Swing, blues and a completely fresh improvisation at every performance: three common (for some essential) descriptors of “jazz” that were only beginning to take root at the height of Phil Napoleon’s career. Sounds from New Orleans and the Midwest territories were not as widespread when Napoleon was blowing trumpet for the Original Memphis Five. Louis Armstrong’ rhythmic and solo innovations were still to come, and jazz remained a collective experience with strong influences from ragtime. Yet even beyond his musical and historical surroundings, Napoleon always had other priorities.
Those priorities included a brilliant yet inviting tone, given to clipped articulation and rhythmically tense phrasing. That tone usually supported a powerful, balanced lead, but could also supply spare, neatly organized “hot” patterns. “How Come You Do Me Like You Do” features Napoleon’s direct ensemble lead as well as his witty muted obbligato behind Jimmy Lytell’s clarinet:
Richard M. Sudhalter explained, “The Memphis Five appear to have ‘routined’ their arrangements in advance and in detail…A routine on one number doesn’t change from take to take.” This stick-with-what-works ethic makes sense the more one hears (and feels) Napoleon’s overriding concern for balance and blend. If Napoleon knows exactly what he’s going to play next on “He May Be Your Man,” and if the rhythm is more sway than swing, he still conveys spontaneity alongside restraint. He even adds subtle sardonic color to Lem Fowler’s naughty little tune [just follow the arrow to listen]:
The chamber intimacy of these recordings combined with Napoleon’s clean, resilient sound betrays his background as a classically trained player. Even at his most unbuttoned, for example on a later date with Miff Mole, his “Dixieland” sound is perfectly centered, and he executes a tortuous muted passage (in tight harmony with Mole’s trombone!) neatly and convincingly:
Throughout his career, Napoleon never completely absorbed the loose rhythms and bluesy rhetoric of Louis Armstrong, or the coaxing warmth and harmonic palette of Bix Beiderbecke. It’s probably one reason why Napoleon has had a modest presence in most “jazz” histories. Here he is leading a group of other Jazz Age stars, instantly recognizable and dependable as always. Napoleon remained his own man, something even Armstrong and Beiderbecke could have related to: