Luis Russell At The Swing Cats Ball
Release date: March 3, 2023
Label: Dot Time Records
At The Swing Cats Ball Newly Discovered Recordings From The Closet – Vol. 1 – 1938-1940 is a compendium of recordings of legendary early jazz pioneer Luis Russell. The latest entry in the Dot Time Records Legends series, this 20-track treasure trove of jazz history provides multiple lenses through which to view Russell’s creative output – including solo stride piano performances and newfound recordings of Russell’s stellar performances with Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra and the Luis Russell Orchestra.
At The Swing Cats Ball is a window to the past, but it is so much more than an artifact of a bygone era. Akin to the discovery of sketches from a master painter, the collection of recordings provides a living document chronicling the birth of America’s only art-form, recorded by and for one of its architects. True to the album’s title, Luis Russell’s personal collections of recordings of his orchestra were indeed found in his closet within the home of a former working musician.
What makes this discovery revelatory is the source, Luis Russell (born Panama Aug 5, 1902, died New York City Dec 11, 1963). A pioneer of early jazz, Russell was an orchestra leader, arranger, composer and pianist of the first order of magnitude. The recordings, which span a two year period from 1938 through 1940, are primarily radio airchecks, captured by a single wire and cut directly onto an aluminum or shellac disc. During this period, Luis and his orchestra were doing double duty, serving as Louis Armstrong’s orchestra on stage and on recordings for the Decca label, while also touring and performing as Luis Russell Orchestra without Armstrong.
Russell wanted to hear how his orchestra sounded. The selections he chose to capture from live gigs were, with a few exceptions, songs that he never recorded or released in studio versions. We are able, many decades later, to be a “fly on the wall” at his gigs. We hear material the orchestra leader wanted as a tool for fine tuning his approach. The recordings were transferred by sound engineer, Doug Pomeroy, the preeminent expert at historical audio restoration. Doug coaxed as much music as possible, using specialized styluses of varied sizes, caressing each side of every groove. A single source capturing a 16-piece orchestra on one channel, without the ability to balance or mix, followed by years of wear, was the grist for Doug Pomeroy’s mill. The heavy wear on the source material is an indication that Russell listened to the recordings repeatedly, endlessly revising his arrangements to attain the sound that he strived for, setting the stage for the following decade of his fruitful creative output.
The first portion of the collection, tracks 1 – 9, transports listeners to February 1938 at Grand Terrace Ballroom in Chicago. At the height of their abilities and renown, Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra swing through a selection of standards and unusual covers. Included are compositions by Chappie Willet (“Blue Rhythm Fantasy”) and Mary Lou Williams (“Riffs – Dunkin’ A Donut”), which they never recorded in studio versions, giving us added insight into the depth and breadth of one of the greatest orchestras of the Swing Era, directed by Luis Russell. The performances are brimming with the soulfulness, sophistication and jubilance that only Armstrong and Russell can deliver. Tracks 10 – 14 feature five particularly electrifying performances by the Luis Russell Orchestra without Armstrong, including Russell’s own “At The Swing Cats Ball”. Tracks 15 – 16 are two WABC radio recordings from December 17, 1939 and February 25, 1940 respectively, featuring vocalist Sonny Woods. Tracks 17 – 20 feature solo stride piano performances of Russell, demonstrating the pianist’s stunning facility on his instrument and finely-tuned melodicism, a hitherto unknown side of his artistry.
Over seventy years after its initial recording, the music shines through as a fascinating document; rarities curated by the leader of one of the greatest orchestras in the history of jazz, including a lineup of legendary, stellar musicians, performing at the peak of their powers.
BEBOP SPOKEN HERE
"A fascinating collection of undiscovered 1938/40 airchecks by the Luis Russell Orchestra featuring Louis Armstrong and, to a lesser extent, Henry 'Red' Allen." Read the complete review here.
"..there are four examples of Luis Russell’s solo stride piano, which seems to me most notable for the way he speeds up the already uptempo numbers." Read the review here.
THE JAZZ RAG
“The Dot Time recordings show the relationship between the band and the soloist at its best..” Read the full article in the Winter 2023 issue of The Jazz Rag.
THE SYNCOPATED TIMES
"The 16-piece orchestra Russell led in 1938 grew out of his classic eight-to-eleven man orchestra of 1930 and retains both the big names and their unique style of swing." Read the review here.
"..the famed soloists are fine, and the band's performances are a joy to hear." Read the review here.
MAKING A SCENE
"Eighty years later we can bask in the power, joy, and humor that comes through these recordings, as these legendary orchestras and musicians were vital in the development of jazz." Read the review here.
LONDON JAZZ NEWS
“Russell has been overlooked but is worth knowing better.” Read the review here.
NEW JERSEY JAZZ SOCIETY
"It is a treat to hear this terrific band in live performance, especially the moments featuring Satchmo’s playing."
THE SYNCOPATED TIMES
“While these performances are brief (none are over two minutes) and were worked out in advance, they show that Russell was a talented stride pianist who could really play." Read the review here.
"Paul Kahn is quite an authority on Luis Russell's life, first investigating Luis when first dating Cat (they're now married), and later completing his Master’s dissertation on Luis Russell at Rutgers University. Together, their insight is a unique look into the treasure trove that was Luis Russell." Read the complete interview here.
THE NEW YORK SUN
“These are amazing examples of what great musicians can do in moments when history isn’t looking." Read the piece here.
"Filled with examples of vintage material that's generally accessible and irrepressible, this Volume 1 is a worthy excavation." Review here.