Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Complete RCA Victor Recordings: Did Pops Get Better Over Time?


Since finally succumbing to the vast allure of Louis Armstrong late last year, I've begun to think of him as a box set artist - the kind of performer who needs to be digested in huge quantities. I frequently listen to my two Armstrong sets (Hot Fives and Sevens and this) back to back, making for an eight hour marathon of Satchmo. I initially assumed that the earlier set would completely overshadow what he later did but I couldn't have been more wrong on that one. The Complete RCA Victor Recordings: twenty years of never ending development.

Certainly the RCA sessions sound better: the hiss that occasionally threatens to drown out the Hot Fives is almost entirely gone and, working with an orchestra on a regular basis, it has a fuller sound. But the earliest of these sessions date from the early thirties when he may well have missed his old Hot Five cohorts. Mere advanced studio technology could not obscure just how ill-prepared Armstrong's employees were. So how does the man himself sound so fantastic? Could he simply have improved? While his solos on the Hot Five recordings are incredible still, his playing through the thirties and forties (and the remainder of his career) saw no notable drop off in quality but there's far greater authority and confidence than before. This is all the more obvious with his singing which all too often sounds tentative in the twenties. Listeners coming from a rock background (such as myself) tend to find the singing to be a distraction at best and irritating at worst but on these recordings it becomes abundantly clear that his vocals are as vital his cornet. It's nice to think, too, that he sacrificed his trumpet playing in order to sing more often but his lines simply get better and better with each passing decade (my favorite solos are on disc three from the mid-forties: 'Snafu', 'Joseph 'n' His Brudders', 'Where the Blues Were Born in New Orleans' and a definitive rendition of 'Mahogany Hall Stomp'; it's notable that the first three numbers are otherwise inconsequential, proof that Armstrong didn't need a great composition to run roughshod over a tune). Could it be that his playing and singing got better in tandem? On the final disc Armstrong revisits his some of his old Hot Fives classics, such as 'St. James Infirmary' and 'Ain't Misbehavin', to an appreciative New York audience. But it's a far cry from an aging Paul McCartney churning out 'Yesterday' or 'Hey Jude' to crowds that wanted to see the Beatles play thirty years earlier. These barely seem like classics at all: they exude creativity which manages to keep the music as contemporary as ever.

Unique among jazz musicians, Armstrong seemed to just get better and better (only until the sixties does it feel like he's riding the coattails of his former glories). Ellington tirelessly reworked his material but never quite topped the zest and exuberance of his earliest recordings. Davis spent the bulk of his career in flux but it was never about improving his technique or skills as a performer. Parker showed everyone his supreme talent in around 1942 and then spent the remainder of his life attempting to remind everyone of this fact. Only Charlie Mingus and Thelonious Monk managed a similar feat to Armstrong and even they could only sustain the self-improvement for ten to fifteen years; neither of them came close to making an entire career of it. It was never about reinventing the wheel either; he took his sound and spent the rest of his life making it better.

Neither a singles nor an albums act as we regard them to be now, Louis Armstrong is the ultimate box-set artist. And what better a complement to pay to a man whose greatest achievement was having the career he had.

1 comment:

Stephen said...

Nice to see that you've got back into doing these posts. Armstrong, Webster, MJQ and Coltrane in a week! What a treat for eclecticists.

Your point about Armstrong's success revisiting past successes in comparison with someone like McCartney (though surely any of the major 60s luminaries would be equally salient) is something I've been thinking about lately. What is the difference between the two musical styles? For all the vaunted discussions of 60s pop and rock turning the studio into an 'instrument', we do well to remember that the Hot 5s and 7s were (with a single exception) studio creations, never performing live. But Armstrong, like the Beatles, had many years' experience playing live, in all kinds of situations: in his case, New Orleans parades, Mississippi river boats, ritzy New York clubs, and still ritzier Chicago clubs to hone his chops; in theirs, Hamburg and the Cavern. And yet the increasing shift to studio-bound performance for the Beatles starting in 1965 marked the end of live performing as a vital part of their career. Indeed, barring a few one-offs after 1970, this was the case for the rest of their lives.

I make the exception for McCartney, who under no impetus save his strong desire to do so formed a proper touring group in the 70s and began by playing non-Beatles numbers in colleges to students who would surely have preferred Beatles hits (or for the hipper crowd, all of our White Album favourites). Even so, on his albums one still hears someone in love with the studio for its own sake, whether in the early and wonderful 'Ram', or in the Nigel Godrich-produced 'Chaos and Creation in the Backyard' of 2005. There's nothing necessary about his live act, except for the fact that he sees it as part of his job as an entertainer.

One could maybe make a different argument for Dylan, who has admitted that studios make him uncomfortable and that with the exception of the famous mid-60s records he's never succeeded at recording his new material the way he hears it in his head. Aficionados will maintain that live Dylan is the real deal, but as his live act is limited to the same format he's been with since The Band, there's not really a musical development. 'It's the interpretations that change' say fans, but this is equally true of figures of earlier generations. Sarah Vaughan, for example, drastically changed the style of her live performances: in the 50s, a bop-influenced pop singer who could hold any nightclub in America, by the 70s an nearly-operatic singer whose proper venue was the concert hall.

One way of looking at this difference might be that 20th century pop music was increasingly influenced by marketing. This is slightly different from saying it was commercial. By the 1920s, one could sell millions of records, but they were seen as an adjunct to one's live act; a form of promotion, as it were. All the great performers of the 1920 - 1950 period still performed live, including their radio appearances. Many jazz artists, whose commercial recordings were affected by government bans and industry strikes in the 40s, are preserved for us in radio recordings, often of new material rather than hits.

This changed drastically in the 60s. Pop music started to become more affected by the much faster rate of turnover that was partly a result of the prosperity of the post-war years. Also, the audience it was made for was much younger, less mature and less sure of its tastes: hence, much more susceptible to marketing and publicity. This (regrettably) began to affect jazz itself around this time. This meant that while an appetite for novelty and constant change was good for the young artist, who could frequently manage this for a year or two
(in the case of the Beatles, for their whole EMI career) it made it much harder as they matured and were less inclined to follow fads; if they were to continue to perform the material that had made them stars, they would have to sing young men's songs that had been written for still younger people, often teenage girls. Hence the ludicrous quality of the Rolling Stones, c. 1985 - present. Dylan's material was never aimed at a 'teenage' market, so that affected him less, but with both McCartney and (had he lived) Lennon the same would apply.

Interesting note before I close this overly long comment. There is a similarity to the aforementioned situation in the case of Sinatra, who in the early 40s was a teen-idol and whose material, while not written by him, was written to enhance his appeal to teenagers/girls in their 20s, many of whose boyfriends/husbands were serving overseas. As he aged and continued to perform this material, he became a bit of a joke, and gradually started to lose his popularity. During the 50s, he reinvented himself in 3 ways: as a movie star (often in purely dramatic roles), as an LP artist, and as an interpreter of the Great American Songbook of the 20s - 40s; indeed, his Capitol LPs had a lot to do with said GAS being recognised as a signal achievement of American art. And of course, this material was written for adults, not teenagers. Armstrong's career (and all of the great singers prior to the 60s) shares this quality; your material is as strong as you make it, and only experience can give you that strength. Any thoughts?

Keep up the good work!