The A-list ensemble The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong All Stars will release their tribute album to the great musician, A Gift To Pops, on October 15 via Verve Records. It celebrates the continuing influence and undying legacy of the jazz giant and storied entertainer, 50 years after his death in 1971, with special guests including Wynton Marsalis and Common.
The group is comprised largely of stellar Crescent City musicians, who have inventively re-envisioned music associated with the trumpeter and vocalist during his five-decade career. A Gift To Pops includes new arrangements and performances of tunes ranging from “The Peanut Vendor” (recorded by “Satchmo” in 1930) to his late-period No.1 “What a Wonderful World,” the most successful recording of his career).
“We decided to make a recording that captures the essence of Pops,” says co-producer and band member Wycliffe Gordon. “We wanted to perform the music the way he might have played it if he were still alive. We all had ideas for how to pull this off, by including songs influenced by gospel, the blues, the traditional brass band sounds, popular music and rap.”
Impresario George Wein writes in the liner notes for the album: “With this recording, this music of Louis Armstrong demonstrates how he created the language of jazz and influenced all the music that followed – from swing to bebop and even to rap, as demonstrated by Common. But there’s one thing for sure: This band and record demonstrate that there was nothing common about Louis Armstrong.”
The project’s origins came in 2018 under the auspices of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation and via the recommendation of its executive director Jackie Harris. The further goal was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the New York organization founded in 1969 by Armstrong and his wife Lucille “to give back to the world some of the goodness he received.” The new release missed that landmark because of the pandemic and the fact that some contribuitng artists were living in different cities and recording in different studios.
Putting signatures on ‘Satchmo’
“We wanted to make this recording of the major 20th century artist who instructs and intersects with artists of the 21st century,” says Harris. “All the musicians we asked to participate, even Wynton and Common, were honored to be a part of this. Each artist had a say on the music. We allowed all the musicians to put their own signatures on the songs.”
Nicholas Payton, who arranged seven of the songs, stars on trumpet throughout, including on his own arrangements such as the swinging “Strutting with Some Barbeque,” the lyrical and bluesy “A Kiss to Dream On,” and the playful “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead.” The latter rendition features vocals by Wycliffe Gordon, drummer Herlin Riley ,and bassist Reginald Veal.
Payton takes lead vocals on his modern arrangement of Fats Waller’s “Black and Blue,” with its theme of racial consciousness and prejudice, with Common delivering his rap poetry in such lines as “Went through black and blue for the bright day,” and “My school of thought is black openness/To define and redefine what the culture is.”
Drawing young people to Pops
“Common added a different spin to the tune,” notes Gordon. “It seemed like things we had talked about as a country had changed, but they didn’t, which is why this is important.” Adds Harris: “We’re hoping Common will draw young people into Louis Armstrong. We’re out to make changes.”
Gordon also arranges “Up a Lazy River,” with features his and Riley’s vocals; Veal’s “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” gospel hymn; pianist Davell Crawford’s bluesy “Rockin’ Chair” by Hoagy Carmichael; and Riley’s percussive festive take on “The Peanut Vendor,” on which Marsalis takes an extended solo.
“Louis Armstrong’s singing, playing and his interpretations illuminate timeless human fundamentals,” says Marsalis. “His grace, eloquence, intelligence and naturalness are still showing us how to play and what playing means. Rightfully beloved across the world, he embodied what is best about America. In these trying times, his music and memory are the perfect inspiration for us to rise up and be the very best of ourselves as artists, citizens and as people.”
The band also features trumpeters Ashlin Parker and Wendell Brunious, tenor saxophonist Roderick Paulin, pianist Courtney Bryan, banjo player Don Vappie, vocalists Niki Haris and Menia Chester. Guitarist Derwin “Big D” Perkins makes a guest cameo appearance on “Black and Blue.”
A surprise extra from Louis
Armstrong himself bookends the CD version of the album, which opens with Pops and his sextet’s “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” recorded in 1964 in Sparks, Nevada. The recording was discovered on a tape in Louis’ personal collection only a couple of years ago, and is now part of the Louis Armstrong House Museum. The album closes with a short, taped excerpt of him speaking of his “Philosophy of Life.”
Wein observes in his liner notes: “After listening to A Gift to Pops performed by The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong All Stars and produced collectively by Wycliffe Gordon, Jackie Harris, and Nicholas Payton, I am happy to advise the true Louis Armstrong fan that his music is alive and well with this fascinating group of New Orleans musicians.”