Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong is a cultural icon; remembered as an international ambassador of good will and a beloved entertainer of worldwide acclaim. But his other nickname, "Pops," is more appropriate for the original great Jazz soloist who revolutionized Jazz just as Bird, Ornette, Miles and all the other great innovators did years later. His signature vocal style was so influential that popular music was changed forever. In this edition, George Lane looks back at one of his great '50s recordings, Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy.
Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy seems like such an obvious combination that it's surprising it took until 1954 for a collection like this to be done. And as though releasing years of pent-up passion, Satchmo simply tears into these 11 Handy blues with raw abandon and blistering energy. There's a ferocity and swagger to this music reminiscent to that of the old Ellington Jungle Bands of the early '30s, possibly due in part to the presence of clarinetist
Barney Bigard, a member of those wonderful bands.
Long-time Armstrong trombonist Trummy Young rounds out the front line, which is so powerful that it often sounds like a much larger band.
There's only one all-instrumental cut, 'Ole Miss,' a barn burner jump blues that gives solo space to everybody. All of the other tunes feature Pops on vocals, joined on four by Velma Middleton, whose full bodied vibrant voice works well with Louis, especially on the playful 'Long Gone.'
Sometimes the vocals are the focus, as on 'Yellow Dog Blues' and 'Loveless Love,' both of which end with nasty, raw collective improvisations by the horns. Mostly, though, the vocals are woven into the overall texture of the pieces, and on the slow, raunchy 'Aunt Hagar's Blues' and 'Beale Street Blues,' they help build an intensity that is simply scalding.
In addition to their spectacular collective work and support, Bigard and Young contribute some excellent solos. Trummy shines on the extended 'St. Louis Blues' with a searing solo and Bigard takes a beauty on 'Chantez - Les Bas.'
The rhythm section of Billy Kyle, Arvell Shaw and Barrett Deems on piano, bass and drums respectively is wonderful throughout, letting the fire build, never getting out of control, and never obvious.
Louis is at the height of his formidable powers here - full of confidence and fire, and playing powerful, timeless music.