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LOUIS DESERVES BETTER
on 28 August 2011
Because of Amazon's confusing practice of cross-posting to what it calls "product groups", let me make it clear that this review relates solely to the Sony BMG 2008 4-CD set, with the green cover. This is a reissue of the first recordings Louis Armstrong made under his own name, plus eleven where his studio group provided the accompaniment to other vocalists. It runs from November 1925 to March 1929, and comprises 77 tracks, one a duplicate.
It's standard practice for such compilations to be ordered chronologically, not just for ease of reference, but also because the listener can trace the artistic development. It's also reasonable to expect a detailed tracklist, and a commentary on the individual recordings. This is the normal approach, which CBS followed in 1988/9, when producing several volumes in their Jazz Masterpieces series. Each volume was accompanied by a booklet which included a discography, setting out titles, personnel, recording dates, matrix nos. and the catalogue number of the original release, accompanied by John Chilton's informed commentary on the recordings.
The first problem with this set is that the chronology is all over the place. In date order, Disc One begins in November 1925 and concludes in November 1926, followed by Disc Three (to track 12, May 1927). We then revert to Disc Two which starts at September 1927, and runs to that December (track 9). Track 10 features a Butterbeans & Susie item from June 1926, and is followed by four Hociel Thomas vocals accompanied by the Hot 4, which date from November 1925. Disc Two concludes with an alternative Cornet Chop Suey (first featured as track 7 0n Disc One). After which the end of Disc Three features Lillie Delk Christian backed by the Hot Four on four numbers recorded on 26th June 1928, and finally Disc Four picks up from the following day and finishes in March 1929.
Such anachronistic treatment would be less of a problem if there were an accompanying booklet to act as a guide, but the gatefold insert comprises a mere eight pages (four backed up). One reproduces the cover and another publicises other releases in the series, and the tracklists, which are confined solely to titles and composers, take up just two pages. The reverse contains a meagre liner note, which deals quite peremptorily with the running order, and touches very briefly on the other vocalists' recordings.
As intimated earlier, two versions of "Cornet Chop Suey", an acoustic recording dating from February 1926, have been included. We're advised that the first version (which clocks in at 2:53) is in the key of F, but it sounds too fast. The second version (which clocks in at 3:13) is said to be in the key E flat ("which many scholars believe must be the likeliest key in which this was played"), but to my unscholarly ears it sounds too slow. The version as issued in the Columbia Jazz Masterworks series clocks in at 3:04, so I can't help feeling somewhat suspicious about the claim that Disc 2 contains the definitive version.
For all of those reasons I can't share the general euphoria that's been generated by this reissue, and my two star rating is directed not at the music, but at the shoddy manner in which it has been presented.