The Month In Jazz – April 2021
Why don’t people listen to Louis Armstrong anymore? Maybe they do. I’ll rephrase. Why don’t people talk about Louis Armstrong anymore?
It’s impossible to imagine jazz without Louis Armstrong. Though he didn’t come out of nowhere — he apprenticed with King Oliver and Fletcher Henderson before setting out on his own — he stunned listeners virtually from the start. He wasn’t just a stylist with a strong individual sound; he was an absolute master of the horn. When he was living in Chicago in the early 1920s, he was reportedly able to blow two hundred high Cs in a row. His 1926 recording of “West End Blues,” with its unaccompanied trumpet introduction and the astonishingly long note he holds to begin his solo, remains a landmark in the music’s history. His entire improvisational style, extrapolating on songs’ chords and harmonies rather than just reworking their melodies, became the thing everyone after him did. In a 1958 interview, Miles Davis famously said, “You know you can’t play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played — I mean even modern. I love his approach to the trumpet; he never sounds bad.”
Despite what Davis said, though, Armstrong was openly dismissive of a lot of modern jazz. He famously called bebop “Chinese music” and described it as “all them weird chords which don’t mean a thing… you got no melody to remember, and no beat to dance to.” When an Australian journalist asked him in 1954 if he could play bebop he said, “I just play music. Guys who invent terms like that are walking the streets with their instruments under their arms.” He ceded ground to no one; in 1960, he said to journalist Gilbert Millstein, “How many modern trumpet players could play my solos? You’d have to carry ’em out on stretchers.”
He was an innovative vocalist, too. His gravelly voice and his loose, swinging approach to melody filtered through basically all of American pop music. Before Armstrong, pop singers strove for a clean, romantic style that delivered the lyrics in the manner of musical theater or light opera. Only vaudeville performers doing ethnic comedy routines were truly permitted to loosen up and goof around with a song. Post-Armstrong, that looseness and irreverence, which was eventually defined as a form of “authenticity,” became the dominant pop music mode, and it still is.
But for me, Armstrong’s importance rests entirely on his mastery of the horn and of jazz music. No matter the context, when Armstrong puts the trumpet to his lips, his solo is a thing of beauty. It’s bluesy, lyrical, emotionally resonant, and when he feels like it, he can hold a note or repeat an upper-register crescendo until you feel like your lungs are going to explode. And he does it all while consistently serving the song first and foremost.
I think ultimately it’s the songs, though, that keep people from listening to Louis Armstrong now. Even in the 1920s, when he was making the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings that made him a star, he was an entertainer above all, looking for hit records. Jazz musicians were not considered artists; they were competing in the popular marketplace. Because of that, he was perfectly willing to record novelty songs, corny love ballads, or anything else he thought an audience might go for. (“Irish Black Bottom”? Really?) In the 1930s, things devolved further still, as he recorded songs like “Shoe Shine Boy,” “La Cucaracha,” “She’s The Daughter Of A Planter From Havana,” and on and on. He seemed to be focused more on singing, though he always picked up the horn before the end of the song. (The solo on “La Cucaracha” rips, sadly.)
In the late 1940s, he rebounded, creatively speaking. A new box set from Mosaic, The Complete Louis Armstrong Columbia And RCA Victor Studio Sessions 1946-1966, shines a light on a superb later era in Armstrong’s career. It’s in no way a complete portrait of his work during those decades, of course. He recorded extensively for Decca and Verve in the 1950s, collaborating with Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, and others, and in 1961 he and his band made an album with Duke Ellington on Roulette. There are also numerous live recordings with his steady road band, many of which were compiled in a 2014 Mosaic box.
This set, though, focuses on radically expanded versions of two of Armstrong’s best late-career records, 1954’s Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy and 1955’s Satch Plays Fats, a collection of pieces by pianist Fats Waller. They featured his All Stars, a group that included trombonist Trummy Young, clarinet player Barney Bigard, pianist Billy Kyle, bassist Arvell Shaw, drummer Barrett Deems, and vocalist Velma Middleton. It also includes a pair of tracks with a one-off band put together by Esquire magazine in 1946, when they ran a prestigious annual jazz poll. That group included Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn on piano, Don Byas on tenor sax, Johnny Hodges on alto sax, and Sonny Greer on drums, with Armstrong up front. The rest of the first two discs include some big band tracks (he’d led a big band throughout the 1930s, doing one-nighters across the country) and some Dixieland material, as well as early recordings by an earlier lineup of the All Stars. And the box ends with an album called The Real Ambassadors, which pairs Armstrong up with pianist Dave Brubeck’s trio and the vocal group Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.
All the previously released performances are top-level, of course. On the Handy and Waller albums, Armstrong’s willingness to perform corny novelty songs is not really an issue, and he spends more time blowing than singing, anyway. But what’s most fascinating to me is the bonus material — rehearsals, alternate takes, inserts, etc. Many of the album versions of these songs were assembled from one or two less successful takes. Overdubbing was in its infancy in the early ’50s, so this was more about splicing. Take a verse from here, a solo from there, and you’ve got a complete version of a song. Of course, the goal was always to deliver a perfect take from start to finish, so you get to hear producer George Avakian working on arrangements with Armstrong. They instruct the band members on their parts, move people closer to a microphone so they can deliver chorus vocals, test a mic by having Armstrong deliver a ridiculous joke about an alligator, and on and on.
Is this extra material gonna be of interest to non-obsessives? Maybe, maybe not. It was a blast for me to listen to, though, because I had never really dived into Armstrong’s music. I heard the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings a long time ago and immediately recognized along with everyone else that he was an unbelievable flamethrower of a trumpet player, but when I heard a few other things, from the 1930s and then the 1960s, I thought his persona, and his singing, were too corny for me. I was more interested in jazz that was consciously aiming to be art. Unfortunately, I wasn’t hearing him at his best. It was sort of like trying to get into Elvis by listening to nothing but the soundtracks to his movies. When you do hear him at his best, though, like Elvis, it’s kind of hard to believe he was even from Earth.
If you think of Louis Armstrong as some kind of New Orleans nostalgia act, or the cornball who sang “What A Wonderful World” and “Hello, Dolly!”… well, he was those things. But he was also one of the most incredible musicians to ever live, and to hear him in full cry on a deep, swinging, bluesy number is almost too much for your ears, heart and mind to process. This Mosaic box is for diehards, but I’m really glad I listened to it, because it broadened my own impression of Armstrong in a big way, and if you’ve never heard Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy or Satch Plays Fats, you’ve really got no excuse.
August 4 will mark the 120th anniversary of Armstrong’s birth; July 6 will mark the 50th anniversary of his death. It’s the perfect time to reassert his place in jazz history. To stop honoring him by rote — the “of course” praise that effectively means nothing — and actually sit down and have the “holy shit” moment that comes when you really hear what he did.
The Real Gone label’s series of reissues of Black Jazz titles continues. The label, founded in Oakland, California in 1969, released only twenty titles between 1971 and 1975, but they were so strong that they continue to be sought after by collectors today. About a half dozen titles are newly out, many of which are well worth your time. Hard-driving tenor saxophonist Rudolph Johnson’s 1971 Spring Rain jumps back and forth between hard-swinging straightahead jazz and funky grooves. Bassist Cleveland Eaton’s Plenty Good Eaton, from 1975, is like a cross between soul jazz and the orchestral funk of Isaac Hayes, with romantic strings on the slow songs and gutsy vocals. Guitarist Calvin Keys’ Shawn-Neeq, also from 1971, floats somewhere between Blue Note and Impulse!; he’s a Grant Green-esque player, but “B.E.” and the title track have a psychedelic, spacey shimmer courtesy of Larry Nash’s electric piano and Owen Marshall’s drifting flute. Keyboardist Chester Thompson’s Powerhouse is short — four tracks in 27 minutes — but it slams hard; he was a soulful organist with enough rock and funk in him that he was a member of Tower Of Power in the 1970s, and Santana from the early ’80s till 2009. Bassist Henry Franklin’s The Skipper, from 1972, is one of the fiercest of these titles; the tight horn arrangements prefigure what players like Woody Shaw would be doing later in the decade, but there’s also some more of that psychedelic/modal exploration heard on other Black Jazz releases. This was a truly impressive label that put a lot of great music into the world — dive in and explore.
And now, new music!
Vincent Herring - "Preaching To The Choir"
Veteran DJ, record producer, and author Bob Porter died earlier this month at 80. He was a key presence on WBGO, the Newark, NJ-based radio station that’s maybe the best jazz station on the East Coast, and he had a lifelong mission to preserve the version of jazz that existed as a vernacular language in the black community: organ trios, blues and hard bop players, and everything he fit under the umbrella of soul jazz. He wrote a book called Soul Jazz: Jazz In The Black Community, 1945-1975; I reviewed it here in 2017. It’s an essential look at the music from an angle that a lot of critics didn’t consider, particularly during the period he wrote about. I don’t know what Porter thought of alto saxophonist Vincent Herring, but based on this album, I’d be willing to bet he was a fan. Herring is an old-school, bluesy hard bop player, and on this album, he surrounds himself with like-minded musicians in order to dig deep into the groove. Cyrus Chestnut’s piano playing is a combination of blues, jazz, and gospel; Yasushi Nakamura is one of those bassists who’s a perfect anchor and foundation; and Johnathan Blake is a hard-hitting, extremely swinging drummer who I’ve heard with Pharoah Sanders, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and leading his own bands. The title track from this album is a perfect example of what this group does — it’s got a big, wailing melody, the groove has an Art Blakey-ish bounce, and Herring’s soloing is fast and high-energy, playing to the back of the house even from the confines of the studio. (From Preaching To The Choir, out 4/30 via Smoke Sessions.)
Dan Wilson - "Who Shot John"
Dan Wilson is an up-and-coming guitarist who’s been a member of organist Joey DeFrancesco’s group, as well as bassist Christian McBride’s trio Tip City. Now he’s on the bassist’s Brother Mister label, making his third album as a leader. His band includes pianist Christian Sands, bassist Marco Panascia (McBride plays on two tracks), and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. Vocalist Joy Brown guests on three tracks, including a dramatic medley of John Coltrane’s “After The Rain,” Stevie Wonder’s “Save The Children,” and a funky version of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” But “Who Shot John” is a showcase for the entire band that’s somewhat inspired by Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia,” in that it’s built around a furiously energetic rhythmic vamp that somehow evolves continuously as it goes. Wilson’s guitar playing definitely comes from the Wes Montgomery school, with some George Benson thrown in, but he’s got his own thing going on, too, and his interaction with Sands and ability to ride Watts’ rhythm without getting swamped is impressive. (From Vessels Of Wood And Earth, out now via Brother Mister/Mack Avenue.)
Amanda Whiting - "The Feist"
Brandee Younger is the present-day jazz harpist most people are familiar with, but Amanda Whiting, from Wales, has made an incredibly strong debut with this album. Jazz harpists will often surround themselves with largish ensembles full of horns, keyboards, and/or extra percussion, but Whiting has the guts to record in a stripped-down trio format with only bassist Aidan Thorne and drummer John Reynolds as support. (Chip Wickham plays flute on three tracks.) And she really gets a broad range of sounds out of her instrument, often imitating a guitar, as when she dives into the blues on “Strut Your Stuff” or goes gentle and Brazilian on “Back To It,” letting the music waft through the room like sunlight through sheer curtains. “The Feist,” though, is the album’s high-energy highlight. Thorne and Reynolds set up a hard-swinging, supple groove I could easily hear JD Allen blowing over, and Whiting plays hard, switching back and forth with stunning rapidity from long sweeps across the harp to tight, single-note runs reminiscent of a shredding guitarist. (From After Dark, out now via Jazzman Records.)
Marques Carroll - "Assemble The Enlightened"
St. Louis has produced more great trumpeters than you might expect: Clark Terry, Miles Davis, Lester Bowie, Baikida Carroll, and Keyon Harrold (he’s from Ferguson, but it’s a suburb of St. Louis), among others. So Marques Carroll has a lot to live up to straight out of the gate. His debut album is exactly the kind of emphatic statement he needed to make. Mostly recorded with a quintet featuring alto saxophonist Brent Griffin, pianist Amr Fahmy, bassist Christian Dillingham, and drummer Gene Artry, it’s a swinging hard bop date in the vein of mid ’80s Wynton Marsalis (with occasional outbursts; the first minute or so of “Beyond The Battle” is a free jazz eruption). Artry’s drumming is hard and heavy, rampaging all over the kit in the manner of Jeff “Tain” Watts or the late Ralph Peterson, and Fahmy’s piano playing has an almost Latin jazz force. “Assemble The Enlightened” is like a sustained explosion, burning from start to finish. Artry is basically soloing through the whole thing without ever actually soloing, and maintaining an avalanche-like groove at the same time. Carroll himself is a lyrical and high-energy player who restrains himself just a bit; he always sounds like he’s six inches farther away from the microphone than any other player would be, but you still can’t help but focus on him. (From The Ancestors’ Call, out now via JMarq Records.)
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra - "Movement 7"
I’m a huge fan of Pharoah Sanders. I’ve seen him live twice — once in the early ’90s, with Cindy Blackman (not yet married to Carlos Santana) on drums, and again in late December 2020. His late-’60s through early-’70s Impulse! albums are amazing. You should start with Karma and Thembi and Jewels Of Thought, of course, but less well-known titles like Summun Bukmun Umyun, Village Of The Pharoahs, and Live At The East (actually recorded in a studio, but with an audience present, like Slayer’s Live Undead) are just as beautiful and expressive, and his mid-’90s collaboration with Gnawa musician Maleem Mahmoud Ghania, Trance Of The Seven Colors, is one of the most earth-shaking things you’ll ever hear. So when this album, a collaboration with English electronic composer Floating Points, was announced, I was on board instantly, without having any idea what to expect. It’s been out almost a month now, and it’s gotten a ton of hype, so maybe you’ve already heard it. But if you haven’t, it’s a nine-track suite, all flowing seamlessly together into a single 46-minute piece, with a single repeated keyboard figure and very nicely arranged (and beautifully produced; listen on headphones) strings providing a platform for Sanders’ gentle but still gritty and passionate saxophone journeys. There are elements of spiritual jazz here, but there are some keyboard sounds that are straight out of Wish You Were Here-era Pink Floyd, too. I picked “Movement 7” because it has the most Pharoah, but you have to hear the whole thing. (From Promises, out now via Luaka Bop.)
Gary Bartz, Ali Shaheed Muhammad & Adrian Younge - "Day By Day"
The sixth installment in producers Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge’s ongoing series features saxophonist Gary Bartz, whose creative journey has taken him from Miles Davis’ 1970-71 electric ensemble (the site The Heat Warps has gathered every extant bootleg of that group’s 1971 European tour, and they’re incredible) to work with Woody Shaw, McCoy Tyner, Pharoah Sanders, and a long and varied solo career. This short album — eight tracks in under a half hour — features him on alto and soprano, backed by Muhammad and Younge on guitar, bass, and a variety of keyboards, plus drummer Greg Paul and, on a few pieces, a four-member vocal group. It’s hard to pick one track as better than the others; they’re all just as smooth and head-nodding as “Day By Day,” which lopes along like a walk down a city sidewalk in the early summer sun. (From Jazz Is Dead 06, out now via Jazz Is Dead.)
Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble - "Now (Forever Momentary Space)"
Damon Locks is a multidisciplinary artist deeply tied to the Chicago jazz scene; I first noticed his name in 2008, when he appeared as a vocalist on the self-titled album trumpeter Bill Dixon made with Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra. He also does visual work, including light shows, and was the singer for the late-’80s/early-’90s post-punk band Trenchmouth (which had Fred Armisen on drums). With Black Monument Ensemble, he assembles collages of samples and electronics which are interwoven with vocal and instrumental contributions from a variety of players. On this, the group’s second record, the performers include Angel Bat Dawid on clarinet, Ben LaMar Gay on cornet and melodica, Dana Hall on drums, and Arif Smith on percussion, plus a six-member vocal ensemble, three men and three women: Phillip Armstrong, Monique Golding, Tramaine Parker, Richie Parks, Erica Rene, and Eric Tre’von. Locks writes the lyrics, which bounce off the samples (movie dialogue, political speeches, people shouting at protests, etc.) in a way that reminds me of SAULT’s album Black Is from last year. “Now (Forever Momentary Space)” begins with a woman saying, “This is the beginning, brother, not the end,” and becomes a Sons of Kemet-esque jam with pounding percussion, dreamlike female vocals, and unsettling electronics. It was recorded outside, and when the music stops you can hear that what originally seemed like a sound effect was in fact cicadas in the trees. Angel Bat Dawid says, “I hope y’all don’t cut the cicadas out.” (From Now, out now via International Anthem.)
Vijay Iyer - "Children Of Flint"
I’ve been waiting for this album to come out for over a year. At the end of January 2020, I saw this trio — Iyer on piano, Linda May Han Oh on bass, Tyshawn Sorey on drums — at the Jazz Standard. It was the next-to-last live jazz show I saw, pre-pandemic. I wrote about it here. At that time, I thought the album would be out sometime in 2020. But it took until April 2021 to finally arrive, and it was absolutely worth the wait. It’s less aggressive than the live show was, of course, but the trio dynamic and what each player brings to the table are both preserved. On “Children Of Flint,” which opens the album, you can hear the way Iyer balances lyrical melodic flourishes with tightly rhythmic deployment of small melodic cells; the way Oh creates a densely packed bottom end; and the way Sorey is simultaneously almost inhumanly precise and thunderously forceful. Onstage, he reminded me of a death metal drummer, but here he’s got to wrestle with ECM’s innate tendency toward quietude and calm, and they land in a middle ground where he’s maybe lower in the mix than I’d prefer, but he’s still doing his thing at full strength, never holding back. (From Uneasy, out now via ECM.)
Jason Moran/Milford Graves - "Seventh"
Pianist Jason Moran’s second release of 2021 is a tribute to drummer Milford Graves, who died earlier this year. The two men performed together at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee three years ago, in March 2018. In 2020, Moran was invited to Graves’ Philadelphia exhibit, A Mind-Body Deal, at the Institute Of Contemporary Art. There, he recorded some solo music which brackets this album. But obviously, the interaction between the two men is the draw, and the bulk of the record. Relatively early in his career, in 1966, Graves performed a concert at Yale University with pianist Don Pullen, which was recorded and split across two self-released LPs. That was a massive firestorm of music. This, recorded just over 50 years later, is less balls-out (Moran’s not that kind of player), much more meditative and inward-looking. On “Seventh,” which concludes the duo section of the disc, Graves is tapping toms that sound like coffee cans, and hitting a hi-hat that sounds like Middle Eastern hand cymbals, as Moran dances up and down the keyboard like a cat that’s been listening to Cecil Taylor since it was born, and somehow he manages to make the instrument sound like a tack piano one second and a concert grand the next. (From Graves/Moran – Live At Big Ears, out now via Yes Records.)
Wadada Leo Smith, Douglas R. Ewart & Mike Reed - "Super Moon Rising"
Wadada Leo Smith has a lot of music coming out this year. In a month or so, there will be two three-CD boxes, one composed of solo pieces and the other of duos with Bill Laswell and Milford Graves, plus a disc of trio work. There will be even more music — again in multi-disc sets — in the fall, some of which will be focused on his compositions. In the meantime, though, there’s this incredible live performance from 2015, somehow never released until now. The combination of Smith’s piercing, space-conscious trumpet, Douglas Ewart’s reeds, and Mike Reed’s drumming is about as AACM as it gets. All three men are members of the venerable Chicago arts institution, and this set recalls the work of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, as well as some of the offshoot projects of its members, like Joseph Jarman and Famoudou Don Moye’s Egwu Anwu (Sun Song) from 1978. “Super Moon Rising” is the centerpiece of the performance, and begins with a long stretch of trumpet-drums duo action, almost ritualistic in character, before Ewart joins in on a piercing reed around the six-minute mark. Reed’s drumming shifts from meditative to martial, as though he’s trying to drive them along, but the two older men know exactly what they’re doing and they’re not going anywhere, until eventually Reed settles into a sharp snare-driven rhythm that recalls Philip Wilson’s playing on Julius Hemphill’s “Dogon A.D.” This is magical music, and the fact that it sat on a shelf for six years is close to incomprehensible. Thankfully, it’s out in the world now. (From Sun Beans Of Shimmering Light, out now via Astral Spirits.)