The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions 1935-1946
Mosaic MD7-243 [(203) 327-7111]
Complete personnel and discography at mosaicrecords.com.
Seven discs, 168 tracks (including 31 alternate takes). Total time 8:15:31
In his life, Louis Armstrong blended three careers. One of the finest and most influential musicians of the twentieth century, his ingratiating voice and phrasing pleased the general public and influenced many singers, contemporaries and those who followed them, and he was always an entertainer. He never compromised his music, but in performance, on radio, and in the movies he clearly enjoyed giving authences a good time. His duets with Velma Middleton were packed with humor- I saw her do the splits at the Blue Note- and the band would cry and moan during "New Orleans Function". His duet with Danny Kaye in "The Five Pennies" is a classic example of his pleasure in inspired clowning. All of these qualities are present in this welcome compilation.
All but the final nine postwar tracks in the set were recorded in 1935-1942, and they include all of his recordings as leader of the big band- essentially led by its pianist, Luis Russell- which he formed after a two-year stay in Europe. Most feature Armstrong as both soloist and singer. In his early years he was mostly a sideman or a journeyman playing and recording with ad hoc ensembles, and after 1946, he led his All Stars for a quarter century. The importance of the Hot Five and Seven recordings in the 'twenties and the later All Stars have eclipsed these years in which he was Decca's most important artist (along with Bing Crosby), recording a two-sided single almost every month. As Dan Morgenstern observes in his invariably excellent notes, the obscurity is wholly undeserved.
In his 1936 autobiography, "Swing that Music" (written with a ghost writer), Armstrong distinguishes "jazz" from "swing": he identifies the former as the music played by the traditional instrumentation of the Nick LaRocca and King Oliver bands, while he implies that swing is based on extended improvised solos. He might have added that swing flows more smoothly and is mostly 4/4 rather than two-beat. On these records one can hear subtle changes in the post-Europe Armstrong solos. His intonation is a bit more mellow, and his phrases are somewhat longer. A comparison of his 1938 version of "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" with his 1929 classic on Okeh shows the difference. Although not all the songs here are prime, the trumpet solos are invariably so. On the earliest of these records, the Russell orchestra delivers serviceable background, but the arrangements start swinging in 1936. Before 1937, nearly all the solos are Armstrong's- from then on he also gives space to others, especially to J. …