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.