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Extended Analysis

Louis Armstrong: The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions (1935-1946)

By Published: March 22, 2010
Louis Armstrong
The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions (1935-1946)
Mosaic Records

As far as recordings by trumpeter Louis Armstrong go, the Decca recordings don't generate much interest. Prior to them came the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, the most influential jazz recordings ever made and the template for everything that was to come. Afterward came the superb pop recordings for RCA, which showed a masterful entertainer more respected for his vocal prowess than his trumpet playing. The Decca years represent Armstrong's adolescence: a bit gangly, sometimes awkward, and filled with questionable choices amidst the bold assertions of identity.

Part of the problem may be that the Decca recordings have been available somewhat helter skelter over the years. Who better to provide some coherence than Mosaic? The label has compiled everything that Armstrong recorded for Decca, brilliantly remastered from the original metal parts or discs, and with thorough liner notes from jazz veteran Dan Morgenstern

to boot. With this seven CD set, it is finally possible to assess this set completely and perhaps more firmly establish them as the great records they are.

Critics of these recordings gripe about the subpar quality of the song choice, which is surprisingly inferior given the astounding amount of good songs that were written at the time. A quick glance at the tracks will confirm this suspicion; there are quite a lot of second tier songs (you can often spot them just from the title.) At the time, Joe Glaser had recently become Armstrong's manager and quickly obtained the services of Jack Kapp at the newly launched Decca label to record him. And record they did—166 tracks over 11 years that also span the infamous recording ban. Kapp saw Armstrong as a novelty act, someone whose numbers might be a little corny and superficial and easy on the ear. In this regard he had much in common with pianist Fats Waller

Fats Waller
Fats Waller
1904 - 1943
, another mugger who recorded piffle. But also like Waller, Armstrong was always able to turn even the most insignificant material into something special, even if it wasn't perhaps high art. He also correctly assumed that his performance would carry the material, and more often than not it did.

There are some undeniable misfires here, such as a few numbers with a Hawaiian theme, and some gospel numbers, along with a few numbers like "When Ruben Swings the Cuban" that even Armstrong can't redeem. But there are also quite a few numbers that Armstrong absolutely nails and turns into masterpieces, such as "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "Struttin' With Some Barbeque," "Tiger Rag," "Wolverine Blues," "Satchel Mouth Swing" and "Jubilee" proving that a terrific song and superb musicianship can always combine to make musical gold.

Anther problem for some critics is the quality of the sidemen. There are really no stellar musicians on the stand, but rather serviceable sidemen capable of playing the charts and managing a decent solo when prompted. Clearly the focus here was on Armstrong and the rest of the band was only called upon to provide sturdy accompaniment and little else. Thus, unlike the Hot Five and Seven Recordings, there's no pianist Earl Hines

Earl Hines
Earl Hines
1903 - 1983
or trombonist Kid Ory
Kid Ory
Kid Ory
1886 - 1973
to keep Armstrong on his toes and match his chops (although truth be told, few could keep up with him).

The novelty here is hearing Armstrong navigate the world of big band coming from the smaller groups he had employed earlier. The recordings start out startlingly sweet and progressively get hotter, matched by terrific charts from Sy Oliver

Sy Oliver
Sy Oliver
1910 - 1988
and Joe Garland
Joe Garland
. Armstrong was also paired with other artists from the Decca label such as saxophonist Glen Gray
Glen Gray
, reed player Jimmy Dorsey
Jimmy Dorsey
Jimmy Dorsey
1904 - 1957
and bassist Bob Haggart
Bob Haggart
, all white musicians, and pairings that helped erase the color lines that existed. There are also a few visits with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton
Lionel Hampton
Lionel Hampton
1908 - 2002
and a reunion with soprano saxophonist and clarinetist Sidney Bechet
Sidney Bechet
Sidney Bechet
1897 - 1959
sax, soprano
, as well as early appearances with guys like guitarist Dave Barbour
Dave Barbour
who would go on to greater things. Oh yes, and the first pairing of Armstrong and singer Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
1917 - 1996

Armstrong has always been the Shakespeare of jazz, someone regarded as a widely influential genius, yet not one who escapes the ranks of academia except for the occasional Pottery Barn compilation. Many jazz fans probably find themselves throwing on something other than Armstrong most of the time. If so, the Decca recordings are his King Lear: somewhat problematic for many, a little cumbersome, yet showing him moving in a new direction all while displaying all the qualities that made him great. A sampling of the best of these records would show how truly great this period was. Mosaic's warts and all approach necessarily includes some questionable material. But with the Mosaic touch, don't be surprised if these recordings reemerge as a classic period in Armstrong's career.

Tracks: CD1: I'm In The Mood For Love; You Are My Lucky Star; La Cucaracha; Got A Bran' New Suit; I've Got My Fingers Crossed; Old Man Mose; I'm Shooting High; Was I To Blame For Falling In Love With You; Red Sails In The Sunset; On Treasure Island; Thanks A Million; Shoe Shine Boy; Solitude; I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music; The Music Goes 'Round And Around; Rhythm Saved The World; Got A Bran' New Suit (alt tk.-A); I've Got My Fingers Crossed (alt tk.-A); Old Man Mose (alt tk.-A); Old Man Mose (alt tk.-D); Thanks A Million (alt tk.-B); Solitude (alt tk.-C); Solitude (alt tk.-B); I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music (alt tk.-C); Rhythm Saved The World.

CD2: I'm Puttin' All My Eggs In One Basket; Yes-Yes! My-My! (She's Mine); Somebody Stole My Break; I Come From A Musical Family; If We Never Meet Again; Lyin' To Myself; Ev'ntide; Swing That Music; Thankful; Red Nose; Mahogany Hall Stomp; The Skeleton In The Closet; When Ruben Swings The Cuban; Hurdy Gurdy Man; Dipper Mouth; Swing That Music; "Pennies From Heaven" Medley: Let's Call A Heart A Heart-So Do I-The Skeleton In The Closet; Pennies From Heaven; To You, Sweetheart Aloha; On A Cocoanut Island; On A Little Bamboo Bridge; Hawaiian Hospitality; When Ruben Swings The Cuban (alt tk.-B); Hurdy Gurdy Man (alt tk.-B); "Pennies From Heaven" Medley: Let's Call A Heart A Heart-So Do I-The Skeleton In The Closet (alt tk.-B).

CD3: Carry Me Back To Old Virginny; Darling Nelly Gray; In The Shade Of The Old Apple Tree; The Old Folks At Home; Public Melody Number One; Yours And Mine; Red Cap; She's The Daughter Of A Planter From Havana; Alexander's Ragtime Band; Cuban Pete; I've Got A Heart Full Of Rhythm; Sun Showers; Once In A While; On The Sunny Side Of The Street; Satchel Mouth Swing; Jubilee; Struttin' With Some Barbecue; The Trumpet Player's Lament; Darling Nelly Gray (alt tk.-B); In The Shade Of The Old Apple Tree (alt tk.-B); The Old Folks At Home (alt tk.-B?); Struttin' With Some Barbecue (alt tk.-B); The Trumpet Player's Lament (alt tk.-C).

CD4: I Double Dare You; True Confession; Let That Be A Lesson To You; Sweet As A Song; So Little Time (So Much To Do); Mexican Swing; As Long As You Live You'll Be Dead If You Die; When The Saints Go Marching In; On The Sentimental Side; It's Wonderful; Something Tells Me; Love Walked In; The Flat Foot Floogee; The Song Is Ended; My Walking Stick; Shadrack; Going To Shout All Over God's Heaven; Nobody Knows De Trouble I've Seen; Jonah And The Whale; I Double Dare You (alt tk.-B); True Confession (alt tk.-B); Let That Be A Lesson To You (alt tk.-B); Going To Shout All Over God's Heaven (alt tk.-B).

CD5: Naturally; I've Got A Pocketful Of Dreams; I Can't Give You Anything But Love (w/ pre-groove chatter); Ain't Misbehavin'; Elder Eatmore's Sermon On Throwing Stones; Elder Eatmore's Sermon On Generosity (AA); Jeepers Creepers; What Is This Thing Called Swing?; Rockin' Chair; Lazybones; Hear Me Talkin' To Ya; Save It Pretty Mama; West End Blues; Savoy Blues; Confessin, That I Love You; Our Monday Date; If It's Good (Than I Want It); Me And Brother Bill; Happy Birthday; Baby Won't You Please Come Home; Poor Old Joe; Shanty Boat On The Mississippi.

CD6: Poor Old Joe; You're A Lucky Guy; You're Just A No Account; Bye And Bye; Hep Cats' Ball; You've Got Me Voodoo'd; Harlem Stomp; Wolverine Blues; Lazy 'Sippi Steamer; W.P.A.; Boog-It; Cherry; Marie; Sweethearts On Parade; You Run Your Mouth, I'll Run My Business; Cut Off My Legs And Call Me Shorty; Cain And Abel; Perdido Street Blues; Blues (Mamie's Blues); Down In Honky Tonk Town; Coal Cart Blues; Ev'rything's Been Done Before; I Cover The Waterfront; In The Gloaming; Long, Long Ago; Down In Honky Tonk Town (alt tk.-B).

CD7: Hey Lawdy Mama; I'll Get Mine Bye And Bye; New Do You Call That A Buddy; Yes Suh!; When It's Sleepy Time Down South; Leap Frog; I Used To Love You (But It's All Over Now); (I'll Be Glad When You're Dead) You Rascal You; (Get Some) Cash For Your Trash; Among My Souvenirs; Coquette; I Never Knew; Groovin'; Baby Don't You Cry; Whatcha Say; Jodie Man; I Wonder; You Won't Be Satisfied (Until You Break My Heart); The Frim Fram Sauce; I Used To Love You (But It's All Over Now) (alt tk.-B); Among My Souvenirs (alt tk.-B); Coquette (alt tk.-B); Whatcha Say (alt tk.-A?); You Won't Be Satisfied (Until You Break My Heart); The Frim Fram Sauce.

Personnel: Louis Armstrong: trumpet, vocals with various line-ups.

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