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Sheer genius shines through an undiscerning album

You can't miss the style of Louis Armstrong even in this album put together with little concern for jazz quality

Classic Louis Armstrong
The Universal Masters Collection
Rs 95

Let me say first-off that I was rather disappointed to find that this album was not the same thing as Verve Jazzmasters: Louis Armstrong, a CD from the Verve label which is a part of Polygram, now renamed Universal. Besides, as a cassette to review for Louis Armstrong's centenary, it falls a bit short of the great achievements of the father of jazz improvisation.

Although during the '50s and '60s Armstrong hadn't given up producing good jazz, his mixed output at the time (jazz and jazz-style pop) makes it easy to indiscriminately select non-jazz performances of his for their sheer popularity at the cost of jazz quality. This selection, evidently from that period judging from the style and also the numbers chosen, fails to clear this pitfall. Several pieces are pop renditions with little or no improvising, and little or no trumpet playing. This category includes What a wonderful world, Blueberry Hill and Chloe, of which the first two were smash hits on the pop charts.

But of course Armstrong was performing jazz at the time, as many of the numbers do testify. La vie en rose, Hello Dolly, and C'est si bon, all among his contemporary hits, are still good illustrations of his trumpet-playing powers and his faithfulness to his early promise as an improviser on the instrument. In the same class is his early hit On the sunny side of the street in this later reworking.

Indeed, so overpowering was Armstrong's charisma that at this stage of his career, he dominated most performances, whether pop or jazz, the former with his singing and the latter with both vocals and trumpet. It's therefore not so easy to notice good solos by other musicians on the jazz tracks here. It comes as a pleasant surprise, then, to find that they do turn up if one keeps one's ears open. In the least expected places, even, such as on High society (the title song of a musical film in which he starred with Crosby and Frank Sinatra). The clarinet solo at the end of this piece is especially impressive. The clarinetists (unknown) make their presence felt all over the album, such as on A kiss to build a dream on, Sittin' in the sun, and La Cucuracha, a delectable number with Latin rhythm and jazz solos.

On the whole, not Armstrong's best jazz period; not the best selection of his music from this period; but still worth listening to. What else would you expect from the first genius of jazz?


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