This morning I did something I haven’t done in a very long time: listen to a complete CD.
That’s a remarkable act of willpower nowadays. iPods, YouTube, even multi-disc CD changers present unfathomable variety as a baseline. There is always something else to hear, just a click or hyperlink away. Something always reminds an active listener of something else. Years ago you might have to find that other recording, stop the needle and switch records, or grab another CD and change the Discman; now Google and touchpads provide instant gratification for every obsessive-compulsive choice.
“Trapping” myself on the bus with Laughing Louie, a 1989 BMG/Bluebird CD reissue of Louis Armstrong’s 1932-33 studio big band recordings, forced me into a rewarding box. The critical debate over Armstrong’s big band years still rages on, with recent commentators such as Terry Teachout and Ricky Ricardi emphasizing these sides’ melodic vigor, warm spirit and undiscovered technical merits, while more traditional commentators still lament Armstrong’s decision to “go commercial” after his trailblazing Hot Fives recordings. Yet listening to these sides, and only these sides, unable to click back to some earlier halcyon chapter of the trumpeter’s career, allowed me to pay attention to so much more.
Armstrong’s trumpet was just as brilliant and witty, and what might be heard as a comparatively simplistic approach when compared to his earlier small groups sessions now sounded like a wiser, slyly simmering elegance. (Former Armstrong sideman Joe Muranyi even considered this period to be the height of Armstrong’s prowess). Armstrong’s powerful yet flowing declarations galvanize a snappy arrangement of the old warhorse “High Society,” and melody statements on pop numbers such as “Some Sweet Day” and “Honey Do” become events in themselves. The fire is still there, and it’s obvious that Armstrong could do so much more with his trumpet if he so chooses, but he simply doesn’t have to.
To many critics’ chagrin, Armstrong did begin to do more and more singing. Yet the singing on this set proved to be the most ear (and mind) opening experience. His own composition “Hobo, You Can’t Ride This Train,” a lighthearted up-tempo number narrating a drifter’s bad luck, travels through enough vocal inflections to make a Barber of Seville baritone envious:
A soft ascent on “hobo” melds into a subtly swinging “you can’t ride this train,” as Armstrong colors the last syllable (a consonant, no less!) with a warm, pitch-perfect growl; when the phrase is repeated, a whole new arsenal of inflection is employed. Jazz and singing often have an uneasy relationship, but this type of subtlety and invention ranks right up there next to Armstrong’s most extroverted trumpet excursions.
Listening to these treasures in concentrated sequence showed several different angles of the same artistic voice. “Pay attention and listen” seems like a fairly intuitive aesthetic approach, but between the inundating wonders of modernity, and many critics wishing that Armstrong stuck to small groups and only occasional sang, it turned into a revelation. Maybe more of us should get stuck on a bus with only one thing to hear, read or experience.