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Channeling the Granddaddy of Skid-Dat-De-Dat

In the recorded literature of jazz — and of American music, really — there is no greater document than the stack of three-minute sides made by Louis Armstrong for the OKeh label in the mid- to late 1920’s. Leading two successive bands billed as his Hot Five (and, briefly, a Hot Seven), Armstrong delivered a series of performances bursting with bravura and invention, in the process introducing a heroic new language of improvisation.

That language was scatted, yelped and murmured at the Rose Theater on Thursday night, in the first of three Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts called “Wynton and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives.” Led by the jazz center’s artistic director, Wynton Marsalis, the program paid straightforward homage to the Hot Five recordings while trying to recreate their magic.

That’s a tall order even for Mr. Marsalis, the most heralded trumpeter to emerge from New Orleans since Armstrong did more than 80 years ago. He handled the task expertly, with a tone less brilliant than Armstrong’s but with a sense of phrase and line that was every ounce as assertively nimble. On “Cornet Chop Suey,” a highlight of the concert, Mr. Marsalis boldly charged through an unaccompanied solo chorus; on “Fireworks” he played an impressive series of breaks, with a leaping syncopation.

He also did an admirable job as host, balancing expectations with anecdotal humor and one instructive creed: “We don’t believe in segregating our music by eras.” He was arguing, among other things, that the Hot Five recordings were timeless, even contemporary. His eight-piece band underscored this assertion on numbers like a rhythmically reconfigured “Once in a While.”

On several other selections, though, a hint of tedium crept in. “Potato Head Blues” felt oddly muted, and “Melancholy” simply wafted by. And despite a tantalizing interlude by Jonathan Batiste on piano and Don Vappie on guitar, “Savoy Blues” gave off the musk of an antique. To a man, the musicians filled their roles capably, but there was little sense of the dashing discovery that Armstrong brought to the music.

The closest thing to an exception came from Wycliffe Gordon, whose contribution equaled that of his bandleader. Mr. Gordon scatted and sang in the ebullient Armstrong style, and his tuba playing was a joy.

On “St. James Infirmary,” which featured a suave vocal by Mr. Marsalis, Mr. Gordon soloed winsomely using just a brass mouthpiece; on “Skid-Dat-De-Dat” he interrupted his own vocal chorus with a single comically inept phrase on trumpet. More than once he picked up a bass, joining the band’s regular bassist, Carlos Henriquez, who was then free to solo.

One of the concert’s telling moments occurred on “Ory’s Creole Trombone,” which featured Mr. Gordon on his primary instrument alongside another fine trombonist, Vincent Gardner. Draping a black kerchief over the bell of his horn, Mr. Gordon delivered a monster performance in a stubbornly archaic style. Even if it wasn’t supposed to be anchored to an era, it came as an exhilarating jolt from out of time.

“Wynton and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives” repeats tonight at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center, 60th Street and Broadway; (212) 721-6500 or jalc.org

by Nate Chinen
Source: The New York Times

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  1. Funny how at times one can think that is carefully listening and comprehending everything about a composition but it isn’t really so.
    In the repertoire for celesta entry in Vienna Orchestra web there is a list of compositions I’ve heard a lot of times but never till now recognized the celesta role/sound on them. I’m going to “relisten” them one by one specially searching the celesta sound.
    Thanks for your lesson of day!.

    careba on Oct 6th, 2006 at 9:07pm

  2. Hi C. The celeste or celesta is a small keyboard instrument which sounds like soft bells.
    You can listen to an example under “keyboards” at bbc.co.uk/orchestras/guide/keyboards/ … Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet, Dance of Sugar Plum Fairy. For a description of the celesta and its construction check out http://www.vsl.co.at/en-us/70/3196/3204/3207/5748.vsl (Vienna symphony website in English!).

    gloria on Oct 6th, 2006 at 6:33pm

  3. I suspect its use on the Armstrong-Hines recording of “Basin Street Blues” is one of the first recorded examples. It produced sounds much like the ever present Fender Rhodes keyboards of the ’70’s. It can be heard on pop recordings of the ’40’s and ’50’s but pretty much went out with rock and roll except in the context of kids’ shows (I wouldn’t be surprised if it could be heard on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood).


    sam chell on Oct 6th, 2006 at 6:10pm

  4. Hi G. and F.,
    thanks for your info.
    I’ve never heard the “celeste” sound. Does it sounds similar to the “espineta”?. Is it in the same family of instruments?.
    Espineta, like clavichord, in the begining were used primarely for practicing, composing or playing at home or in small venues(Camera Music). For what I’ve found, earlier celeste’s use had a kind of the same purpose because of his soft sound.
    But still I don’t know how does it sounds. They say like bells, how is its mechanism for sounding?. Had it ever been played in jazz before?

    careba on Oct 6th, 2006 at 5:41am

  5. yes it was a celeste

    Frederique on Oct 6th, 2006 at 1:37am

  6. The “C” instrument played by J.Batiste, could it be a clavichord????? if so, I wished I could have heard that!.

    Clavichord hasn’t been very frequented in jazz. I have a beautiful recording (Pablo Records) of an O.Peterson © and J.Pass (G) version of Porgy and Bess. Beautiful indeed!!!. What a sound! that of the masters and of the clavichord as an instrument in itself.

    By the way, if confirmed the clavichord thing…this wouldn’t have been the first time Wynton incorporates instruments primarely of Reinassance, Baroque or Classical music to Jazz. Wasn’t it early this year when he wrote a part for Oboe in a concert of JALCJO???.

    careba on Oct 5th, 2006 at 8:49am

  7. Well Nate is close to needing another punch in the nose. How did he miss all the brilliant performances I saw/heard?! His descriptions of the music were just as dry as they could be. Jonathan played this other instrument, a small piano-like thing that had the sound of bells…Wynton called it something the started with the letter “C.” Anyway, a reviewer should mention such oddities. And no word about the clarinet?! We just don’t hear clarinet played and we certainly do not hear it played as brilliantly or as beautifully as we did during this performance.

    Nate must have fallen asleep, he must simply be overworked; or, he left early.


    Jurzy Girl on Sep 30th, 2006 at 10:25am