Monday, December 27, 2010

louie the magnificent

Even with the super-abundance of essays, encomiums, and scholarly analyses of Louis Armstrongs's music and career, I wonder how many listeners fully appreciate his virtuosity as a vocalist, or recognize that what he played with his cornet (later replaced by a trumpet) was an extension and elaboration of the things he did with his voice, which always remained the primary vehicle of his profound musical imagination.

Armstrong was at the very peak of his creative powers in the years right around 1930, when the Great Depression was beginning to wrap its skeletal arms around our economy and the lives of the people. I find myself listening over and over to two three-minute masterpieces from that period, and never grow tired of them. Both are sad love songs, usually played at a slow tempo, which Louis picks up to a medium speed so that they swing gently rather than dragging along.

These gems have now been made into what I call YouTube semi-videos -- audio tracks accompanied by a picture of the 78-rpm discs' labels. By the time Armstrong cut these sides in the studio he'd moved beyond the multi-voiced combos of the Hot Five and Hot Seven years, and fronted "smooth jazz" orchestras which showcased his horn and vocals -- what I've come to think of as "the two voices." For reasons I can't explain or understand, the cornball sound of the vanilla-textured sax sections augment rather than detracting from the total effect.

I Surrender, Dear

Body and Soul

And if you've never heard Armstrong's Stardust (the "Oh, Memory" take) from the same period, do yourself a favor and listen to that as well. This is the tune that I believe Ken Burns designated as the greatest jazz number of all time by placing it at the very top and out of chronological sequence in the five-disc music CD compilation that accompanied his PBS series, "Jazz."

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