Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Luis, Louis

I've been tempted to add more to that original post about Cheapo, piling on the detail in an effort to keep nudging the stark "CLOSED" of that final image out of sight. But Tuesday's visit to Rupert Street and the act of photographing what amounts to conclusive proof that my favourite record shop has not, after all, been granted a magical reprieve by some eccentric but minted collector has brought about a belated acceptance of the situation. Unless I'm still in denial.

Either way, it makes sense to discuss lesser-known jazz great Luis Russell more fully in this separate post, as he only came up in the context of my love for jazz being shaped by my local library. I don't think I ever actually sighted a Russell record in Cheapo, in fact, although the happy result of my random decision to borrow The Luis Russell Story from Motherwell Library some time in 1972 may have predisposed me to take a chance on many an unpromising item in Cheapo and elsewhere.

A random decision, I'm assuming, because the image above doesn't exactly scream excitement - especially to someone who didn't really know anything about jazz. The names would have meant nothing to me then.

But Motherwell Library (a pioneer, I was once told, in making records available to borrowers) had a strictly "no pop" policy at the time. Otherwise the range was fairly wide, not to mention eccentric, and seemed to reflect the community and immigration in the Lanarkshire area: I once had to borrow a Lithuanian folk record for a teacher who could not get it in his own Glasgow library. (By way of reward, he gave me a bar of chocolate. I was sixteen at the time.)

Oddities I took home with no perceived confectionery humiliation overlay  included Ron Geesin (indescribable, so I'll refer you to his official website, where you can hear sample tracks) and - I now remember - McGough and McGear (two thirds of the Scaffold). Geesin deserves at least a footnote in the doo wop part of this blog, as he remastered Dell Vikings recordings for the Flyright label, but his own recordings, which I first came across on my brother's BBC-issued John Peel Presents Top Gear LP, are, to coin a phrase, Something Else.

On the Top Gear album (a tie-in with Peel's Radio 1 programme featuring musicians who hadn't yet been signed by big labels), Geesin seemed to be dropping a lot of equipment very noisily and apologising to "Mr Engineer" (which memory of his voice reminds me he was from the West of Scotland, another possible reason for the above album being stocked), but it was a fun listen, for a while, anyway, on the novelty of stereo headphones. All I really remember of As He Stands, Geesin's first album, is a supposedly withering dissection of a nightclub full of Beautiful People: "Humans pulsate! Where? Somewhere else." (It sounds better with the appropriate reverb.)

Ah, McGough & McGear ... Now there's a funny thing - there is a funny thing: Beatles verboten in the library, yeah yeah yeah, but Paul McCartney's brother Mike is okay? Presumably the reasoning was that Roger McGough was a poet and doing a bit of recitation over a guitar so that was vaguely educational and alright. (The joke is on them, however, as Macca played uncredited on the sessions.)

Folkwise, there was a lot of stuff in the library from the late fifties and early sixties. Which suggests to me either a) the library had had a bigger budget a few years earlier or b) the purchasing of items was entirely at the whim of an individual recreating his youth - now that's the sort of power that can corrupt.

Anyway, judging from my last foray, they stock all sorts these days, only now you have to pay to borrow. And there's even a cafe slap bang in the middle of the library, so it's all-talking, all-slurping, all-eating, all the time. (HOORAY!!!)

But if (muttering all the while "Serenity now") I may saunter back in the general direction of my original point, just what was it which made me choose that LP (Luis Russell, remember) on that day? If it was indeed aything other than a plunge in the dark, I can only assume it would have been the title: a single disc which encapsulated this person, telling his complete tale, saving me from having to choose from the baffling range of Armstrong, Ellington and other LPs, some with forbiddingly arty covers.

More likely, however, it was the sleevenotes. Explanatory notes for lots of those jazz and folk LPs were in tiny print and very full. Brian Rust, a noted jazz authority and the author of the comprehensive and definitive discography of the era, was probably the writer, and the basic premise - that this band were the missing link between older jazz and the regimentation of swing - may have been simple enough to appeal to my younger self: they were trying something new, musically, so maybe I should. It worked when I stepped out of the TOTP comfort zone into rock'n'roll. And there was some detail provided about individual musicians so I was given a sense of what to listen out for. It may even have been the song titles: The Call of the Freaks? The New Call of the Freaks?!

Whatever my initial impulse, this was, as it turned out, great (and accessible) jazz, immediately apparent on numbers like Doctor Blues, with its irresistible flapper-type intro, and the sheer momentum of Panama, which had an energy, from its screaming intro onwards, I could easily equate with my experience of rock'n'roll - not to mention the sense of fun which exhuded from such tracks as Feelin' the Spirit, with a wonderfully stupid bit of gravelly-voiced scat: however technically proficient they were I had no way of knowing at the time, but they were clearly enjoying themselves, which I, if you will, "dug." I remember a birthday celebration rapidly going downhill a few years later until we began shaking pasta in jars by way of percussive accompaniment to these wonderful, infectiously good-humoured sounds.

Thinking that that was it - that I now "liked jazz" - I proceeded to borrow LPs by different bands, disconcerted to find that I could not, by an effort of will, extract anything like the same pleasure; my first inkling that Luis Russell's 1929-1930 Okeh recordings were not the norm for the genre.

Why were they so good? Well, Russell was apparently a generous paymaster, which may have helped him retain the best players He had won the lottery in Panama in 1919 and moved to New Orleans; maybe he still had cash to spare. The band had arisen from the ashes of the King Oliver band, so they already had a pedigree (in 1927 Oliver turned down the Cotton Club gig which was to make Duke Ellington's name, which can't have impressed his musicians much). But perhaps the main point, again going back to early jazz vs. swing, is that the band had arrangements but weren't straitjacketed: there was ample space for them to stretch out and with excellent (and well-paid) soloists like JC Higginbotham, trombonist extraordinaire, Pops Foster on bass (likened by Philip Larkin to the engine room of a great ship), not to mention Henry Red Allen (above), a trumpeter who admired Armstrong but had his own fiery style, some of the performances on that Parlophone LP rank among the best ever recorded in the name of jazz.

Panama is Russell's masterpiece and my favourite ever jazz record. Difficult to say why except that the balance of control and passion feels so right: at times the pace is so ferocious they almost lose control of their instruments - but don't; each solo adds another delight yet there is never any sense of competition, only their delirious pleasure in adding to the whole.

The power of those performances knitting together on Panama is also, as I now know, about the common language of New Orleans and the experience of playing together night after night - resulting in three minutes of distilled joy which the late Humphrey Lyttleton described, with far more detail and authority than I can muster, in his appropriately entitled The Best of Jazz. He surmises that the final chorus was the result of a signal that there were still about twenty recordable seconds, and so they went for it. It's an astonishing thought, as the thing seems so fully formed: it's the recording that I wish, above all others, I'd been present to witness. Did they realise immediately what they'd done? There are no alternate takes, so maybe they knew they'd nailed it. But from various accounts those musicians had a blast playing live, so who knows what other wonders were lost in the air night after night?

Why, then, does the Luis Russell Orchestra seem to remain unknown to the general (as opposed to the jazz-loving, or library stock-purchasing) public? I've done my bit, thank, having made a compilation tape for the late friend referred to a few posts ago - at his own request, I might add - as an introduction to jazz. He liked blues, liked soul - there was once a drunken phone conversation in which he entreated me most earnestly ("It's very important") to listen to Bobby Bland forthwith - but jazz had apparently been a no-go area. I forget what else I chose for this baptism by oxide but I do remember putting Panama as Track 1 and Track 2, just to press home the point that this was no ordinary recording.

De mortius, but to the best of my recollection, when I later asked him if he'd enjoyed the tape, he said something along the lines of how he recognised it was probably the best of its kind but he didn't want to submit to having to like it and then get too involved ...

At least I tried. And I was able to convert a mutual friend more recently ("Thank you so much for the CD It is AMAZING"). Plus I think I feel the same about watchingThe West Wing, which was one of his favourites, so I understand - sort of.

Of course, one factor in acquiring fame is the sheer amount of product you have out there, and there are a limited number of recordings under Russell's own name, and an even more limited number of absolutely top drawer sides. The excellent sleevenotes for a fairly recent, comprehensive double CD (fuller than I have seen for any other compilation) explain why the band never attained the longevity of the Ellington or Basie orchestras: economic factors and a lack of nerve (or simply common sense, given the depression?) which led to Russell emulating other bands rather than continuing to plough his own distinctive furrow - but as the notes say, "the records, in all their undimmed splendor, endure."

The CD set, on the Retrieval label, gives you all you need and rather more - there are some treacly vocal performances on the second disc, and the sheer number of tracks makes it less of a cohesive listen than the album I happened upon in Motherwell Library.It's also very odd to have the tracklisting, familiar to me from LP, cassette and CD issues, rearranged as a result of all the extra material, including King Oliver tracks, but as the JSP CD Savoy Shout, which has all the essential sides and not much else, is deleted and secondhand copies are usually priced fiendishly high, the Retrieval double is undoubtedly the best alternative soundwise, as both were remastered by the late John R.T. Davies.

I'm happy to say that I emailed him a few years ago to thank him in particular for his remastering of the Luis Russell sides on CD and received a charming reply almost immediately. (I have never heard the original 78s directly but the CD had the punch both of the vinyl and a cassette issue, possibly from 78s, on the Neovox label. And if the reader thinks that these things are unimportant, then the reader has not experienced the sonic horrors of some vintage jazz CDs like what I have. Late 20s jazz has the potential to sound like they're in the room with you. Alright, yes, yes, I admit, with the unwelcome addition of a pan of bacon sizzling in the corner throughout, but that doesn't affect my point. May I go on, please? Thank you. Ahem.)

Russell later recorded a great deal on Decca with Louis Armstrong; those tracks, from the mid-thirties onwards, are agreeable enough (Humphrey Lyttleton thought they had been unfairly dismissed by critics) if hardly world-shattering, but it's very much Louis Armstrong "and his Orchestra.". I particularly like the simplicity of the blues Hey Lawdy Mama, featuring a small group drawn from the orchestra including Russell on piano - as in the photo above, presumably, plus Armstrong himself. Taken from the Mark Berresford Rare Records site, the photograph features Russell on piano, Paul Barbarin on drums, Pops Foster on bass and Lee Blair, guitar. I think it was this number that the Melody Maker's Max Jones was referring to in a 70s review of some cherrypicked Decca sides: "When Louis plays the blues - hold everything." I later bought a complete CD collection of the Decca masters but my pleasure was not increased tenfold; the cherrypicker had done his job. The LP started with a banal enough ditty, Thanks a Million; in Louis' hands it approaches something genuinely humble and touching.

Thanks to the wonders of the net, I have just picked up some interesting information about airshots from the early Decca years which Armstrong himself preserved. I was typing in words in an attempt to locate a phrase which I remembered had been used to describe the Russell band: something like "twelve men swinging with the power of twenty but the looseness of six."

No joy, but it did lead me to a blog entitled The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong. This quotes several of the standard views that the Russell Orchestra, once harnessed to Armstrong in the thirties, became a shadow of its former self but then reveals that Armstrong kept 12 inch 78s of radio broadcasts, selections from which have now been issued on CD, which suggest that the Russell band live in 1937 was still a pretty fiery proposition. You can listen to examples directly on the blog.

And by searching that same blog for "Luis Russell" you can also find an entry where different recordings of On the Sunny Side of the Street are compared; another small group from the Russell Orchestra provides one of the standout versions. You can listen to it, and many other recordings, directly on the site and enjoy the detailed and informative commentary, not to mention mind-boggling industry, of Ricky Riccardi, " a 29-year-old Louis Armstrong freak with a Master's in Jazz" who is working on a book on Armstrong's later years.

Apart from Russell's own recordings on the Retrieval set, the only others I'd really consider essential are a sprinkling of sides backing Armstrong in the studio from that same golden period (29/30) before the more permanent, but generally less adventurous, hookup on Decca. They can be found in many places, including the Louis and Luis CD mentioned below, but the JSP Complete Hot Fives and Sevens set (John R.T. Davies again), widely regarded as the best transfers of Armstrong's historic recordings, includes them on Volume 4.

And Henry Red Allen, Russell's star trumpeter, also has a number of sides in his name using the Russell band, some of which are also very good indeed. Hearing them for the first time some twenty five years after my first exposure to the Luis Russell Orchestra was a pleasure like discovering an unexpected photograph of old friends.

Those early Armstrong/Russell numbers include St Louis Blues, the track which Philip Larkin (in that missing review) called "the hottest record ever made." As Stirling's Llibrary in the centre of Glasgow where I found that information in the original hardback of All What Jazz is now an art gallery, I can only rely on my memory of Larkin's claim that after the third chorus you can feel the walls begin to move; it certainly felt like that when I listened to that Louis Armstrong album borrowed from Motherwell Library, and for those tempted to dismiss the performance as "mere rhythmic excitement" Larkin went on to discuss a lumpen effort, possibly utilising the same arrangement, by Cab Calloway's Orchestra.

You can hear Armstrong, backed by Luis Russell's Orchestra singing (and playing) St Louis Blues here; unlike the writer of this blog I have never heard the 78 so I can only say that the vinyl worked for me on that Chris Ellis EMI compilation. (Yet another LP, incidentally, which I had a chance to buy for myself and didn't - although I can't remember whether I sighted it at Cheapo or Steve's Sounds, a similar, but inferior, vanished emporium of musical tat and treasure).

St Louis Blues opens as a "raunchy tango" but then it just builds and builds, increasing in intensity, with bassist Pops Foster going at it ever harder. It's similar to Panama, in that every so often there's a thrilling ensemble "shout" as they take things up another notch. But somehow it doesn't quite work for me in quite the same way: there is so much musical richness all the way through in Panama (I can only refer you to Lyttleton), whereas towards the end St Louis Blues sort of becomes headbanging - powerful but not exactly subtle.

I prefer what would originally have been the flipside, Dallas Blues, where there are all sorts of small decorative musical details which enhance, rather than detract from, the performance. And Louis Armstrong's on Dallas Blues here is impressively raw. I think what it always comes down to for me is a sense of passion and control holding each other in check: you really feel the held-back power of Dallas Blues. This was a recording I first happened upon, unidentified, by turning on a radio (it wasn't on the Library LP); it may even have been Larkin being interviewed or introducing some records. But again, that family/friend recognition thing worked; even that sense of the room they were playing in was familiar. What one might term "one of the good old good ones."

There is a CD entitled Louis and Luis, which is the only one I know to couple the golden period Armstrong/Russell Okeh tracks with the best of the Deccas, so it might be a good place to start. I haven't heard it so can't comment on the quality of the transfers. Henry Red Allen, incidentally, became for a while a kind of surrogate Armstrong, doing a lot of trumpet-and-vocal recordings in his own right, and in possession of a similarly gravelly voice; I bought several CDs of these but they don't really approach the sides with the Russell Orchestra. There is one standout, however, Roll Along Prairie Moon from 1935, done at a ferocious lick, with his audible encouragement of "Higgy" - fellow Russell sideman JC Higginbotham - to do one more chorus at the end. We're not talking power held in reserve here but wild, irresistible fun.

Clicking the first mention of Luis Russell's name at the top takes you to redhotjazz, a wonderful repository of the kind of jazz I like. You get brief and to the point accounts of musicians and bands, and lots of streamed tracks (in middling quality) on realplayer. It's a great way to become acquainted with the form. You can find better quality streamed audio for some Russell tracks if you look on the right of this page on the riverwalkjazz site, although I haven't been able to open the audio for the Pops Foster documentary on the same page.

And if you go on to buy stuff, the name "John R.T. Davies", not just on JSP CDs but such companies as Retrieval, Hep, Frog and Timeless, is a guarantee of audio quality.

One final note worth placing here relates to that sense of double exposure mentioned in some of the Doo Wop Shop posts: Russell's daughter Catherine, surprisingly young, is a jazz singer who has released several excellent albums, sample tracks of which you can hear on her website, here; there is also some footage of her father (although nothing survives, or perhaps was even filmed, of the Russell Orchestra in its glory days) and there are even some home movies of her as a child with Louis Armstrong.

Her material is a mixture of jazz and blues, including an excellent version of Kitchen Man (the BBC's Russell Davies summed it up, if I remember, as being "full of passion and commitment but without adding a single unnecessary note)." She has also recorded Back O' Town Blues, jointly credited to Louis and Luis. Essentially - and I'm speaking after hearing two CDs in full - she owns the songs she sings, without making them sound old-fashioned. As John Lennon said of the Ronnie Hawkins song Down in the Alley (part-payment, I suspect, for the wreckage and unpaid phone bill he and Yoko once inflicted on the Hawkins homestead):

"It sounded like now and then, and I like that."

That Hawkins track, incidentally, came from an LP I took a chance on when it was going cheap in my local Woolworth's in the seventies. Was it a similarly life-changing experience?

On this occasion, alas, no cigar. Not even close.

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