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Defining "Essential" 

The Essential Louis Armstrong (Sony/Legacy) is something of an oxymoron. Since popular music in general and jazz in particular bears such a massive Armstrong imprint, it's easy to argue that an "essential" collection could hardly be squeezed onto two CDs. Another problem facing the curator of such a collection is defining what aspect of Armstrong's "essential" genius to cover. The first truly great recorded jazz soloist? One of the most important architects of swing? The consummate 20th century entertainer? The most influential vocal interpreter of popular song? Sony/Legacy, the heavyweight champion of reissue labels, cast its nets widely to cover this trickiest of subjects -- and, given the pitfalls involved, succeeds admirably.

The stages at Satchmo SummerFest will be filled with trumpeters and vocalists who have chosen a narrow aspect of Armstrong's genius around which to build their styles simply because no one has ever come close to recapitulating the entire package. The critical consensus that Armstrong's playing after the 1930s suffers by comparison to his earlier work because his lips were so badly damaged flies in the face of both the recordings themselves and the fact that he sold far more records during the rock era than any other jazz figure. In fact, Armstrong, the King of Jazz, has a more recent posthumous hit on the U.S. charts than the King of Rock, Elvis Presley. "What a Wonderful World" charted in 1988, 11 years after Presley's death, and it's the song you are likely to hear more than any other during Satchmo SummerFest.

Naturally, "What a Wonderful World" closes out disc two, a fitting coda for a musician whose legacy is still so palpable. Armstrong's version offers an implied warning to ham-handed imitators who insist on abusing this tricky tune as an Armstrong "tribute." The song itself is banal in both lyric and melody, but Armstrong treats it as a lullaby, a fantasy vision of a world without bigotry. He could find meaning where others just saw at best entertainment or at worst tourist-pandering, and his genius is to connect such throwaway tunes to his overall vision. This is the same Armstrong who imbued the racial lament "Black and Blue" (fortunately included here) with heartbreaking emotion at the height of the Jim Crow era, creating a civil rights anthem in a little more than three minutes. This is the vision of a man who personally desegregated scores of movie theaters in the South with such performances when he performed to integrated audiences in the 1930s.

One of the overriding ironies of Armstrong's history is that he is best known for his vocal performances of Tin Pan Alley tunes rather than his pioneering trumpet playing. The Essential Louis Armstrong deals with the issue by weighting the 37-song selection toward the earlier material and basically offering Armstrong the instrumentalist/innovator on disc one and Armstrong the consummate vocalist and entertainer on disc two. The latter includes such well-known material as "Walkin' My Baby Back Home," "You Rascal You," "Lazy River," "Stardust," "Georgia on My Mind," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "Honeysuckle Rose," "Blueberry Hill," "Mack the Knife" and the song that closed so many of his shows, "When It's Sleepy Time Down South."

Disc one demonstrates how Armstrong changed the music world. The disc highlights material from the already essential four-CD box Louis Armstrong: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man 1923-1934. The first disc opens with "Sugar Foot Stomp," which showcased Armstrong's soloing with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. The song was adapted by band arranger Don Redman from King Oliver's "Dippermouth Blues," which also featured Armstrong. "Cake Walkin' Babies (From Home)" pits Armstrong against one of his few peers (and a fellow New Orleanian) from the era, soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet. The stop-time climax, with both players trading phrases, still sounds exciting today. Though Armstrong wasn't credited on the original 78 rpm versions of these records, fans recognized his style and bought them for his performances.

Okeh Records signed Armstrong for the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, studio sessions organized under Armstrong's name to capitalize on his popularity as a recording artist. These are as essential as American recordings can be, and while choosing only a handful inevitably leads to crucial omissions, the true gems assembled here include "Heebie Jeebies," "Potato Head Blues," "West End Blues," "Basin Street Blues," "Beau Koo Jack" and "St. James Infirmary." Armstrong's manipulation of time in the arrangement of "Potato Head Blues" is a strong precursor to swing as he drops strong accents on weak beats, phrases against the flow of the rhythmic pulse and experiments with tension/release dynamics.

The most instrumentally dramatic of all these recordings is "West End Blues," a Hot Five recording from January 28, 1928, with the great Earl Hines replacing Louis' wife Lil' Hardin Armstrong on piano. This is truly avant-garde music, with Armstrong's innovative phrasing and rhythmic audacity toying with harmony and solo composition in a way that would lay fallow until Charlie Parker revisited them in the bop era.

It doesn't get much more essential than that.

click to enlarge One of the overriding ironies of Louis Armstrong's - history is that he is best known for his vocal - performances of Tin Pan Alley tunes rather than his - pioneering trumpet playing.
  • One of the overriding ironies of Louis Armstrong's history is that he is best known for his vocal performances of Tin Pan Alley tunes rather than his pioneering trumpet playing.
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