Sunday, June 10, 2007

Savoy Blues, Louis Armstrong

Savoy Blues, Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, December 13, 1927

Louis Armstrong, trumpet
Kid Ory, trombone
Johnny Dodds, clarinet
Lil Hardin Armstrong, piano
Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Lonnie Johnson, guitar

One of my personal favorites, this recording has hundreds of little things that set it (and me) off. It might be on in the background so I'm barely paying attention, and then something happens in the music and I start to laugh. Most blues sound pretty much the same from chorus to chorus - at least, you can tell its the same song as the choruses return to the same sort of thing. This one, however, keeps changing, but the changes are all integral and welcome. It is, for me, then, a grateful recording, and one of the glories of American music.

The Savoy Ballroom opened in November, 1927 by the Regal Theater on South Parkway, now Martin Luther King Drive, in Chicago. This number, recorded a month later, celebrates that dance hall. It should not be confused with the much legendary Savoy Ballroom in Harlem.

16-bar verse 0 - 29

The recording opens with a verse of 16-bars, the 4-bar sections clearly distinguishable. Louis' tone is stately, reflective, restrained. Each of the 4 bars is taken a bit differently, introduced by increasingly lively splat notes.

First 12-bar blues chorus 30 - 51

This chorus consists of a series of trombone glissandi with clarinet and trumpet playing in unison. They are arranged in a very orderly fashion so that it becomes very easy - even for me - to follow the chord progression. The first four bars in I are from 30 - 36. The second four bars (the second A) is from 38 - 44; listen for the shift to the IV chord at 38 - 41, in the first two bars of the second A verse, returning to the I chord at 42 - 44. Then at 45 - 48, with the B verse, the chord shifts to V and then back to I at 40 - 51.

4 bar Interlude 52 - 59

The guitar and the banjo take a sweet interlude of four bars to set up the guitar solo in the second blues chorus.

Second 12-bar blues chorus 1:00 - 1:22
Lonnie Johnson takes a solo chorus on guitar. It is flanked by 4-bar interludes, thus setting it off from the other blues choruses. Now is as good a time as any to take note of how different these choruses are, and will be, from each other. Johnson played country blues as well as with jazz bands, and is widely regarded as one of the blues virtuosi.

4 bar Interlude 1:23 - 1:30

Another guitar - banjo interlude takes us to the third blues chorus. These interludes have the effect of slowing the pace of the song, giving it a leisurely, relaxed, delicate sort of feeling. There is no hurry to get on to the next chorus, it will come in time, but meanwhile lets just strum a few chords on our instruments...

Third 12-bar blues chorus 1:31 - 1:51

Louis leads this third chorus, his first solo in the recording, accompanied by the rhythm section. Note the descending arpeggio at 1:40.

Fourth 12-bar blues chorus 1:52 - 2:14
Again Louis takes this chorus, starting out as if it were just an ordinary way to follow one chorus with another, then showing how different he can make it so that by the B verse the song seems to have changed yet again.

Fifth 12-bar blues chorus 2:15 - 2:37

Kid Ory takes this fifth chorus on the trombone with rhythm section accompaniment, taking a break at the end of the chorus, leading with a glissando into the sixth chorus.

Sixth 12-bar blues chorus 2:38 - 2:59

Louis takes this chorus with Ory filling in with glissando between the phrases in a new, almost prancing rhythm, concluding with two bars of trumpet, trombone and clarinet playing six notes in unison at 2:57.

Seventh, final, 12-bar blues chorus 3:00 3:22

Louis swings into the final - out - chorus accompanied by Ory and (for the last time) Dodds. He takes a solo break at the end of the chorus, giving Johnson the final word.

Coda 3:22 - 3:26

Lonnie Johnson finishes it off by strumming a bar, accompanied by St. Cyr on banjo.

This was the last time Johnny Dodds recorded with Louis Armstrong, and so marks the end of an important collaboration. For me, it accounts, in part, at least, for the melancholy feeling of the whole piece. Dodds keeps to a low key performance here, providing accompaniment and harmonies but no solo and very few leads until the last chorus. Goodbye, Johnny...