Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2011-09-02


Louis Armstrong: The Complete Town Hall Concert 1947 (Fresh Sound, 2004) Less than brilliantly recorded, though most '40s jazz boots are much worse, this May 12 experiment, featuring the template for the All-Stars combos he led for the rest of his life, is the Armstrong I play when I want the whole package. Quickly this mode gravitated toward the standard repertoire that dominates the albums I go to for late Louis: the American Icon set and 16 Most Requested Songs. But here the sell was a return to the format of his youth after years of mediocre big bands, so it begins with "Cornet Chop Suey," "Dear Old Southland," "Big Butter and Egg Man." Later there's newer stuff, though "Back o' Town Blues" and "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" are a long way from "Mack the Knife" and "Hello Dolly." Either way the committed, ebullient performances have something to prove. And as a bonus this is Armstrong's only recording with genre-hopping powerhouse Sid Catlett, who should have been his drummer forever but quit fast and died all too soon. A

King Oliver: Off the Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings (Off the Record, 2006) Renowned for the care and skill with which it digitalizes pre-owned, pre-electric, one-mike shellac, this two-CD, 37-track package is worth the time of anyone with a fan's interest in the ongoing Africanization of American pop. The audio is clearer and warmer than on any Oliver I've heard, acoustic or electric, and the repertoire packs plenty of musical charge as well as historical charm, both of which it needs. Not for nothing do David Sager's excellent notes include phraseology like "upon careful listening," "interesting to notice," "contain evidence of," and "a kind of text," because this package is intended for study as well as pleasure. That's fine--the first recordings of both a seminal bandleader starting his decline, King Oliver, and a young man about to change the world, Louis Armstrong, are worth studying. But nobody makes 37 records in a year without substantial fluctuations in quality, and the style here, in which traditional New Orleans ensemble playing is yielding to Armstrong's hyperactive virtuosity, does sound quaint to any but committed jazz buffs. Oliver is more prominent than Armstrong, but most prefer it when the kid comes forward (dig the slide whistle on "Sobbin' Blues"). Over many listens, I was struck by how some tunes never connected--three stabs at the promisingly entitled "Workingman Blues," for instance--while "Mabel's Dream" and the Thomas Dorsey-cowritten "Riverside Blues" always did. In chronological order, my picks, which forgive sloppiness, enjoy hokum, and include two also on Armstrong's fast-disappearing Portrait of the Artist box (I agree with Sager that the hot parts of "Tears" don't make a whole): "Just Gone," "Chimes Blues," "Weather Bird Rag," both "Dipper Mouth Blues," "Froggie Moore," the second "Snake Rag," "Sweet Lovin' Man," "Sobbin' Blues," "Alligator Hop," "Krooked Blues," "London (Cafe) Blues," "New Orleans Stomp," "Buddy's Habit," "I Ain't Gonna Tell Nobody," the first "Riverside Blues," and the second "Mabel's Dream." That's plenty, wouldn't you say? A-

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