Jelly Roll Morton: High Society

Although Jelly Roll Morton is the leader of this recording, it is a rare instance where the pianist/composer is not the center of attention. We barely hear a note from his piano and the arrangement sounds nothing like the Red Hot Pepper charts of the previous decade. Indeed, on this version of "High Society" it sounds as if half the band is improvising their parts (or playing from memory). The sound is like a New Orleans street parade, but in this recording, both Sidney Bechet and Albert Nicholas play the famous clarinet obbligato. Bechet goes first, playing the serpentine line on soprano sax. He has some issues with breath control and the phrasing is quite choppy. NIcholas (who probably played this obbligato more than Bechet) sails in on clarinet, and he plays flawlessly until he realizes that he's showing up Bechet. Then the nerves hit and he fumbles one of the lines. Other than the double clarinet obbligato and a minor strain used to change keys, the rendition is quite faithful to the original march.

September 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: High Society

Louis Armstrong's 1933 big band recording of "High Society" is not only vastly different from his recording with King Oliver 11 years earlier, but different from just about any other version. The arrangement by Carl Russell includes complete strains that I've never heard in any other recording of the song. Louis offers a verbal introduction and promises a re-creation of a New Orleans street parade. Lawson starts a parade drum pattern on his snare and Louis plays the "horns up" motive, but when the band comes in, the modern chords don't sound anything like a New Orleans street band. The saxes fumble through a difficult passage and Louis covers them up with an upward slide, and then Keg Johnson offers the familiar first strain on trombone, with the band swinging the background riffs. Louis takes over from Keg to conclude the strain, but the next minute or so of the arrangement consists of original big band riff choruses that were never part of "High Society". When we finally arrive at the trio, Randolph or Whitlock plays the theme while the saxes have a go at the famous clarinet obbligato. The minor "dog-fight" interlude from the original march leads into a variation on the trio that provides a backdrop for Armstrong's high-register trumpet fireworks. While the arrangement is an interesting attempt to transform a New Orleans band standard into a solo vehicle, the effort isn't entirely successful, and it certainly falls short of the expectations we had from the introduction.

September 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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King Oliver: High Society

"High Society" is one of many traditional jazz standards with confusing parentage. It was originally a march, written in 1901 by Porter Steele. The piccolo obbligato first turns up in a Robert Recker score later in 1901, and sometime after that, A.J. Piron transposed it for clarinet. Clarence Williams got involved somewhere along the line, possibly writing lyrics for the song. Apparently, there is another set of lyrics by Walter Melrose (and just who sings these lyrics anyway?) And if things weren't confused enough, when King Oliver recorded it, he claimed it was composed by his current band! So, the Oliver version always carries "King Oliver's Jazz Band" as the credit, but the same piece as recorded by other players can have any combination of the above composers listed. It's a good thing that the song is in public domain!

Oliver's acoustic recording features the full ensemble in the opening and closing choruses. Johnny Dodds is very prominent, with the clueless and out-of-tune trombonist Honore Dutrey standing a few feet back from the recording horn.Oliver's in the back of the room with Louis (and as Louis said years later, the problem with the Oliver recordings is that the lead didn't predominate). Lil Hardin's piano and Bud Scott's banjo are lost in the mix and Baby Dodds can only be heard sporadically with the occasional cymbal crash. When the trio comes along, Armstrong and Johnny Dodds take over and the other horns lay out, offering a fine respite from the dense band sound. Armstrong gets in a little improvisation over the trio theme and in the final chorus, Dodds plays a creditable rendition of the Picou obbligato.

While these old recordings can be hard to listen to, the Archeophone double-CD above offers the best transfers to date. By necessity, the MP3 linked above is not from the Archeophone, but the French Classics reissue. Go to http://www.archeophone.com/product_info.php?cPath=33_34&products_id=85 to hear samples of these superior transfers.

September 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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