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07/22/12

Louis Armstrong
Satchmo at the National Press Club: Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours
Smithsonian Folkways

There is no denying the historical significance of Satchmo at the National Press Club: Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours. Recorded on Jan. 29, 1971, the live date was Pops’ penultimate in-person performance—there would be one more in the spring and then Louis Armstrong was gone in July. The event was the inauguration of a new president of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., and Armstrong and his band were there to entertain the gathered.

That they did, but this is a diminished Armstrong at work. Of the 11 tracks on the album—whose title derives from a phrase Satchmo customarily signed to his fans—only five actually feature Armstrong, and the first of those is mostly a long, snoozy spoken introduction that eventually segues into a lethargic reading of “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.” The rest is given over to a posthumous tribute at the following year’s National Press Club bash featuring trombonist Tyree Glenn (who earlier serves as Pops’ foil on “Rockin’ Chair”) and clarinetist Tommy Gwaltney.

By this late stage, Armstrong had long been more showman than vital musician—a fact given credence by a blue joke he tells and by the near-total absence of trumpet—but there are sporadic sparks that offer fleeting reminders of why he was who he was. Although he’d undoubtedly sung “Mack the Knife” and “Hello, Dolly!” thousands of times, Armstrong throws himself into the two staples with zest, and the blues at the core of “Boy From New Orleans” casts a direct line back to the earliest days of jazz. The audience eats it all up.

Nonetheless, this is subpar Armstrong, and the hissy, muddled sound of the album, which was given a limited vinyl release in 1972, also leaves something to be desired. Completists may wish to own this document of the final days of one of our national treasures, but this is hardly essential Satch. (Note: Not a regular CD release, this album is available as a digital download and an on-demand CD via Amazon and Folkways.)

Originally published in July/August 2012
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