Thursday, January 1, 2009

Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy: In Search of a Legacy

While I have previously posited on the seemingly unthinkable notion that Louis Armstrong actually got progressively better with each passing decade, I have to acknowledge that his influence and fame had clearly peaked during the twenties and thirties. By the fifties, even Armstrong must have been aware of it although I wouldn't imagine that his current status in some circles for producing the Hot Fives and Sevens followed by a respectable but underwhelming subsequent forty years would never have occurred to him. Where, then, did this leave a still potent Louis Armstrong? Coming out of a so-so forties and flirting close to irrelevancy might have irreparably harmed a lesser performer but I suspect that he found it liberating rather than shackling. With nothing to prove he went out and pieced together a musical second coming that deserved to have the entire jazz world looking on in awe.

I have also pondered elsewhere about the role that the album played on old school 78 rpm figures such as Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Both seemed to find the new medium advantageous, in some respects better suited for it than their younger, supposedly more ambitious contemporaries. While Ellington used the long player as a means to stretch out his compositions into suites, Armstrong began to explore thematic approaches* of varying degrees of success (I've been assured that Louis and the Good Book is terrible but I'm perverse enough to find merit in it). But did the album rejuvenate him or was it simply his means for expressing this B-12 shot of inspiration? (It's possible that the L.P. gave him the excuse he needed to tip his hat to his own musical heroes.) Either way, it resulted in a sublime album, every bit as good anything else he ever did.

Likely inspired by their employer, the All-Stars are absolutely superb on Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy. Much has already been written on Armstrong's allegedly weak groups and orchestras - sometimes justified - but it's impossible to quibble with the group assembled here - and the fact that the trumpeter kept the unit together for a little while suggests he and his charges were happy with the arrangement, a welcome change from the revolving door he had in the thirties. Barney Bigard and Trummy Young, on clarinet and trombone respectively, deliver some excellent solos that while lacking the power and authority of their boss don't manage to get completely overwhelmed either, always the most you can hope for from an Armstrong backing unit. Velma Middleton, too, is at the top her game, her comic timing and sass a more welcome addition than it would be on Satch Plays Fats two years later - curious considering there's decidedly more humour on Fats Waller's compositions than on Handy's. Although Armstrong is, as ever, the star, he is so ably assisted from all corners that it seems to be his most group-like effort. Never one to be outdone, he blows with a torrential force, as great as any of his earlier, more acclaimed recordings. (Until proven otherwise, his trumpet solo on 'St. Louis Blues' is the most thrilling of his entire career.) And nowhere else does his playing mesh so well with his vocals, making this music he was simply born to perform.

Interesting that on a tribute to W.C. Handy the biggest tribute being paid is to Armstrong himself. Never a prolific composer, his uncanny ability to breathe new life into tried and tested standards remains unmatched to this day. But these recordings didn't simply galvanize Handy's top-drawer compositions: they also brought a brand new sense of purpose and vitality to a performer who could have easily sat back in his dotage. Were that the case for more artists.

* Rock fans will be dismayed to discover that the so-called concept album was had been mined by jazz and Broadway long before the Beatles clued in. But I'm sure they'll happily find ways to delude themselves further.

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