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Various Artists: Mental Strain at Dawn: A Modern Portrait of Louis Armstrong

Originally released on Stash over a decade ago, Mental Strain at Dawn was drawn primarily from a 1992 Knitting Factory concert that featured Louis Armstrong’s peer, trumpeter Doc Cheatham, sharing the stage with tenor saxophonists David Murray and Loren Schoenberg. An aggregation led by alto saxophonist Allen Lowe and known as the Jack Purvis Memorial Orchestra backed them up. The new liner notes to the album present little background on the concert’s origins. Alluding to Dan Morgenstern’s original thoughts instead of reprinting them, the disc offers readily available biographical info on old-guard Cheatham and new-guard Murray (who hadn’t yet proven that his roots extended beyond free blowing, apparently).

The music is a whole other story, thankfully. The mix of personalities brings to mind Sun Ra’s likeminded readings of the classics, in which wild and wooly blowing fits into straightforward, exciting readings of “Dinah” and “Chinatown, My Chinatown.” As the saxophones solo and tumble over one another in “Mamacita,” they prove there is no musical generation gap between the players. One of the highlights comes in the dark sea of bass clarinets that opens a 10-minute sanctified version of “Black and Blue.” Besides, any album that opens with “La Cucaracha” has a lot going for it.

Originally Published