Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings are jazz’s Holy Grail, a venerable guide for anyone with the desire to explore the roots of this now century old art. These recordings made between 1925 and 1929 ushered out the era of acoustic recording where the soloist played into a huge cone and ushered in the electric method utilizing microphones. But these weren’t Armstrong’s first recordings. He had begun recording in 1923 as a sideman in King Oliver’s Creole Band, with Fletcher Henderson and also with the blues singer Bessy Smith.
It’s peculiar that Armstrong’s first recordings as a leader; assembled here may be the height of his revolutionary esthetic. It’s not that the next forty years were one farewell tour, it’s just that Satchmo never stood the music world on its head like he did here. For instance soloing, something we take for granted, just wasn’t done in Armstrong’s Joe Oliver days. A typical band embellished a song, but Armstrong took long solos, causing near riots of excitement. Obviously because of recording lengths at the time, no extended solos are heard here. There are plenty trumpet licks rendered to keep scholars and student busy for years. Armstrong, true to his American heritage, made himself into a cult hero. Like Babe Ruth’s Yankees, it wasn’t the Hot Fives, but Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives. He also cultivated the art of jazz singing, introducing wordless ‘scatting’ to record listeners. When he opens “West End Blues” with a trumpet solo followed by the klop-klop of cymbals and his “waa-waa-waa” scat in response to Johnny Dodds’ clarinet one can imagine listeners falling-out with excitement. Sure it’s now the 21st century, and next to nothing shocks and /or excites you, but Satchmo’s wordless scatting is as fresh as yesterday’s software start-up.
I know, this isn’t the music of my era. I was born the year Kind Of Blue was recorded. It isn’t even the music of my father. Although born the year of Armstrong’s first recordings, he was a Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington Man. What Ellington recognized and the thing that makes these 75 year-old recordings significant is the original voice that was Armstrong. Funny, because playing these discs for a high school aged neighbor elicited the reaction, “He sounds a lot like Wynton Marsalis” Indeed!
Armstrong collectors will find everything from Armstrong’s Okeh record dates here, re-mastered, finally correctly according to many Armstrong scholars. Digitally re-mastered and pitch altered to the sound of Armstrong’s day. The music sound has significantly improved over previous Columbia/Legacy reissues. I can’t say the first 18 tracks of disc one and the early attendant material gathered from non-Okeh dates recorded into the large acoustic cones are pleasing to the ear. The engineers have cleaned them up as best as possible and it takes just a little acclimation to overlook the inherent hiss. But there are 89 tracks total, and the ‘complete’ part is for scholars and fanatics.
Armstrong’s Hot Fives band comprised of his wife Lil’ Hardin Armstrong (piano/vocals), Kid Ory (trombone), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), and Johnny St. Cyr (banjo), were supplemented by tuba and drums to make the Hot Sevens. The last disc of the set features Armstrong and pianist Earl Hines, plus several big band recordings marketed under the popular Fives name. The microphone record jumps with animation. His classics, then new songs like ‘Cornet Chop Suey,” “Heebie Jeebies,” “Big Butter And Egg Man,” “Weather Bird,” and “Potato Head Blues” sound fresh. As fresh as anything made today.
My father, in his day, may have preferred Dorsey to Armstrong, and I lineup for each new Ken Vandermark disc. But it’s still not hard to become infatuated with jazz’s first originator, Louis Armstrong.