April 18, 2013

The Beautiful American

My favorite from the Ellington/Armstrong sessions, "The Beautiful American" is the only new composition, and it's really unique.  The Allmusic commenter gets it exactly right:
[A] marvelously modern exercise composed on the spot by Ellington that leaves one with the curious impression that Armstrong has just finished sitting in with Charles Mingus. 
Not only that, though.  There was a bit of separation in the 50s between jazz players who dug bop and those who didn't.  This collection of pieces by Basie sidemen is called "Cool Too", suggesting how some of the traditional players felt as the new language passed them by.

Ellington had no problem keeping up of course, there was probably no musical environment in which he felt out of place.  But Armstrong...I'll bet Armstrong did have a bit of "Cool Too" anxiety, even though he was a big star.  In 1961, when "The Beautiful American" was recorded, many viewed him more as relic than relevant artist.  On many of the other cuts from these sessions, Armstrong reinforces the stereotype, staying in his comfort zone, singing standards in a schmaltzy style, although the music is always impeccably well-played.

Armstrong doesn't sing on "The Beautiful American", he just plays horn.  His solo starting at 1:09 is a masterful, succint, articulate, passionate musical statement.  It would be an ornament to any great performance of the era, and this song would be fine with only that much from him.  But I think I hear a bit of "Cool Too" when, pushed by the intensity of Bigard's clarinet, he re-enters (at 2:30) with murder in his heart and plays the fuck out of the motherfucking trumpet like no other motherfucker has ever been able to play, and just as suddenly, thirteen seconds later, gets the fuck off, peace out.  There's drum, a bass, a piano, a trombone, and a clarinet playing too, but who cares.

You don't hear it?  Turn it up, play it again.  Keep turning it up until you hear it.

If you know someone who plays trumpet, ask them to get out their horn and play that bit for you, just like that.

I could listen to it all day.



Post a Comment

<< Home