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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Louis Armstrong, "The Complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens"

Louis Armstrong
"The Complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens"
Sony Legacy (2001)

1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die

The second annoying tendency that Moon has, aside from listing singular songs as one of his thousand choices, is to list overwhelming compilation albums as single entries when an artist’s influence is of extraordinary magnitude. Such is the case for Louis Armstrong, one of the most significant musicians in American history. “The Complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens” features 88 tracks on four discs, highlighting Armstrong’s time with not just the Hot Five and Hot Seven, but also a half-dozen other groups during the same time period. I warn that listening to this in one sitting is tough, and probably detrimental to the listener’s ability to focus on nuances.

Armstrong was a game changer in more than just his talent on the trumpet and cornet. He was one of the most talented performers of his day, showing significant talent when performing solo passages. The existence of solo passages is also largely thanks to him; prior to his rise, the tendency was for all band members to improvise slightly along with the rest of the band, but Armstrong revolutionized the concept of the band leader taking isolated solos. Every one of these 88 tracks features a passage from the “Satchel Mouth.” He shared the wealth; other performers got their own solos, but none got time on every track like Armstrong.

Ironically, Armstrong is probably less recognized for his contributions to jazz music than for his distinct, deep and gravelly tenor. His biggest hit, “What a Wonderful World” (not in this collection) rings most with listeners. Aside from the unique vocal style, Armstrong also helped to popularize scat singing, a technique used frequently on this collection.

To make things easier, I’m going to approach each of the four discs in this set individually.

Disc one marks much of Armstrong’s time with his Hot Five, which consisted of himself, a trombonist, clarinetist, banjo/guitar player and his wife Lil playing the piano. This album suffers from the worst audio quality of the bunch, but the best parts of Armstrong’s repertoire are still evident. A transplant from New Orleans in Chicago, volume one features the raucous Mardi Gras parade-style tracks that were common of Armstrong’s groups, as highlighted in tracks like “Muskrat Ramble.” “Heebie Jeebies” was the first recording to feature Armstrong doing his signature scat singing.

Disc two would be my recommendation if you were to only listen to one volume. It features the same New Orleans feel as his earlier work (as evidenced by “Alligator Crawl”) but gets an additional boost from two extra musicians (hence becoming the Hot Seven). A drummer fills the obvious spot missing from disc one, and a tuba player contributes to the parade feel with some appropriate “oom-pah.” What many critics say is the highlight of Armstrong’s career is his solo during “Potato Head Blues,” an extended stop-time style affair that waves off the previously established time signature throughout its performance.

Disc three features much cleaner recordings, but in terms of track selection, doesn’t do much to further itself from disc two. Most notable are the improved piano parts, as featured on tracks like “Fireworks” and “Skip The Gutter,” from new pianist Earl Hines. Armstrong obviously had a bias toward his wife, but got his head straight and brought in Hines, who provides much more exciting solo passages.

Disc four is the one I’d most recommend skipping, because it simply doesn’t have the same ebullience from Armstrong as the first three. Whereas on the other discs, when Armstrong played the “blues,” the music still had a lively New Orleans vibe, the bandleader is more mellow on this disc, as highlighted on tracks like “(What did I do to be so) Black and Blue?” and the music is also less exciting.

Regardless of which disc sounds best for you, if you’re going to listen to Armstrong, I suggest you try out something from this time period. A critical complaint about Armstrong (that I agree with) is that he never demonstrated interest in experimenting with his original sound very much. Therefore, his best stuff is right here, fresh and energetic.

INTERESTING FACT: Armstrong wrote that he began scatting on “Heebie Jeebies” because he knocked the lyric sheet to the ground while he was playing, and therefore had to improvise something to fill the space. Armstrong was known to weave tall tales about his early days, but this is one legend that may just be true.

"Potato Head Blues"

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