Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Louis Armstrong

  • Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: 1923-1934 [Columbia/Legacy, 1994] A+
  • 16 Most Requested Songs [Columbia/Legacy, 1994] A
  • An American Icon [Hip-O, 1998] A
  • The Complete Town Hall Concert 1947 [Fresh Sound, 2004] A

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: 1923-1934 [Columbia/Legacy, 1994]
I don't mean to start a parlor game, but does greatest artist of the 20th century mean anything to you? I mean, who else you got? Picasso? Joyce? Renoir? Elvis? So here's one $50 item you owe yourself. I doubt it could be winnowed much--expanded would be better (where's "I'm Not Rough"?), with four-plus hours an ideal introductory length. If some of it is less beatwise than a punk funkateer might hope, try to imagine how startling it sounded in an aural world that was still on the operetta standard, where John Philip Sousa ruled brass and Scott Joplin was jungle music. Then pay attention. Home in on Pops's trumpet solos--their strength, clarity, daring, ease, humor, swing, melodicism, and endless newness. Enjoy his irrepressible vocals without calling them comic relief--the comic is everywhere in this music. Get to know the brilliant originals. Hear how he takes over blues and hokum, pop classics and pop disposables without belittling his sources. Ask yourself whether high and low mean any damn thing at all. A+

16 Most Requested Songs [Columbia/Legacy, 1994]
With his innovations long since institutionalized, Armstrong's Ambassador of Jazz period is often accused of lost spark. Four songs on this budget set from the mid-'50s had been in his repertoire so long that they're also featured in the box, and you needn't back-to-back them to hear the difference--where earlier he was exploring his gifts and establishing his rights, here he's recreating his triumphs, revving set pieces into what has come to be understood as "Dixieland," preparing effects that no one on either side of the footlights doubts will be forthcoming. And forthcome they fucking well do. No man as strong as Louis Armstrong entertains out of contempt--he lives to give pleasure, and he's so confident in his love for this material that he can do anything he wants to it. "Rockin' Chair" and "That's My Desire" are as funny as death and sex, which he knows damn well they're about. "Black and Blue" isn't funny at all. A

An American Icon [Hip-O, 1998]
Put off my feed by a single godawful piano solo, I fretted that this post-WWII overview was too lax. Certainly he recorded many of these 60 tunes many times; in other versions, seven are on Columbia/Legacy's 16 Most Requested Songs, an utterly convincing budget-priced survey of Armstrong the Beloved, the Entertainer--the Icon. A few selections here are merely lovable and entertaining, not iconic. But having played all three discs many times--Louis is one artist the boy-group fan in the back seat will always settle for--I've yet to locate another moment I'd rather not hear. Armstrong is my favorite artist because he epitomizes what Gary Giddins's newly reissued Satchmo breaks down as the entertainer-as-artist/artist-as-entertainer: "He was as much himself rolling his eyes and mugging as he was playing the trumpet. His fans understood that, but intellectuals found the whole effect too damn complicated." A

The Complete Town Hall Concert 1947 [Fresh Sound, 2004]
Less than brilliantly recorded, though most '40s jazz boots are much worse, this May 12 experiment, featuring the template for the All-Stars combos he led for the rest of his life, is the Armstrong I play when I want the whole package. Quickly this mode gravitated toward the standard repertoire that dominates the albums I go to for late Louis: the American Icon set and 16 Most Requested Songs. But here the sell was a return to the format of his youth after years of mediocre big bands, so it begins with "Cornet Chop Suey," "Dear Old Southland," "Big Butter and Egg Man." Later there's newer stuff, though "Back o' Town Blues" and "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" are a long way from "Mack the Knife" and "Hello Dolly." Either way the committed, ebullient performances have something to prove. And as a bonus this is Armstrong's only recording with genre-hopping powerhouse Sid Catlett, who should have been his drummer forever but quit fast and died all too soon. A

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