Imitating Armstrong As a Form Of Praise

The two programs of Louis Armstrong’s music on Saturday and Monday nights, presented by Jazz at Lincoln Center as part of its series The Armstrong Continuum, clearly represented an enormous amount of work. Nearly 40 pieces were played, with Monday night’s program at Avery Fisher Hall digging deep into Armstrong’s rarely performed orchestral works and Saturday’s at Alice Tully Hall working through the revolutionary early works of Armstrong and King Oliver, among others. It is difficult music, and not just for Armstrong’s trumpet parts; the pre-swing rhythms are hard to make come alive, and the orchestral works, even the barest ones, were often complicated by show-biz virtuosity.

But something happened in Lincoln Center’s pursuit of Armstrong: he appeared, but only in the form of a shadow, and his vague presence pointed out a great flaw in the whole repertorial endeavor. While it is clear that the music of certain historical figures — Duke Ellington, for example — is ideal for the modern concert hall, depending mainly on the accurate reproduction of music found on records or in scores, the process falls short for others.

And the music of Louis Armstrong is a perfect example because it depends, it turns out, on Armstrong’s own charismatic presence. Armstrong left behind his own startlingly beautiful and difficult trumpet solos, but not much of a band sound or an orchestral legacy to reproduce. What he left behind was an improvisatory conception nearly as broad as 20th-century music itself, making it a tough prospect for a two-hour show. And the power of his incandescent personality is also beyond our ability to recreate.

Perhaps, then, it’s not so strange that the high point of the two nights came from the performance least faithful to Armstrong, a series of improvisations by the fluegelhornist Clark Terry. For hours the trumpeters Wynton Marsalis, Nicholas Payton, Willie Singleton and Jon Faddis had been wrestling with Armstrong’s aggressive and athletic side, the Olympian side that demands endurance for screaming high notes and the bravura imagination that conceived of it all.

Then along came Mr. Terry, who quietly and wistfully improvised and sang on “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal, You,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ‘ and “Basin Street Blues,” delivering gemlike solos that owed much to Armstrong but didn’t try to ape his style. And even though he quoted a few Armstrong phrases along the way, while avoiding any athleticism, Mr. Terry didn’t restrict himself to a style. Nor did he restrict himself emotionally. His gentle improvisations slaughtered the competition.

And there was competition. The first night’s music, featuring small-group performances, arrived with a few solos by Mr. Payton that caught the tone of Armstrong perfectly, improvisations bristling with rhythmic security. And every time Mr. Marsalis picked up his horn, the intensity level on the bandstand increased; his solos, packed with ideas and Armstrong’s swinging drive, changed the nature of the music.

But the first night’s music seemed erratic, and at times underrehearsed. The second night was better technically, as if more time had been spent on the ensemble section, although on several pieces, including “Tiger Rag,” the orchestra wasn’t playing in tune. The orchestral music isn’t much to mull over, and Mr. Armstrong’s easy way with novelties, so incredible on record, defeated the combined efforts of the orchestra along with the singers Jon Hendricks and Thais Clark.

The most telling aspect of the performance came when, on a few pieces — “Chinatown, My Chinatown,” “I Got a Right to Sing the Blues” and “Sweethearts on Parade” — Mr. Faddis reproduced Armstrong’s bravura improvisations, making them ring with repeated high notes and seemingly simple riffing. But the exertion showed, and all the performances did was conjure up not Armstrong himself, but his recordings. In the end, Armstrong the giant beat a well-intentioned and serious attempt to come to terms with his work, which ultimately is no surprise.

by Peter Watrous
Source: New York Times

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