April 18, 1988 12:00 PM

Louis Armstrong

Part of the Columbia Jazz Masterpieces series, this digitally remastered reissue comes out at an opportune moment. With Armstrong’s vocal rendition of What a Wonderful World turning into a minor hit as a single off the sound track of Good Morning, Vietnam, it might be tempting to start thinking of him as just some sweet old guy who sang shmaltz. The 16 tracks on this record, however, are a reminder that Armstrong, in addition to being supremely ingratiating, was also a musical genius. The songs, all recorded under primitive technical conditions in 1925 and 1926, remain amazingly vivid. Armstrong’s cornet playing is full of high-spirited, tuneful invention as he fronts a quintet that also includes the low-keyed, precise clarinet of Johnny Dodds, Kid Ory’s bluesy trombone, the piano of Armstrong’s wife, Lil Hardin, and Johnny St. Cyr’s banjo. (The group later expanded to a Hot Seven, with tuba player Peter Briggs and drummer Baby Dodds, and there are moments on these tracks when Armstrong, trying to punch things up with bursts from his cornet, obviously needs more of a rhythm section.) At 25, Armstrong displayed turns of melodic phrase that approached the lyrical; his elegant chorus on Come Back, Sweet Papa, for instance, is full of precise enthusiasm. Then there’s that unique growl of a singing style. Heebie Jeebies includes what may have been the world’s first impromptu scat singing solo—Armstrong’s contention that he started singing nonsense syllables after dropping the lyric sheet is” usually considered apocryphal. But it almost certainly is the most famous scatting ever, and it still has a contemporary quality. Armstrong would move on through a life of musical landmarks, such as his collaborations with Earl Hines, Jack Teagarden and Ella Fitzgerald, but nothing he ever did could surpass the exuberant sense of liberation that these recordings reflect even after more than 60 years. (Columbia)

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