I have transcribed Louis Armstrong’s playing on two Hot 7 recordings from May 1927 – ‘Wild Man Blues’, and ‘Potato Head Blues’.
I have transcribed Louis’ playing on the whole recording of each of these as it is also interesting to see what he plays in the ensemble passages. The other musicians on both recordings are Johnny Dodds (clt), John Thomas (tbn), Lil Armstrong (pno), Johnny St Cyr (gtr/bjo), Pete Briggs (tba) and Baby Dodds (dr). The addition of a tuba playing the bass line (generally on beats 1 and 3) really adds something to the ensemble, while Baby Dodds on drums doesn’t really add much except for the classic cymbal hit on beat 4 of the last bar. However, these two recordings are all about Louis, his virtuosity shining through and dominating in both tunes.
‘Wild Man Blues’ opens with a brief 8 bar ensemble passage, before Louis takes over with his solo. Throughout the solo (and Johnny Dodds’ clarinet solo after) the rhythm section play accompanying chords for two bars and then drop out leaving the soloist on their own for two bars. Louis switches seamlessly between a bluesy triplet feel and a faster double time feel (represented by the semiquavers in the transcription), gliding through different registers with ease. Despite the title, the form is not a 12 bar blues, but much of Louis’ playing has a bluesy sound to it (for example, the use of the ‘blue note’ C# in bars 14 and 26). Following Dodds’ clarinet solo an even briefer 4 bar ensemble passage ends the piece.
‘Potato Head Blues’ is also not a 12 bar blues and has a classic Dixieland feel to it. The opening melody is performed by Louis with the clarinet and trombone improvising counter melodies, up to bar 31 where a 2 bar trumpet break leads to a restrained and melodic 16 bar solo from Louis over a new set of chord changes. Dodds then solos over the chords of the initial 32 bar section, before a 4 bar banjo break sets up an explosive solo from Louis over stop time rhythmic accompaniment – this time, a chord played on the first beat of every other bar. This solo is regarded as a classic, and rightly so – Louis plays some beautifully melodic phrases coupled with exciting rhythmic ideas and complete control over his instrument. Then after 32 bars the rest of the ensemble steam in again and Louis powerfully leads everyone home in the final 16 bar section.
A note about the chord symbols in the transcriptions – I have tried to write the actual chords played on the recordings as accurately as possible, although in some cases there is some ambiguity when, for example, different musicians play different chords (for example, bar 25 of ‘Potato Head Blues’ where Louis outlines a concert G7 chord the note played by the tuba is a B flat). The chord symbols are approximations of what I think I hear going on which is why they might differ from chorus to chorus. One place I had a real problem was bar 126 where there doesn’t really seem to be a consensus amongst the musicians as to what chord they are playing – in the corresponding bar of the first section it sounds like a concert E7 chord so I have put this again in brackets.
I am starting to get an idea of some of the key elements of Louis’ playing. Here is a preliminary list (I will be going into more detail in future):
- SOUND – what an incredible sound, and an absolutely ridiculous vibrato! I personally can’t get a vibrato anywhere near that, but it is coming along….
- Rhythm – Louis generates rhythmic interest and propulsion from the juxtaposition of short and long notes, as well as syncopation. His short notes are very short, and the long notes often tinged with vibrato (something Woody Shaw also often does).
- Generally higher use of arpeggios rather than scalic ideas
- Common use of rips up to high notes