The Old Songster

Two 1957 Verve albums with orchestrator Russell Garcia, I've Got the World on a String and Louis Under the Stars, produced by Norman Granz, afford the great man an opportunity to revisit old favorites he helped put on the map ("Body and Soul") as well as some nice things he missed the first time around ("East of the Sun"). "Stormy Weather," a song which incorporates blues-based repeats of the sort that composer Harold Arlen might have learned directly from Armstrong, is an obvious standout. Like Crosby's 1956 Bing Swings Whilst Bregman Sings, this album allowed one of pop singing's founding figures the chance to make an album with a hip, contemporary orchestra in the style of Fitzgerald and Sinatra.

Armstrong made a variety of first-rate singles and other miscellaneous tracks right up until the end: Who remembers, for instance, that in 1966 New Orleans's favorite son recorded two delightful slices of ersatz Crescent City gumbo with Guy Lombardo's Royal Canadians ("Come Along Down" and "Mumbo Jumbo") on a Capitol 45? There were also efforts strictly for the international market: his duets with Danish folksingers Nina and Frederick and German teenybop star Gabrielle Clonisch, and four titles recorded in New York for Italian release in 1967. Dick Jacobs, who produced, arranged, and conducted the last session, later remembered, "An instructor from the Berlitz school was on the set to whisper each line in Louis's ear in phonetic Italian before he sang it." Jacobs also worked with Louis on a series of '60s movie anthems such as "I Will Wait for You," "Talk to the Animals," and "Sunrise, Sunset" (collected on a fine and long-unavailable Brunswick album). Like "Mame" and "Cabaret," they were evident attempts to repeat the "Hello Dolly" magic.

Armstrong's last three albums, Disney Songs the Satchmo Way (1968), Louis Armstrong and His Friends, and Country and Western (both 1970), all have something to recommend them. Of the three, the Disney set is easily the best. Produced by Tutti Camaratta, who had worked with Armstrong during his own days with Jimmy Dorsey, it was arranged by Maxwell Davis in a style that, despite a few concessions to the maudlin excesses of '60s pop, tastefully contrasts the All Stars with strings and choir. It's a must just to hear Armstrong transform Disney doggerel like "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Bo" and "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" into scat invention of the highest order. On "Chim Chim Cheree," he makes use of the same opportunities for modal improvisation that intrigued John Coltrane and Wes Montgomerey, improvising 16-bar solos over a vamp.

Louis Prima, who idolized Armstrong, would have sung this material ironically or at least irreverently; yet what makes Pops's vocals here so special is that he resists the temptation to gag them up. He makes them work on their own terms by singing them comparatively straight and investing them with total faith and, by extension, believability. It's a quality that he'd been perfecting at least since "When You're Smiling," in 1929, and a part of his music that got better as he got older. It's one of the lessons that Armstrong brought to American pop.

More articles in this week's Voice Jazz Supplement.

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