Though Ken Burns idolized him at the expense of other artists whom he merely treated as footnotes to some grand made up story called “Jazz”, and some complained about this dis to the legacy of other prominent artists—most notably Burns’s combined three or four minutes spent discussing the work of Miles Davis—few can reasonably deny that Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong deserves the hero worship he received in the documentary. Armstrong’s overexposure in Jazz was merely a consequence of not enough time rather than an example of not enough credence. In the great list of American musicians, jazz, blues, or otherwise, Armstrong easily ranks among our greatest.
There was a 25 year period spanning the late 1930s to 1950 where Satchmo had the musical equivalent of the Midas Touch. It seems that every time he picked up a horn to belt a golden tone or approached the microphone to unleash a sultry note he hit artistic paydirt. The quality of his musical output during the years spanned on this collection, 1936 through 1950, is a feat matched by few, if any, American artists. Though both his output and quality dropped after this golden age, Swing Legends is a short glimpse into just how amazing Armstrong was during those wonderful years as it presents a broad view of just what this amazing musician was capable.
Swing numbers with squeaky horn and hot knife lacing through butter vocals abound on this collection as Louis evokes his New Orleans upbringing, with its Southern sentimentality and steamy humid nights, played through a Chicago, with its urban toughness and cold gray subway evenings, mentality. Though every remastered—via digital transfers from mint condition original shellac 78 rpm discs—track is a downright classic, a few standouts, “Dipper Mouth Blues”, “Save It Pretty Mama”, “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” and “Blueberry Hill” best serve to show Satch’s musically masterful interlacing of straight ahead jazz, the blues, swing and balladry. Few artists possess the complete package—musical mastery, vocal perfection, presence and charisma—that Armstrong shows throughout this strong disc.
Obviously, no compilation/greatest hits collection can ever add up all of the wonderful attributes and adventures of such a great artist. Furthermore, I could spend hours waxing on what is missing from such an essential collection and what ought to be stripped to make room. However, such conversations only show just how much passion Armstrong’s fans have for his music rather than any fault with this collection in general. Swing Legends is the perfect disc for both the novice Armstrong listener to receive his first lesson, and for the seasoned Armstrong fan to pick up a truly marvelous remastering of some of his old favorites—the sound clarity of this disc only serves to flatter Armstrong’s warm cornet and vocal tones.