Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong Sings: Back Through the Years (A Centennial Celebration)

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Released along with an onslaught of compilations in 2000, ostensibly marking Louis Armstrong's 100th birthday (he was actually born in 1801), this lovingly assembled double-disc, 34-track package collects the classic jazzman's most memorable vocal recordings from 1934 until 1967. Although he had recorded for RCA and Columbia, the majority of his work was waxed for the Decca label, and it's from those tapes that this compilation is derived. The album's title is interestingly accurate. MCA has arranged these selections in reverse chronological order, literally taking you back through the years as the tracks proceed. Kicking off with Armstrong's ubiquitous posthumous hit "What a Wonderful World," recorded at one of his last sessions in 1967 just a few years before his death in 1971, the trumpeter/vocalist's pure pop side is only in evidence for the first four tracks, all from the '60s. The rest of the album is an enlightening trip through three decades of the classic New Orleans jazzman's music, focusing on Armstrong's uniquely gruff, but perennially toothy vocals that were a forerunner for artists as diverse as Howlin' Wolf and Tom Waits. Like the best interpretive singers, Armstrong seldom wrote a tune, but could instill emotion and credibility into even the most trite of lyrics. More impressive is his ability to rearrange standards of other, non-jazz genres and make them his own. His versions of Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "Georgia on My Mind" envelope these tunes with his French Quarter roots, and practically transform them into jazz standards. Although Armstrong's distinctive vocals are in evidence on all the songs, there's plenty of room for musical improvisation throughout the album. In fact, his singing often takes a back seat to the always inventive and deft playing of his various bands, in particular Sy Oliver's orchestra, whose work dominates these selections. It's his ability to shift from tame pop-oriented fare like "Up a Lazy River," and even a schmaltzy string and background vocal smothered "Blueberry Hill," to more traditionally Dixieland-based "Basin Street Blues," that made Armstrong one of the earliest "crossover" artists. His joyous duets with Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, and Louis Jordan exhibit the fun he had singing with friends, and how effortlessly that translated to his recordings. This package features stunningly remastered sound (even the earliest cuts from 1938 are hiss free, full-bodied and remarkably clear), along with a classy 20-page book with rare photos and detailed session liner notes. It's not the final word on the prolific and multi-talented musician who some consider the most influential jazzman ever, but Louis Armstrong Sings is a excellent overall portrait of Satchmo, covering numerous highlights in the career of this legendary American artist.

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