By Leah Williams, London Jazz News
Launched in 2015, the Dot Time Records Legends series has so far given the world a whole range of incredible, unreleased music from greats such as Ella Fitzgerald, Ben Webster and Wolfgang Lackerschmid with Chet Baker. There have been four Louis Armstrong releases to date with the latest – Louis Armstrong: Live in Europe – out last month with a vinyl release coming on 13 December. Leah Williams had a chat with jazz historian and head of the Dot Times Legends series Jerry Roche to find out how the project has developed and why this latest release is so monumental:
LondonJazz News: How did the Legends series come about?
Jerry Roche: The series got started as a collaboration between myself and Jo Bickhardt, the founder of Dot Time Records. I’d been sourcing and releasing older recordings on my own label and then with Mosaic Records for a long time already so when Jo wanted to bring this element to Dot Time he asked me to come on board.
I just love digging through old recordings and the excitement of hearing a new arrangement that you know hasn’t been captured on any other release – there’s something so special about putting music out into the world that wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to be heard.
LJN: So why Louis Armstrong?
JR: I mean, you can’t have a Legends series without including Louis Armstrong. But mainly it was because of Ricky Riccardi (the director at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, NYC). Listen to him talk about Louis for ten minutes and it’s impossible not to get excited. He and I have worked on all the Armstrong releases together.
LJN: How did you decide which recordings to release?
JR: We knew we wanted to concentrate on recordings from the ’50s and ’60s. There’s a kind of accepted perception that Louis wasn’t at his best in this era. He was famous for calling the burgeoning bebop of the time ‘chop suey jazz’ and his style wasn’t in fashion I guess so he was thought of as somewhat old hat. But the idea that he wasn’t still at the top of his own game is total rubbish and we knew there were recordings out there that would really put that to bed.
LJN: Have there not been many recordings of his music over this era then?
JR: There are recordings out there for sure. But we were able to really cherry pick the ones that shone a light on Armstrong’s playing and showed his stunning musicality, expert showmanship and ferocious leadership.
LJN: Where did the recordings come from?
JR: Ricky and I spent hours – I couldn’t even tell you how many! – listening to recordings at the archive. There must be over a thousand hours of unreleased music just sitting there. It’s so exciting to hear things that you know aren’t readily available; there were plenty of goosebump moments when I knew I’d come across something really incredible.
LJN: This latest release concentrates on iconic concerts he did in Europe; why did you choose these?
JR: We always wanted to do a release of some of his European concerts. He had a strong connection to Europe and has an ongoing, extremely loyal fanbase here. These particular concerts were both so important in their own ways.
LJN: The first is from the first ever Nice International Jazz Festival in 1948?
JR: It was also really the first significant international jazz festival ever. These were Armstrong’s first performances in Europe after the war. It reintroduced the power of his live music to a thirsty audience and signalled the continuation of his role as a global jazz ambassador.
LJN: And the second is a gig he did in1952 in Berlin; tell us about that.
JR: This was a really significant performance for Louis personally. He’s well documented talking about how touched he was that so many people came out to see him, especially given the historical context of the time with the Berlin Wall and restricted movement; many audience members were potentially not even sure how they’d get home that night.
LJN: Is there something about live recordings that you find particularly exciting?
JR: Oh yeah, you can’t beat the authenticity and rawness of a live recording. Every reaction from the crowd and even extraneous sound adds something to the listening experience; you can close your eyes and almost feel like you’re there. And at these particular gigs both the musicians and the audience were particularly ebullient and we as listeners get to ride the energetic waves with them.
LJN: Are there any real standout tracks for you on this release?
JR: There are so many incredible moments throughout; his fierce improvising on Panama and demon-like scatting on Them There Eyes from the Nice concert are just a couple of examples. But if I had to pick just one it would be The Bucket’s Got a Hole in It in Berlin, which Louis himself said afterwards was an incredible moment when the initially somewhat reserved audience fully relaxed and gave themselves over to the music, creating an electric atmosphere that’s clear to hear on the recording.
LJN: So do you get to hear the full concerts on these recordings?
JR: Not quite. We obviously have to cut some things out, especially for the vinyl which has its own limitations. Also, no-one would believe it was actually real if they heard the two full minutes of people screaming and clapping after each track; they’d think we were feeding them BS!
LJN: How far do you go when mastering the original recordings and improving sound quality?
JR: We try to keep it as historically accurate as possible. You could always clean the sound up more but you’d sacrifice something else for that so it’s about finding the right balance. We’d rather keep some surface noise for the real, authentic sound of what happened.
LJN: The Berlin concert is also being released on vinyl on 13 December?
JR: Yes, this concert just screamed to be on vinyl. We’ve also included two additional bonus tracks on it and the product itself is really beautiful. We managed to get the original programme from the concert and have used that as the cover artwork so it’s got a really distinctive look.
LJN: What’s next?
JR: We’ll be releasing the Nice concert on vinyl next spring hopefully and are also looking to get out some of Armstrong’s New Orleans recordings next year to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his passing. We’ve also got the second Wolfgang Lackerschmid and Chet Baker release, a quintet this time; there’s something truly extraordinary about their combination of vibes and trumpet. (pp)