Thursday, June 14, 2007

Reckless Blues, Bessie Smith & Louis Armstrong

Reckless Blues, Bessie Smith & Louis Armstrong, January 14, 1925

Bessie Smith, vocal
Louis Armstrong, cornet
Fred Longshaw, harmonium

This is a wonderful song, where both Louis and Bessie seem exactly in tune with each other's approach and feelings. I wonder if the shorter vocal lines give them both a little more room to be expressive without bumping up against each other. In any case, it is a straight blues, no verse, all feeling, and superb musicianship.

4-bar Introduction 0- 14
Louis opens with a wa-wa technique, one of those ways of playing that gives the trumpet more of a personal touch, using a mute to contain and control the tone. The organ sounds just right, providing a solemn, churchy feeling without being too pious or preachy.

First Blues Chorus 15 - 57

When I wasn't nothing but a child
When I wasn't nothing but a child
All you men tried to drive me wild.

Every word Bessie sings is given her own inflection. Melisma is the term used to describe the technique in which a singer varies the notes on a single syllable. People who don't sing well often use it when doing what they seem to think is a successful version of the national anthem before ballgames. People who do sing well have their own particular approach to it. Nobody does it better than Bessie Smith or - in another tradition - Ella Fitzgerald. You can hear it here all over the place, especially on the word child.

Note the assonance - repetition of a vowel sound - in the last verse: tried, drive, wild.

Louis provides accompaniment and fills that exactly match the mood of the vocal. One of the tasks of a blues accompanist is, as they say to actors, "remember your lines and don't bump into the furniture." The whispering quality of the emotions he evokes in his muted horn sustains the quality of the lyrics. (Since I have read that Bessie was not too wild about Louis as an accompanist, I have a good time imagining her reaction; for this recording, I picture her suggesting he use a mute. Whose ever idea it was, it was inspired.)

Second blues chorus 58 - 1: 36

Now I am growing old
Now I am growing old
And I got what it takes to get all of you men told

The second chorus follows deliberately on from the first. In fact, it is somewhat rare for blues choruses to link together with such logic.

Louis makes every phrase count. He is inventive without being splashy - which would be exactly the wrong effect here. So many blues and jazz tunes work as conversations, but a recording like this one sounds more like the kind of assent you hear when each party is in complete agreement with the other.

Third blues chorus 1:37 - 2:18

Blues frequently make shifts from chorus to chorus. The first two choruses fit together logically, starting out as a child and then growing old. Here the shift seems arbitrary, which is actually more common in a blues.

My Momma says I'm a reckless, my Daddy says I'm wild
My Momma says I'm a reckless, my Daddy says I'm wild
I ain't good lookin' but I'm somebody's angel child

The lyrics here are from the common stock of blues lyrics; you'll find similar choruses all over, including from one of Blind Willie McTell's choruses in Statesboro Blues. (A similar sentiment is expressed by Barbecue Bob in his Barbecue Bob: I ain't good looking, teeth don't shine like pearls (2) / So glad good looks don't get you through this world.)

Louis keeps getting better. The suggestive lyrics are enhanced by the broadly suggestive tone of the instrument.

Fourth Blues Chorus 2:19 - 3:06

Daddy, Mamma wants some lovin', Daddy, Mamma wants some huggin'
Darn it, pretty Poppa, Momma wants some lovin' I vow
Darn it, pretty Poppa, Momma wants some lovin' right now

The recording ends with the singer demanding sexual favors which, it would appear, her lover is unable, or unwilling, to provide. Each of the separate choruses treats this theme in some fashion.