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Louis Armstrong: Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars

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Even among the collectors and completists for whom it’s intended, a nine-CD box set is not for listening to en masse. It’s best to break it down into constituent segments. In Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars, those segments comprise eight complete (or complete surviving) concerts, one of them entirely unreleased heretofore; a studio session that was produced into “live” tracks; two extended interviews; and some odds and ends. It’s a lot to process.

But it yields treasures. Most fans already know the Town Hall concert of May 17, 1947-Armstrong’s return from big-band swing to small-group trad, his equivalent to Ellington at Newport. Nearly 70 years on, it remains an indispensable recording. But almost as good (better, in sonic terms) is the never-before-released Carnegie Hall concert from that November, a companion to the more famous Boston Symphony Hall concert. The personnel-trombonist Jack Teagarden, drummer Sid Catlett and clarinetists Peanuts Hucko and Barney Bigard, among others-is top-notch, and the music has the tinge of (re)discovery. Town Hall’s unrehearsed “Big Butter and Egg Man” and “St. Louis Blues,” along with Carnegie Hall’s “Back O’ Town Blues” and “Lover,” exhibit the same freshness and urgency that characterized the then-cresting wave of bebop. Further, “Back O’ Town Blues” might be the deepest blues Armstrong ever committed to tape-and that’s saying something.

The 1947 concerts are RCA Victor’s domain; the others were recorded by George Avakian for Columbia. Included are 1955 concerts in Amsterdam and Milan (the joint basis, along with a brief studio session that’s also included, for the Ambassador Satch album); the “Great Chicago Concert” of June 1956; July’s Newport performance (partially released on an album that also featured Eddie Condon) and the Lewisohn Stadium rehearsal and concert (the basis for Satchmo the Great); and the 1958 Newport show that was excerpted in the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, plus some orphan tracks from various other tour stops.

Things were different by then. The All Stars had rotated in competent but lesser musicians like trombonist Trummy Young and clarinetist Edmond Hall. The music had settled into a pattern. Almost every concert included Armstrong’s theme, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” as well as “(Back Home Again In) Indiana” and (after 1956) “Mack the Knife.” Even the solos were routine. Pianist Billy Kyle’s “Mary Had a Little Lamb” quote, on “Undecided” at Newport ’56, is still there at Newport ’58. Nevertheless, they find ways to refresh the performances. Aside from the three tunes above, there’s great variety in the setlists. And Young’s solos on “The Faithful Hussar” in Milan and Chicago are very close, but with enough subtle variations that he never sounds bored. Ditto Hall-and Armstrong, who throws these small changeups into almost every solo he plays. It’s a fascinating insight into the workings of the always-on-the-road All Stars. Armstrong’s nonpareil charisma radiates through every performance, even when he’s losing his voice at Carnegie Hall.

Town Hall and Carnegie Hall are the box’s best recordings, but Newport ’58 comes close, with its adrenaline rush on “Tiger Rag,” two delightful appearances by vocalist Velma Middleton (woefully underrepresented in Live Recordings-she was often the victim of Avakian’s editorial purges) and a surprise sit-in by Teagarden (who resumes his old role in duo with Armstrong on “Rockin’ Chair”) and cornet player Bobby Hackett. All together, though, Mosaic’s assemblage (completed with extensive notes by Armstrong scholar Ricky Riccardi) contains no duds, and is a worthy addition to the jazz canon. Can’t its merit be taken for granted? It’s Pops, after all; who but a sociopath can listen for more than 15 seconds without smiling?

Originally Published