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Louis Armstrong: The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings

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illustration of Louis Armstrong

The more you listen to young Louis Armstrong, the more you hear. The more you hear, the more you realize the extent to which jazz evolved from his intelligence, imagination, daring and sense of form. He shaped the music. To one who has listened extensively to the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens in all of their reissue reincarnations, revelations keep coming. It is something of a jolt to be astonished all over again by Armstrong’s trumpet technique, melodic gift and harmonic acuity (he was improvising on chord changes at least as early as 1925, long before it is generally acknowledged that jazz incorporated the approach). It is impossible, naturally, to isolate one musical element from another in playing a jazz solo and nearly impossible in analyzing what makes a solo work. Nonetheless, it is clear that above all, Armstrong’s rhythm, his mastery of time, is the foundation of his innovation.

In the best of these recordings, we witness Armstrong transforming jazz from attractive folk music performed by collectives into art music energized by the creative power of one man’s intuitive ability to make it swing. Despite leaden accompaniment in some of the earliest Hot Fives from 1925 and 1926, he imparts irresistible momentum by his placement of notes, the values he gives them and his use of vibrato, which divides time within a note. His sophisticated and subtle rhythm is the principal source of the joy that suffuses his playing. As examples, “Sweet Little Papa” and “Big Butter and Egg Man” are in a rhythmic mire except when he is playing. They sink back into it when he is silent. In track after track, a gulf separates Armstrong’s conception and execution from even the most talented of his Hot Five colleagues, Kid Ory and Johnny Dodds.

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