Louis Armstrong

The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions (1935-46)

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It's a tragedy that for a great number of music fans, the Louis Armstrong mythology ends in 1929, when Armstrong recorded the last of his seminal Hot Fives and Hot Sevens sides. True, those records are among the most important in jazz history, but they were the work of a young man, bubbling over with energy and creativity. Yet to come was a different kind of music, more assured and masterful (if more broadly focused), the product of someone who had seen, heard, and begun to understand more of life. That work began appearing in the '30s, after Armstrong had spent time in Hollywood and Europe (not just New Orleans, Chicago, and New York), when he had become a fixture on the popular scene and begun leading a big band on the roughly 150 sides he recorded for Decca between 1935 and 1946. He had already proven himself during innumerable cutting contests, and he had staked out the ground later occupied by nearly every jazz soloist to appear over the next 30 years. Now, he was ready to begin experimenting with different forms, from pop to gospel to Latin music, and indulge more in his highly individual vocal readings of standards from the growing book of American popular song (which was hardly the monolith it sounds like, ranging from the urban show tunes of Cole Porter to the Midwestern pastorales of Hoagy Carmichael). Armstrong's solos may not have reached the high peaks of his Hot Fives, and there's no other strong instrumental voice here, no Johnny Dodds to challenge Armstrong's dominance, but he was learning that the right note was not always the highest note, and that five notes, selected well, could say more than ten. The Mosaic box set The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions (1935-1946) is the first digital collection to compile every Decca master from the period (an early set on Definitive broke up the '30s and '40s into separate volumes), and it benefits from Mosaic's exacting standards (i.e., new remasters of the original metal parts or discs). It includes at least a dozen masterpieces of the jazz era, including his definitive or near-definitive performances of "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," "Our Monday Date," "West End Blues," "Tiger Rag," "Wolverine Blues," and "Dipper Mouth Blues." (Some of these were re-recordings of his Hot Five sides, and the comparisons are very intriguing; he usually played more stunning solos earlier in his career, but improved his tone and clarity later.) It was also in the '30s -- starting with his time on OKeh and Columbia but reaching a peak while with Decca -- that his singing began influencing a legion of jazz vocalists to come, beginning with the twin pillars: Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby. In effect, he merely transferred his early trumpet solos to his vocal choices, often singing off the beat or far from the melody line while the band provided a reference point for the song. (Put simply, what the Hot Fives are to jazz fans, the Deccas are to vocal fans.) Louis Armstrong's Decca sides are just as integral to music history as the Hot Fives; although they show a great artist moving closer to the mainstream, they also reveal that Armstrong was actually pulling the mainstream toward him all the while.

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