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.