“I ain’t gonna play no second fiddle / Papa’s gotta play the lead!”
I can’t get enough of Louis in the 1920s, and I used to have most of it, though a drastic but necessary CD purge left me short. I’ve primarily subsisted on JSP’s complete Hot Fives and Sevens and Columbia’s Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man for several years now, but hoped I could reclaim some stray favorites with this old record of him as a session player. No more words are needed to extol the genius of Armstrong, and I don’t have any new ones, I’m just trying determine this record’s place in my collection. I like the concise nature of an LP, but also know these recordings can sound better than this (the technology of transferring 78s has improved significantly in a half century), but in an inexplicable compromise I’ve opted to wade through the murk…
Starts with an otherwise stiff Fletcher Henderson Orchestra playing “Words” in 1924, and Louis’ fleeting features almost save it. I believe he recorded nearly 20 sides with the band, but maybe Decca here had to go with ones they had the rights to, as these are nearly all Vocalion records. “When You Do What You Do” from the following year is considerably hotter, at least once Louis starts playing, which seems to inspire the band to up their game in the second half of the tune. Next is the second occasion in a year that Louis played second fiddle on “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle”—having recorded a sublime cornet solo on Bessie Smith’s side earlier in 1925—but it’s Perry Bradford’s composition, and this November session with his “Jazz Phools” wisely re-enlists Armstrong. The limitations of the original recording setup leaves Louis sounding distant and shrill, particularly on “Lucy Long,” but it’s redeemed by an infectious Bradford vocal and a glorious Buster Bailey clarinet break. Staccato thrills pervade Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra and their “Static Strut” and everyone’s on fire on “Stomp Off, Let’s Go,” Louis particularly so with some stellar stop-time action towards the end.
To avoid trouble with his own label, Armstrong had to keep a low profile on two sides with Lil’s Hot Shots, an outfit ostensibly led by his wife, but it’s effectively his own 1926 Hot Five band at the time—though who did he think he was fooling with his unmistakable vocal on “Georgia Bo Bo” and inimitable cornet on “Drop That Sack”? Had these been released as the Hot Five they would hardly disrupt that unimpeachable run of classics. But Louis isn’t the sole interest here, and the sides with Jimmy Bertrand’s Washboard Wizards are some of my favorites of the period. All my critical faculties fall away when seduced by a washboard shuffle, and Louis effortlessly locks into the locomotive percussion of “Easy Come, Easy Go Blues,” “I’m Goin’ Huntin’” and “The Blues Stampede.” I’m swept up by the sheer joy of it, and will leave it at that.
Johnny Dodds’ Black Bottom Stompers seem like another extension of Louis’s band in 1927, with the longtime clarinetist Dodds and incoming Hot Seven pianist Earl Hines. Indeed, Louis would record some of these under his own name just three weeks later, and the test runs are for the most part nearly as good. The stated theme of “Melancholy” would be more sharply defined, and for Louis it sounds like the tentative take that it is, but Dodds is commanding with his first solo. The tempo for the counter intuitively-named “Weary Blues” is even faster here, barely containing the bubbling energy of the band. Also converse to its title, “Wild Man Blues” is oddly subdued, but Armstrong’s and Dodd’s versions follow a similar arrangement, with Louis owning precisely the first half of the tune and Johnny the second in both recordings.
This is all necessary, undeniably hot stuff, and while I was so pleased with myself to find a copy of this record that wasn’t the more common ‘Enhanced For Stereo’ edition, this still has an overly processed sound, so I imagine it’s a mere mono fold-down from whatever work was done. There’s got to be a better way to fill these gaps. I see there’s an old Swaggie LP mastered by John R.T. Davies with a third of these tracks, but short of an outfit like Third Man Records doing a mammoth all-analog undertaking of the Armstrong discography (I’d settle for his first ten years) this is going to be a piecemeal re-accumulation.