Louis Armstrong, Hot Fives And Sevens

James Lincoln Collier

By James Lincoln Collier

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Louis Armstrong was the first great instrumentalist in jazz, more influential than any with the possible exception of Charlie Parker. His great inventiveness; his rich, warm sound; his mastery of his instrument; and his emotional range left other musicians in awe. His example changed jazz from an ensemble music to a vehicle for the improvising soloist, which it remains today.

Essential recordings from jazz’s most influential figure

The so-called Hot Fives and Sevens series, cut between 1925 and 1928, were the first under his name, and brought him to the attention of the jazz world. They used varied personnel, and were issued under several names. It was a recording group only &#8212 the musicians made their livings working in Chicago's nightclubs, dancehalls and theatres. As the series progresses, we can see Armstrong coming more and more to the front: the first cuts were in the New Orleans ensemble style; by the last cuts, the other musicians were merely backing Armstrong's vocals and astonishing trumpet solos. The recordings in this series are essential listening for any serious jazz fan, and lie at the heart of any jazz collection, no matter how small.

The recordings on Volume One are still in the New Orleans ensemble style. However, the stop-time solo on "Cornet Chop Suey," where the band punctuates occasionally while Armstrong improvises freely, brought the cornetist instant fame in the jazz world. Trumpeters today still learn this solo note-for-note.

By Volume Two, recorded in 1927, Armstrong was increasingly coming to the fore. The stop-time solo on "Potato Head Blues" was widely copied. "Struttin 'with Some Barbecue" became a perennial feature for Armstrong. Most impressive is the pairing of "Hotter than That" and "Savoy Blues," the first boiling hot, the second quietly tender, suggesting the greatness of Armstrong's emotional repertory.

By the 1928 recordings showcased on Volume Three, this was no longer a New Orleans ensemble. The masterpiece is "West End Blues," one of the finest jazz recordings ever made, and according to some, the greatest of all. It begins with a majestic cadenza which has never been equaled, and develops into a dramatic whole &#8212 an exceedingly rare feat in jazz.

he cuts on volume four do not belong to the Hot Five series. They were made with bigger groups playing from arrangements, in line with the new fashion for hot dance orchestras. Armstrong's management was trying now to turn him into a popular entertainer featuring his singing of hit songs as much as his trumpet work, as "Ain't Misbehavin'" suggests.