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Extended Analysis

The Essential Louis Armstrong

By Published: September 7, 2004
Louis Armstrong
The Essential Louis Armstrong
Columbia Legacy Recordings

A potentially unwieldy concept, the compilation—woe the artist whose work spans decades and styles at the prospect of the two-disc catchall.

As with Bob Dylan, George Gershwin, and Miles Davis, we must number Louis Armstrong among those truly ill-served by the roundup approach to popular music, a musician whose stylistic innovations were spread across fewer idioms, perhaps, but whose career offered sustained periods of brilliance resulting in a handful of obvious and invaluable releases. For both the Armstrong beginner and the experienced admirer, there are better ways to hear just about everything this set offers.

It's the dross that does a large part of the job selling Armstrong today, the songs behind the mugging smile, what you're likely to come across on television for the pills meant to make your hay fever go away, your lemonade that much sweeter, etc. A pity then that the Louis Armstrong of the Ed Sullivan era is the one so many people first think of—rather like associating Elvis with Blue Hawaii than Sun records.

It was likewise at the beginning of his career that Armstrong made the music that continues to impact players and scholars. The best of what's here from those early eras—a couple of tracks with the Fletcher Henderson and Clarence Williams bands, the endlessly rewarding work of the Hot Fives and Sevens, the jazz "concert soloist" phase of the thirties—is jazz at the level of art. Even as the songs themselves—always mere frameworks for Armstrong's breaks—move further away from New Orleans and from the high end to the low end of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway, Armstrong dazzles in a way few musicians ever have—in the manner of a Hendrix, a Coltrane, the geniuses among giants. Vogue as its been in the past few years to state that it was Armstrong the vocalist who was every bit as influential as Armstrong the trumpeter, the aural evidence is clear; Armstrong helped initiate a shift towards new conceptions of what, exactly, if we may so define a thing, "good" singing was—an emphasis on meaning and mood at both a physical and cerebral level, a new criteria for beauty that had little regard for surface pleasantries—if mere pleasantry proved an impediment to expression.

But with the advent of the mugging years, when the vocals became more and more the focus—the would-be core of Armstrong's music—it wasn't so much that the center couldn't hold as that there was barely one at all, just a hollow pretense for the showboating that was held as debasing—and outrageously so at that—by men like Miles Davis, musical indebtedness aside. Armstrong never did seem dogged by the quest to evolve that marks the careers of Davis and Dylan, two similarly imposing musical figures. And we know that even in his earlier years, for all the man's obvious gifts, much of the prodding, career-wise, came from his wife. Still, if we leave notions of art aside, and boil Armstrong's output down to its moments of greatest enjoyment for a listener, any listener—as seems to be the aim of a release like this—you would still find yourself in the domain of the readily available, and well-compiled, classic work, the dross better left to hotel elevators and television adverts. Business ventures, that is.

Track Listing:

Disc 1: 1. Sugar Foot Stomp 2. Cake Walkin' Babies From Home 3. Pickin' On Your Baby 4. Heebie Jeebies 5. Willie The Weeper 6. Potatohead Blues 7. West End Blues 8. Basin Street Blues 9. Beau Koo Jack 10. St. James Infirmary 11. Tight Like This 12. I Can't Give You Anything But Love 13. Ain't Misbehavin' 14. Black and Blue 15. That Rhythm Man 16. St. Louis Blues 17. Bessie Couldn't Help It 18. Confessin'

Disc 2: 1. Memories of You 2. Shine 3. Walkin' My Baby Back Home 4. Blue Again 5. You Rascal You 6. When It's Sleepytime Down South 7. Lazy River 8. Star Dust 9. Georgia On My Mind 10. Shadrack 11. On the Sunny Side of the Street 12. When the Saints Go Marching In 13. Rockin' Chair 14. Blueberry Hill 15. Mack the Knife 16. Aunt Hager's Blues 17. Honeysuckle Rose 18. A Fine Romance 19. What a Wonderful World

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