Stephane Grappelli & His Hot Four: St. Louis Blues

Grappelli might have been the leader on this date, but Django is the soloist for all but the last minute of this record. For anyone of that time who was not aware of the guitarist, the unaccompanied introduction might make them think that they were hearing a classical player. Yet, as Django slides into a slow-walk tempo and the opening melody of “St. Louis Blues”, there is no doubt that his heart lies in jazz. He makes effective use of bent notes in the opening chorus, and his flashy but tasteful runs add dramatic contrast. When he goes to the tango section, he adds to the drama with strong lines in parallel octaves. The tempo picks up as the band returns to the blues choruses, and Reinhardt’s final chorus is marked by block chords and one of his trademarked guitar rolls. When Grappelli enters, Reinhardt steals the spotlight back with his unique accompanying style featuring choppy block chords and rolls at the turnarounds.

August 27, 2009 · 0 comments


Jan Johansson: St. Louis Blues

Countless innovative recordings of this W.C. Handy staple exist, but this solo "test version" from a soundcheck is particularly thrilling for its freedom and motion. The exuberant spirit of blues meant something far different in the 1960s than when this song was originally composed by Handy in jazz's early days and first published in 1914. With his rendition, Jan Johansson, the Swedish giant of jazz, goes out on a limb and finds himself perfectly at home in a frontier of tone clusters, rhythmic displacements and jagged phrasing.

February 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Mildred Bailey: St. Louis Blues

Mildred Bailey and Red Norvo are the key players in this light take on the old standard with an element of seduction. Norvo on the xylophone equals Fred Astaire on the dance floor. It's clear that Bailey's "short fat squatty mama" will get her man back from the siren with the store-bought hair.

September 14, 2008 · 0 comments


Ella Fitzgerald: St. Louis Blues

While the majority of Ella’s discography was recorded in the studio, live recordings provide the most vivid studies of her art. In front of an audience with just piano, bass and drums, she came alive; it was what she lived for, and where the essence of her art was to be found. There is probably no finer example of this than her performance of “St. Louis Blues,” recorded in front of an enthusiastic audience at the Teatro Sistina in Rome. Part of a concert that lay undiscovered in Polygram’s vaults until it was released for the first time in 1988, it is memorable not only because Ella is in superb voice but also because the backing trio of Lou Levy, Max Bennett and Gus Johnson had, through regular performance, become a superbly cohesive unit. “St. Louis Blues” actually opened the concert that night, a stunning virtuoso tour-de-force whose whirlwind tempo, intensity and length (almost six minutes) could easily have been used to climax her set, rather than open it! The melodic construction of her scat singing is exemplary (including the aside “People are wondering what I’m singing. Believe it or not it’s ‘St. Louis Blues’”). This track ranks among the finest examples of vocal jazz, as Lou Levy reflected in 1990: “It was just great! So much spirit and drive on it. You could never get it if you went into the studio. If you tried in the studio it would be one chance in a million.”

February 19, 2008 · 0 comments


Louis Armstrong: St. Louis Blues (1929)

On Friday the 13th, six weeks after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Louis Armstrong was singing the blues—to be precise, the "St. Louis Blues," and to be even more precise, playing not singing. Five years earlier, Armstrong had contributed cornet obbligatos to Empress of the Blues Bessie Smith's mournful recording of W.C. Handy's anthem, but now it was Louis's turn to take the lead, and he gives us a very different reading indeed. After a short tango intro, Pops Foster's sturdy bass powers a surprisingly jaunty two-beat romp featuring Higginbotham's trilling trombone and Nicholas's keening clarinet. But above all shines Armstrong's trumpet—stunningly, transcendently, everlastingly brilliant. We don't know if Louis played the stock market, but he sure could play that damn trumpet.

January 21, 2008 · 0 comments


Bessie Smith & Louis Armstrong: St. Louis Blues

We apologize for joking in our review of Dizzy Gillespie's 1959 cover that W.C. Handy wrote "St. Louis Blues" amidst the British bombardment of Baltimore's Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, and that the song is mostly heard before ballgames. It's not really that old. Still, "St. Louis Blues" ought to be the U.S. national anthem. Certainly this historic convocation of the Empress of the Blues and the Emperor of Jazz supersedes any Act of Congress to the contrary. Backed at stately tempo by a spectral, tent-meeting pump organ, Bessie & Louis stream as gallantly as Old Glory herself.

November 21, 2007 · 0 comments


Dizzy Gillespie: St. Louis Blues

Dizzy Gillepsie, photo by Herb Snitzer

W.C. Handy wrote "St. Louis Blues" after witnessing the British bombardment of Baltimore's Fort McHenry at twilight during the War of 1812, thus explaining its opening line: "I hate to see that evenin' sun go down." Enacted by Congress in 1931 as the U.S. national anthem, the song is dutifully discharged before ball- games, but also lends itself to jazz, where listeners are not required to stand. A year after Hollywood's star-spangled Handy biopic, a Harmon-muted Dizzy Gillespie serves up a jim-dandy Handy salute of his own. With its with rousing open-horn finale, this may get listeners on their feet after all.

October 26, 2007 · 0 comments


Jaki Byard: St. Louis Blues

This recording brings together veterans of three of the most adventurous small groups of the 1960s. Byard had chaired the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop, Izenzon trekked with the Ornette Coleman Trio, and Jones wrote history in the John Coltrane Quartet. All three were freelancing near the end of the decade, and here they bring to bear their advanced techniques on a classic of the jazz repertoire. Byard delivers the melody in traditional fashion, plinking saloon-piano style, but as his solo develops, he trades jaunty ragtime syncopation for dizzying left-right rhythmic sweeps. The offbeat arrangement—rolling, bending tympani; shuddering bowed bass—charms its way in, then haunts the way out. An affecting and meditative reading.

October 22, 2007 · 0 comments


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