
Breaking up his big band after WWII, Armstrong decided to go back to his original sound of small group improvising, and in May,1947 he put together a team of old friend Jack Teagarden/tb-voc, Peanuts Hucko/cl, Dick Cary/p, Bob Haggart/b, Sid Catlet-George Wettling/dr and Bobby Hackett/tp for a concert at Town Hall that knocked everyone in attendance for a loop. Not only was Armstrong in rejuvenated sound on the horn, but his voice was a force all its own. His treatment of songs such as “Back O Town Blues” makes the music almost stand still, while he swings the gate on “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Even better, when he teams up with Jack Teagarden, it makes a symbiosis of sounds that gives a hint of heaven. His take of “Rockin’ Chair” became part of the jazz lexicon with this version, while Teagarden on his own ” at this concert is simply like Superman coming out of the phone booth. His tone is hot, and his attack is even hotter. A quartet take of “Cornet Chop Suey” throws down the gauntlet, while a duet with Cary on “Dear Old Southland” is simply one for the ages.
A real treat for Armstrong fans is a re-discovered concert at Carnegie Hall form November, 1947. Teargarden is laconically glorious on “Stars Fell on Alabama” and “Basin Street Blues” while Velma Middleton joins in for some fun on “I Cried For You.” Clarinetist Barney Bigard almost steals the show on his four spotlights, with “Body and Soul”and “Tea for Two” showing some licorice wizardry, while his interplay with bassist Arvell Shaw on “How High the Moon” is a Bunsen burner. Catlet drives the band on a burning “Mop Mop” while “Steak Face” swings like Basie, and shows that the band had lots of moxie, with everyone sounding as fresh and crisp like a three piece suit. Satchmo rode the crest of this wave for quite some time, and deservedly so, as Armstrong and company perform like they have something to prove.
The next set of recordings is from a 1955 concert in Netherlands which had the band of Trummy Young/tb/voc, Edmond Hall/cl, Billy Kyle/p, Arvell Shaw/b, Barrett Deems/d and Velma Middleton/voc swinging with energy. Not all of the concert is captured here, but it and a concert in a Milanese movie theatre (with fake applause removed) have Armstrong and company doing some clever material such as “C’est Ci Bon,” “The Faithful Hussar” and a rip roaring “Dardanella” that has the band swinging from the chandeliers.
By this time, Armstrong was unable to do anything wrong. He had cut a couple classic albums with Ella Fitzgerald, and his tributes to WC Handy and Fats Waller caught everyone by surprise at how hard they swung. A pair of contemporary concerts from Newport are included here; one from 1956 and the other 1958. The former has the same band except for Dale Jones/dr being a replacement. The band is flying on “Undecided” and Armstrong is in enthusiastic form on “Mack The Knife.” The latter gig has him in front of an International Youth Band for a fun take of “On the Sunny Side of the Street” while the remaining concert has Armstrong’s All Stars of Young, Hucko, Kyle, Middleton, Mort Herbert/p and Danny Barcelona/dr having a party with “Lazy River” and “Now You Has Jazz” while Armstrong gives a definitive reading of “Pennies From Heaven.”
Among other treasures are one time events such as a 1956 date in Ghana, Africa, the Lewisohn Stadium rehearsal and concert with Leonard Bernstein that performed the opus version of “St. Louis Blues” and various interviews with Armstrong, the most famous one being his fun talk with Edward R Murrow in which the trumpeter gets to define things like “gutbucket” and “cat”as well as give his opinion on bop (“a passing fancy”) and the then-current “fad” of rock and roll, even throwing in a plug for his favorite laxative for good measure. Entertaining in its own right, to say the least! . This was the period when the jazz world was finally catching up to and appreciating Armstrong, and turning him into the”Ambassador Satch” that he deserved to be.
One of the pleasures of having so much concert material is that you get to appreciate how well paced an evening with Armstrong was. There’s always a mix of his vocals with instrumentals, some on stage muggin’, a blues here and there, and plenty of space to feature the sidemen. It’s fun to compare the various clarinetists such as Bigard, Hall and Hucko (a photo finish, with Hall’s fluidity a plus), the trombonists Young and Teagarden (Tea wins in a TKO, both in horn and vocals), and drummers Catlett, Deems and Barcelona (a draw, with points for Catlett’s drive, Deems’ taste and Barcelona’s enthusiasm). An concert with Satchmo was not only a show but, like the ambassador that he was, a representation of his jazz “country.”
As you can see, there are tons of valuable unissued concert material, with solos being returned to earlier truncated versions as well as impressively cleaned up sound. Fascinating writing by Ricky Riccardi, who’s the archivist for The Louis Armstrong House Museum making the booklet a treat. They’re only making 5000 of these 9 cd sets, so start ponying up asap, as it’s a keeper!