Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Everybody's heard of Louis Armstrong and Fred Astaire--the trumpeter who revolutionized American music and the dancer who defined movie elegance are two of the most renowned entertainers of all time. Neither is remembered primarily as a singer. But it's a mark of just how good each man was that both were among the finest of the century. The proof is on two Columbia/Legacy collections: Armstrong's 16 Most Requested Songs and Astaire's Top Hat: Hits From Hollywood.

Satchmo's gravelly drawl is as much a signature as his grin and his bell-toned horn. But where casual listeners sometimes mistake his vocals for comic relief, his admirers often overinterpret it as Tin Pan Alley deconstruction. In the welter of Satchmo reissues, this cheerfully crass entry from the mid-'50s, when his artistic force was supposedly sapped by jazz ambassadorship, showcases his pervasive affection for his material as well as the melodic and rhythmic genius of his interpretations. Of course Rockin' Chair and That's My Desire are funny--just like death and sex, which he knows damn well they're about. Magnificent from St. Louis Blues to Mack the Knife, with plenty of trumpet on the side.

Where Armstrong commanded a powerful vocal instrument, Astaire's singing makes clear that the supernal grace of his dancing took as much intelligence and discretion as strength and agility. Especially by the operettic standards of a time that adored Nelson Eddy, his high baritone was impossibly slight, and the signal pleasure of his singing is how many true notes and meanings he got out of it. The weaker songs here prove that even Berlin, Gershwin, and Kern wrote filler, but also that Astaire could make a silk topper out of just about anything. The stronger songs establish both composers and singer as vernacular poets of the first order.

Fast Cuts: On Cachao's Master Sessions Volume I (Crescent Moon/Epic), the seminal, criminally underrecorded bassist, now 76, demonstrates how he brought Cuba's stately danzón into an Afro-Cuban present that survives to this day.

Playboy, Sept. 1994

Aug. 1994 Oct. 1994