Music

Louis Armstrong: Jazz Moods: Hot

Will Layman

A selection of 14 tracks from The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings, which is to say a thin slice of one of the sweetest cakes that was ever baked.


Louis Armstrong

Jazz Moods: Hot

Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2005-04-19
UK Release Date: 2005-05-02
Amazon affiliate
Amazon
iTunes

If you are already a jazz fan, then you don't need a lesson in the greatness of Louis Armstrong or the monumental nature of his Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. All you really need to know is the track listing of this compilation (including "Hotter Than That", "Potato Head Blues", "Chicago Breakdown", "Cornet Chop Suey", "Struttin' With Some Barbeque", "Squeeze Me", and "Tight Like This") and you can see it: this is a classic single-disc collection. But if you are already a serious jazz fan, then you already have the whole batch of the recordings. Maybe you want a 14-track selection for the car or something, but you already know why. Hit your "back button" and read a review of the New Pornographers' latest album, why don'tcha?

But if you aren't a jazz aficionado, here's the deal: THIS IS THE MOTHERLODE!

I know that you may be wary of recordings that are almost 80 years old, and I understand. It can be hard to hear the energy and genius of music that sounds so acoustically old-fashioned. There is a kind of vo-dee-oh-doh effect, since all the music made during our lifetime has been captured in a kind of perpetually modern sonic clarity. But, as when you watch a black-and-white movie like Casablanca or put the needle on an old Beatles LP, you must filter out the noise. The pure beauty beneath the technological imperfection is unmatched.

If you associate the name "Louis Armstrong" with the songs "Hello Dolly", "It's a Wonderful World", and "Mack the Knife", it is understood. But that guy -- the old guy with the white handkerchief, gravelly voice, and big smile -- is a small portion of Armstrong legacy. Louis "Pops" Armstrong was an orphan born in New Orleans, Louisiana near the turn of the century who learned to play trumpet in the "ragged" style of that city in the earliest days of jazz. The unrecorded trumpet hero of the city was Buddy Bolden, but the first trumpet kind we can hear on a record was young Louis's last boss, Mr. Joseph "King" Oliver. Armstrong traveled with Oliver to Chicago and made his first records with him. But, quite soon, the best trumpeter in the new, improvised style wasn't this "King" but the brash, swaggering kid with charisma: Louis himself.

The 14 sides on this CD were recorded in the mid-to-late 1920s shortly after Armstrong left Oliver and struck out on his own, and they represent "New Orleans style" jazz and the artistry of the first transcendent jazz soloist. The music we now think of as "jazz" had been developing for 20 or more years, but the first recording wasn't until 1917, only nine years or so before this work. The King Oliver records represent the "standard" New Orleans style, with the trumpets, trombone, clarinet, and rhythm all interweaving to form a single ensemble sound. On the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, Armstrong's innovation -- and it is arguably the masterful innovation that made the entire history of jazz possible -- was to privilege individual instrumental soloists to ride over the ensemble in displays of virtuosity and melodic invention that, nevertheless, always responded organically to the group in the moment.

And while others "solo" on this disc, it is the trumpet of Armstrong that is featured in this setting. And, oh, what trumpet playing it is.

Armstrong's greatest achievement as a trumpet soloist was to fundamentally reinvent the concept of time, the most basic element of music. Here's what Armstrong did: he freed himself as a soloist from the "straight" time of quarter notes and eighth notes. While the bands on these records play the music in straight quarter note and half-time "swing", he freely interprets the rhythm of all his solo melodies -- slowing them down behind the band's beat, speeding them up, switching and shifting as his whim suggests, all to create the effort of surprise, but a kind of casual, effortless surprise. That is, Louis Armstrong achieves supreme relaxation in his own voice -- a totally organic and personal voice that feels purely spontaneous -- but sets that relaxation in contrast to the set time of the band, which creates a tension and excitement. This amazing -- and seemingly contradictory -- trick of simultaneously generating relaxation and tension is the very heart of jazz.

The tracks on this collection demonstrate this quality in spades, and they are some of the very most important sound recordings of the 20th century.

Take "Potato Head Blues". The ensemble, with Armstrong in the lead but not obviously so, is stated with an admirable relaxation. Then the ensemble cuts out, leaving Armstrong to play a one-bar break. His solo, with just the rhythm under him, is a richer piece of music than the ensemble because Armstrong is so free to accent and emphasize as he sees fit. After a clarinet solo, Armstrong is given a daring "stop time" chorus in which the band plays only a single note on the "one" of each bar. Here, Pops breaks every rule, essentially making the time of the song stand still and wait on him as he crafts each blues phrase out of thin air. Listening to it, you think that jazz is being born right before your...ears.

If this was all Armstrong had done, he would still have been the most important jazz musician ever. But Louis also invented from the whole cloth the art of jazz singing. Using his voice like he used his trumpet, Armstrong sang in a manner deadly opposite from the standard singing of his day -- using rhythmic displacement, growls, smears, glissandi, and a directly human crying sound. We hear the beginning of that art on this record too. On "I'm Gonna Gitcha", Louis takes a middle chorus on vocals that elevates a dopey tune to thrilling art. On "Squeeze Me", Armstrong takes a "scat" chorus (a subcategory of jazz singing that Armstrong also invented) of nonsense syllables, hitting the breaks and flowing in rhythmic ripple of the song's harmonies just as if he were playing his horn. His straight blues vocal on "I'm Rough" shows how close this music was to Delta blues when it wanted to be, but the singing on "Don't Forget to Mess Around" is complex and agile, showing that jazz truly is a hybrid of Mississippi mud and European structure.

You can fault this brief collection only by what it excludes. It is not "the best of" the Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions, as certain acknowledged classics are absent: "West End Blues", for example, and the duet with pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines, "Weather Bird". These are stone-classics too, and no collection of early Armstrong is complete without them, but this cannot diminish the greatness of what is here. It would just be self-indulgent picky-picking to discuss the programming of the disc, the order of the songs, or the balance of different tracks. I don't want to do that.

What I want to do is say it one more time: Louis Armstrong was one of the great human treasures of the last hundred years. Jazz musicians almost always call him "Pops" because that what he was to the whole music -- the father of it all, the fountain, the source. These 14 tunes are links in the chain that connect all of today's music back to its origins. Without Pops, there'd have been no Ray Charles, no Elvis, no Kurt Cobain, no whoever comes along tomorrow. If you love American music, you owe it to yourself to know Louis.

Miss this music at your peril.

9
Music
Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Music

Coronavirus Tunes: A Brief Playlist for Our Times of Self-Isolation

As coronavirus spreads throughout the world and many of us hunker down with online media, we offer eight songs that share our feeling of seclusion.

Music

PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists

If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by the quality readership of PopMatters.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Books
Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Film
Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of Political Dividing and Conquering in America

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Film

The Road to Murder in Love and War: Three Films from Claude Chabrol

The character's in Claude Chabrol's The Third Lover, Line of Demarcation, and The Champagne Murders are obsessively doubled and mirrored, reflecting and refracting their hunger for sex, love, money, and power.

Film

'Memento' Is the Movie of the Attention Economy

We are afraid of time, and so like Leonard in Memento, we kill it, compulsively and indiscriminately.

Film

What Lurks Beneath: 'Jaws' and Political Leadership in the Time of COVID-19

Boris Johnson admires the Mayor in Spielberg's Jaws. Remember him? He was the guy who wouldn't close the beaches -- and sacrifice that revenue source -- during a public crisis.

Recent
Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of Political Dividing and Conquering in America

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Music

Lilly Hiatt - "Some Kind of Drug" (Singles Going Steady)

Lilly Hiatt sings about a different kind of love on "Some Kind of Drug". Hers is for a city and the impact gentrification has had its soul.

Music

There's Never Enough Time for Folk Music's James Elkington

The sometimes Wilco and Richard Thompson sideman, in-demand producer, and songwriter, James Elkington, muses on why it's taking longer than he expects to achieve more in a week than most of us get done in a lifetime.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Music

Weeks Island's 'Droste' Is a New High Water Mark in Ambient Steel (EP stream) (premiere)

Lost Bayou Ramblers' Jonny Campos turns up as Weeks Island with Brian Eno/Cluster-inspired music straight from the bayou. Hear Droste in full ahead of its release on Friday.

Music

Ireland's Junk Drawer Share New Krautrock Meets Post-Punk Song, "Temporary Day" (premiere)

Junk Drawer's "Temporary Day" is a simple yet compelling video for a gripping song that shows why the band have earned such acclaim in their native Ireland.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Music

Miranda Lambert - "Bluebird" (Singles Going Steady)

Miranda Lambert sings her blues the way an artist paints with them on her latest single, "Bluebird".

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.