Thursday, 14 February 2013

Hello Walls


I have written earlier in this blog of the surprising omission, in later editions of Philip Larkin's All What Jazz, of his review of St Louis Blues as recorded by Louis Armstrong and Luis Russell's Orchestra.

In the first hardback edition of this collection of jazz criticism, as pictured above, Larkin called it "the hottest record ever made" and claimed  that by a certain chorus you could actually feel the walls move.

In these days, when archive recordings are often compromised (don't get me started), it's harder to put that to the test but I certainly seem to remember experiencing such a sensation, or something like it, when I first heard St Louis Blues on the little record player I once owned. Listening to it now, however, the arrangement sounds too basic, too unadventurous - and maybe at some point Larkin felt the same and recanted. Or maybe someone in the chain messed up, who knows?

The other side, Dallas Blues, continues to excite, and there's a fair bit of bassist Pops Foster in there too, who must take most of the responsibility for any perceived wall-wobble in either performance. But Panama, recorded by the Russell Orchestra without Armstrong, is even better than Dallas Blues. In fact - and I'm talking cold, hard scientific fact, be certain of that - it is the Best Jazz Record Ever.


But let's start with Dallas Blues:



And here is St Louis Blues. This is the best-sounding youtube clip I could find, which starts almost exactly two minutes into a radio documentary about Henry Red Allen, stalwart of the Luis Russell band, and who is also playing trumpet on the session. It's worth listening to John Chilton's comments earlier in the clip: Allen idolised Armstrong,  he said, and there is an element of the pupil wanting to demonstrate to the master how well he has absorbed his lessons; indeed, we're told, some critics preferred to believe that Armstrong had begun playing  his horn a nanosecond after singing than admit to the possibility of someone else being able to emulate  his playing as Allen did. I've got some CDs where Allen seems to have been groomed as a Vine to Armstrong's Paxman, singing as well as playing popular songs of the day. They're perfectly okay, and Allen has a pleasing, growly voice, but no - it's not the same, his singing doesn't enthrall in the same way. Anyway, if you're getting impatient by now, click on the two minute mark to hear the sound which once impressed Larkin:



Oh, that did me good, even if it didn't have quite the thwump of vinyl. Oh, and I just remembered that Larkin said that the Armstrong version of St Louis Blues was more than "mere rhythmic excitement", citing Cab Calloway's recording for purposes of comparison. Sections are clearly modelled on the Armstrong/Russell arrangement, though his eccentric vocal isn't:



But let's end on a high, with the least bad youtube version of Russell's superlative Panama. No Armstrong - he was just guesting with the band on the other sides and didn't formally take them over until a few years later - but his absence is not missed, which may give you an idea of just how good this is. If ever I were to be granted a magic wish to be present at some historical occasion I think it would have to when this performance was set in wax. I can't play a musical instrument but even to be a spectator would have been a privilege.





More about Luis Russell and Panama here. More about Armstrong's later hookup with the Russell band for Decca Records here, including quite a few clips.

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