Friday, October 22, 2010

Grooves: Louis Armstrong - Ambassador Satch (1956)

One great thing about vinyl is inheriting it from people who no longer want it. My dad had a co-worker looking to unload and of course I immediately stepped up to take the records. It was mostly Dan Fogelberg records, which I quickly sent to Tunes for cash. However, there were some jazz records and a few gems to be had to assimilate into my collection. One of those was a live Louis Armstrong record called Ambassador Satch. Being an ex-trumpet player from days past, Armstrong has always been an idol of sorts of mine. As the title of this record goes, in the 50's, the State Department named Louis Armstrong and Ambassador of Good Will to Europe and Africa. It's a testament to Satchmo's personality as well as his brilliant skilled and soulful playing. Satchmo's influence on Jazz and music in general was huge and this album is a nice experience of live tracks from his tour of duty abroad as an ambassador as well as a few studio performances. Easily one of the most important icons of American music, owning some sort of Satchmo album should be a prerequisite for having a vinyl collection.

Being a hand-me-down, the record isn't in the greatest condition, but the album plays wonderfully. The outer jacket may be a bit worn, but it's almost 50 years old. It's pretty impressive that the thing isn't warped or scratched to oblivion. One thing I love about vinyl is the history behind it. When you get a hand-me-down record, sometimes the original owner wrote their name on it or doodled on the cover, never thinking that the record would one day be seen to some as obsolete or be seen by the eyes of a new owner. Ambassador Satch for me is a historical document as much as it is a good record. It shows that music can work as an important bridge for international relations. Satchmo is such a great figure in American music. The essay on the back sleeve has a great quote about the power of jazz in the 50's: "American jazz has now become a universal language. It knows no national boundaries, but everyone knows where it came from and where to look for more." Proof positive of the importance of music in the world we live in. Having this record is a piece of history that I appreciate, especially getting for free. I would probably not have bought the record as most of the time I stick strictly to rock in its many forms, but the Comstock Lode of jazz records from this one person was a great gift.

The album kicks off with some audience ambiance and an introduction of Louis Armstrong before tearing into a beautifully fun and bouncing "Royal Garden Blues." The best thing about jazz is that even though this is a Satchmo album, every facet of the music is astounding. The entire brass section lays the boogie down, the drums and bass keep the backbone strong and even get a highlight solo here and there. You can tell when the crowd roars that Satchmo just laid down some impressive trumpet playing. Unlike some live recordings, the crowd noise never distracts. If anything it adds an element of greatness to the record. Satch introduces the next track with that signature growl of his. "Tin Roof Blues" is a classic amongst bluesman. It's a slinky song compared to the bombastically fun "Royal Garden Blues," but it glows with life just the same. Jazz traditionals never sound overdone, especially in the hands of Satchmo. The trumpet solo is as stately as it gets, howling with Satchmo's classic trumpet affectation. "The Faithful Hussar" is a tune Satchmo picked up in Germany whilst on tour. He liked it so much, he added it to his European roster of songs. It's a whimsical tune that sparks with life, especially during Satchmo's fine scat singing during the mid section. Even in the latter age of his long career (he started playing jazz in the 20's,) Satchmo's tunes still sound fresh and new, if not a little dated as the 50's jazz masters like Miles Davis were giving a new cool edge to the institution. The side ends with "Muskrat Ramble," a perfect tune to jitterbug to. It's a fitting number to boogie to and the bands playing is as tight as ever on the track.

Side two opens up with an Italian announcer battling the raging crowd for attention to introduce Louis Armstrong. The only thing that will stop the crowd is for the band to kick in, and they do so with "All Of Me," the first track with vocals on the record. Satchmo's famous growling roars in. It's a perfect jazz standard for Satchmo, whose trumpet playing is easily some of the best on the record. "Twelfth Street Rag" follows adding a touch of ragtime to the mix. In Satchmo's hands, it gains a power all it's own. You can tell Satchmo and his All Stars are having a fun time on this track. The crowd seems to enjoy it just as much with laughter and applause every so often. Side two seems to be brimming with the best of Satchmo's trumpet playing on the record as he adds a fantastic trumpet solo to this rag. Satchmo "keeps it rolling" with "Undecided." It's a quick, bouncy jam. All players are rocking at a breakneck pace, it's hard to keep up. "Dardanella" comes next slowing the pace just a bit. Loads of clarinet over a short bouncing piano and drums, it's a minimalistic song for the most part coming and going faster than it picks up at all. Satchmo breaks out a classic in "West End Blues." This is easily one of Satchmo's most revered songs. The explosions of trumpet are powerful as the bluesy number slinks forth. Closing the album is the explosive "Tiger Rag," yet another classic jazz track. The New Orleans standard was yet another famous track for Satchmo, who blazes through it with his band at a furious pace. It has one of the best fake-out endings ever as the band launches right back into.

There are only a few records in my collection like this and after listening to Ambassador Satch, I look forward to approaching these records again. Jazz is something that to many is misunderstood. But there is jazz and then there is Satchmo. Louis Armstrong transcends jazz. He takes ragtime and melds it around his own New Orleans sound. This album is great to own not just for the contents of it's music, all of which is a welcome change to the rocking I will be listening to throughout this experiment, but it's also a piece of history. The back of the record has an essay about the power of Jazz in the 50's and how Satchmo himself was an Ambassador of Good Will. It also breaks it down track by track. Although it's a tad beat up, it's made it 55 years and still sounds great.

Up Next: Don McLean's masterpiece

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