A BOX OF BLESSINGS, SLIGHTLY MIXED: “LOUIS ARMSTRONG: THE OKEH, COLUMBIA, and RCA VICTOR RECORDINGS 1925-1933″ (Sony Music)

Louis OKEH

As I write this, I am listening to a “new” box set of Louis Armstrong’s recordings.    Issued by Sony Music, it offers his work for OKeh, Columbia, and Victor from 1925-1933.

I am ambivalent about this product — which has nothing to do with the heartbreakingly beautiful music contained within the purple box.  And although I ordinarily go on at length on JAZZ LIVES, I find it easier to write my assessment as a checklist.

THE GOOD NEWS:

181 recordings by Louis, grouped together in this fashion for the first time in the United States.  (The Fremeux label has been issuing multiple CD sets of Louis in chronological order for some time.)  This means the familiar — POTATO HEAD BLUES and I’VE GOT THE WORLD ON A STRING — alongside sessions that have not been available for some time, including the wonderful sides Louis made for OKeh in Los Angeles and Chicago, 1930-31.  The set ends with the peerless 1932-33 Victor sides (THAT’S MY HOME, LAUGHIN’ LOUIE) and throws in BLUE YODEL # 9, the collaboration of Louis and Jimmie Rodgers.

Beautiful notes by Ricky Riccardi.  Need I say more?

Lovely photographs, some new to me, photographs of record labels, and a design that — for once — doesn’t decompose as soon as one opens the box.

A reasonable price, if you consider the amount of music purchased.

A recording of WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS that I think not many people have known well.  Courtesy of that same Riccardi fellow, you may hear it here:

THE LESS-GOOD NEWS:

The first two discs (containing the Hot Five and Seven material) are mastered off-pitch, a half-tone low.  This might not bother most listeners, but it makes the music sound slightly sleepy, draggy — which it wasn’t in performance.

The set is not advertised as “complete,” which is accurate.  Missing are the sessions Louis recorded with a variety of singers, including Bessie Smith, Chippie Hill, Hociel Thomas, and Lillie Delk Christian.  I do not know why this is, except perhaps it would have taken more trouble to amass them and the person who is listed as “Project Director,” Seth Rothstein, surely had some reasons, whether economic or aesthetic.  (The last time in my knowledge that those Louis-and-the-blues-singers sides were available is several decades ago: a French vinyl series on CBS, “Aimez-vous le jazz?”)

The absence of this material is irritating because seven or eight of the discs in this set are “short,” with sixteen, eighteen, or twenty tracks.  Readers who can do basic math quickly can figure out just how many additional tracks could have fit in this box.  Or Sony could have squeezed the material onto eight discs and sold it at a lower price.  (When you buy a bag of potato chips and see that the bag contains more air than chips, you can rationalize it — the air is there so that the chips don’t get reduced to dust — but most of us find chips more tasty than chip-scented air.)

THE WRITER MUSES, BRIEFLY:

I always wonder how much thought goes in to the production of one of these box sets, conveniently on sale at the holiday season.  Sony Music has this material in their vaults; they seem to have done nothing to it (checking proper pitch, remastering) except put it in a different box and offer it to us.  It is not exactly a jazz re-gift, but close.  Who did they think was going to buy it?  Some people who lack a historical consciousness will quail slightly at “1925-1933,” because that is OLD MUSIC.  And the deep-down Louis scholars were already thrashing around online before the box came out, so I think their disappointment is palpable.  I also do not know how many people actually are buying CD box sets — as opposed to listening to downloads through their earbuds (two words that have become loathsome to me).

Ultimately, any scrap of Louis Armstrong’s music is beautiful, valuable, irreplaceable.

But Louis deserved better than this set.  We do, also.

Should you buy it if you have unlimited funds?  Yes.

Will you find some aspects of it annoying?  Yes.

May your happiness increase.

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7 responses to “A BOX OF BLESSINGS, SLIGHTLY MIXED: “LOUIS ARMSTRONG: THE OKEH, COLUMBIA, and RCA VICTOR RECORDINGS 1925-1933″ (Sony Music)

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Michael. I still prefer the JSP issues overall. Do you?

  2. Many thanks for your thoughts on this boxed set. Initially I was tempted, but then I thought to myself that I’d already got most of the tracks already, why do I need them again. Particularly if they haven’t been remastered. As to the question of Louis’ recordings with the blues singers, this has been reissued in a boxed set, by Affinity, but sets are available only at extortionate prices.

  3. When I want to hear Louis in 1925-9, I go back to the JSP Hot Fives and Sevens . . . although I am delighted to have the 1930-1 OKehs together with the rest. And I just noticed that the JSP set has the test pressing of I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE — omitted in this box. Grrrrr.

  4. Utterly indefensible to use the old off-speed transfers. If they didn’t want to go the expense of making new transfers, they could at least have played the old tapes at the proper pitch!

  5. It seems to me that whenever engineers of reissues do “pitch correction” on 78rpm material, it always results in a slower, draggier transfer. There are times when pitch correction is necessary–Bessie Smith’s “Blue Blue” is much too fast on the original 78. On the other hand, there’s an entire CD on Retrieval by The Spirits of Rhythm, a group which played guitar and tiples and likely tuned to each other, not to a piano, where every transfer is slow and has had the life drained out of it. (There’s a better, earlier CD of these same tracks on JSP.) I’m not too fond of the pitch-corrected “Hoosier Sweetheart” by Jean Goldkette, even if trombonist Spiegle Wilcox was still around to tell us that the 78 was a half-tone too fast; I miss the energy and drive of the original issue. I wish I could just get Ricky Riccardi’s notes for this new Armstrong release, as I have the tracks on previous reissues and am happy with the JSP and BMG releases.

  6. In regards to the items where Louis plays the role of accompanist, they were also supposedly issued by the Swiss King Jazz label in 1993 (another hard-to-find series). Maybe a project for JSP – Louis with the blues vocalists?

  7. And I so wanted to own this!

    “(The last time in my knowledge that those Louis-and-the-blues-singers sides were available is several decades ago: a French vinyl series on CBS, “Aimez-vous le jazz?”)”

    Four sensational LPs which I am thrilled to still own. I gewt the same feeling from these as I do when hearing the Jelly Roll Morton Library of Congress recordings – a time machine to the 1920s!

    jOhn Cooper

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