It goes without saying that Louis Armstrong is among the most important and influential figures in the history of American jazz (yes, there is jazz from other nations that varies from that of America). While many of the songs that he made famous were written by others, his renditions of those songs have gone on to join the ranks of the most timeless songs in the American songbook. Countless compilations and covers of those songs have seen the light of day since he first made the noted songs famous, too, including the latest compilation, A Gift To Pops. Released Oct. 15 by The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong All Stars through Verve Records, the 13-song (technically 12, since the last song is just a recording of Armstrong speaking on his view of life) record is a welcome addition to the library of any Louis Armstrong fan. One of the most notable of the covers featured in this collection comes late in its 53-minute run time in the form of ‘Just A Closer Walk With Thee.’ This rendition will be discussed shortly. The collective’s take of the lesser-known hit, ‘The Peanut Vendor’ is another notable addition to the record and will be discussed a little later. Also of note here is the group’s take on ‘A Kiss to Build A Dream On.’ It will also be examined later. Each noted song and rendition is key in its own way to the compilation’s presentation. When these noted songs are considered along with the rest of the record’s featured covers, the whole makes the record a welcome addition to the library of any Louis Armstrong fan.
Verve Records’ presentation of The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong All Stars’ new compilation record, A Gift to Pops is a presentation that will appeal to any jazz purist and to any fan of Armstrong’s work. That is because though it is essentially little more than a compilation record, it still offers some unique takes on the songs that Armstrong made so famous and timeless. One of the most notable of the collection’s featured covers is that of ‘Just A Closer Walk With Thee.’ The song’s original composer(s) is/are unknown to this day, though it is known that the song is linked back to pre-Civil War-era African-American churches as a gospel hymn. To that end, having it presented here with that distinct southern African-American gospel fashion, complete with organ, along with such a great New Orleans Dixieland style approach makes it such a unique composition in this case. Reginald Veal gets the nod on this engaging and entertaining rendition.
By comparison, the version that Armstrong made so famous opens with a much more dirge-like approach, which is thought to be how the original, earliest version was presented. Armstrong’s rich, gravelly vocals are just as controlled as a drummer keeps a steady beat on a bass drum and trombones and tuba join in to back him. This rendition is the polar opposite of that presented in the new compilation, and honestly, as good as Armstrong’s version is, the updated take featured in A Gift To Pops is arguably even better than that from Pops. Yes, that is a heck of a statement, but it is the case at least to this critic. The soulfulness from the take’s gospel opening is such a great contrast to the more celebratory Dixieland style and sound in the song’s second half in comparison to the full on melancholy approach of Armstrong’s take. It just gives audiences the best of both worlds.
The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong All Stars’ updated take of ‘Just A Closer Walk With Thee’ is a clearly notable rendition of the timeless hymn, and really builds on the positive nature of Armstrong’s take on the song in the best way possible. It is just one of the songs featured in this record that makes the set so interesting. The collective’s take on ‘The Peanut Vendor’ is another unique presentation. Originally composed by Moises Simons in 1930, Armstrong’s rendition is a subtle, flowing composition complete with castanets, Armstrong’s muted trumpet line, and guitar. Of course his equally unique vocal talents are also on full display at points in the song, too. The use of the noted instrumentation keeps Armstrong’s rendition relatively close to its source material. The only thing missing is the maracas, but they are replaced in Armstrong’s take by the castanets.
In the case of The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong All Stars’ take, the guitar line that is so prominent in the original song and in Armstrong’s take is replaced here by a bass line performed by Veal. The maracas are returned to the mix along with an unmated trumpet. A close listen also reveals what sounds like timbales and cymbal to add a little bit of extra flare to the mix. It even sounds like this arrangement, composed by Nicholas Payon (who also released his latest album last month), incorporates a pair of a-go-go bells for even more Latin “spice.” As with Armstrong’s rendition, the arrangement does work to stay as true as possible to it source material, but the added instrumentation really conjures even more so, thoughts of warm nights at the cafes that lined Havanna’s streets way back when. It is a nice updated take on a classic that can easily be considered lesser-known by many in the jazz community, and in turn a great introduction to the song for those who are less familiar with the song. It is just one more of the songs that shows what makes this compilation worth hearing. The collective’s take on ‘A Kiss to Build a Dream On’ is one more excellent example of why these covers are so engaging and entertaining.
Originally recorded by Oscar Hammerstein II with Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby and used in the 1951 crime noir movie, The Strip (which starred Mickey Rooney and Sally Forrest), it was performed by Armstrong for the movie’s soundtrack. The song was even nominated by the Academy for the “Best Original Song” Oscar® award. Everybody, even the most casual jazz fan, knows Armstrong’s relaxed rendition, what with its gentle piano line, brushes on the snare and equally relaxed trombone accents. That famous, sharp trumpet that Armstrong performs is arguably the most notable moment in his rendition as he hits those high notes. The soft vibrato that he incorporates as he holds certain notes adds even more to the whole. It all combines to just make the song so timeless and wonderful.
Meanwhile, the updated take featured here gives the song its own unique identity. In the case of this take, The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong All Stars give the song a welcome update that still incorporates the subtle drums but kicks them up a little. Pops’ vocals are replaced in this case by a rich saxophone line performed by Roderick Paulin. The piano line gets a special touch, too, as it is accompanied here by B-3 organ. Both keyboard lines, which are engaging and entertaining updates on the original keyboard line, are performed by Davell Crawford. Nicholas Payton has the honor of taking on Armstrong’s trumpet line, though Paulin gets the solo here. That aside, Payton (who also arranged this take on the song – and who also released his new solo record last month through Smoke Sessions Records) is still impressive in his subdued performance. The way in which Payton arranged the song really gives everybody so much chance to shine while still staying true to the song’s source material. The whole comes across as such a great bluesy composition that listeners can so easily imagine being played in such club, dim lighting and all, people relaxing, fully focused on the music. It is yet another wonderful addition to A Gift to Pops that shows in its own right, what makes this compilation successful. When it is considered along with the other songs examined here and with the rest of the record’s featured works, the whole makes A Gift to Pops a gift to his fans and to jazz fans alike.
The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong All Stars’ new collection of Armstrong standards is an impressive new set of songs from Pops. The renditions featured throughout the record take the songs made famous by Armstrong and give them a welcome update from one to the next. That is made clear through the examinations of the songs noted here. When those songs are considered along with the rest of the collection’s other songs, the whole makes A Gift to Pops a gift to Pops’ fans and to jazz fans alike.
A Gift to Pops is available now. More information on this and other titles from Verve Records is available at:
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