Luis Russell: At The Swing Cats Ball, Volume 1

Newly found airshots have solos from such as Louis Armstrong, Red Allen and J.C. Higginbotham and show what a good stride pianist Russell was


A remarkable discovery: these private recordings, owned by Luis Russell himself, are primarily radio airchecks and were probably used by Russell for evaluation as potential recording material. At the time his orchestra was doing double duty both as Louis Armstrong’s Orchestra in major bookings and Decca recordings whilst also touring and performing as the Luis Russell Orchestra without Louis. (Armstrong was a longstanding associate who had taken over nominal leadership of Russell’s orchestra in 1935.)

The first set of tunes on the CD feature Armstrong as leader in sessions broadcast from the Grand Terrace Ballroom in Chicago in February 1938. Louis is vocally appreciative of the exciting riff-based arrangements, which appealed to the dancers, and the solos of the band’s stars – Red Allen, J.C. Higginbotham, Charlie Holmes and Albert Nicholas. Less prominent than usual instrumentally he nevertheless stamps his mark unmistakably with superb solos in Jammin’ (from Tommy Dorsey’s repertoire) Them There Eyes and I’ve Got A Heart Full Of Rhythm.

The second set on the CD features miscellaneous live sessions with Russell’s orchestra. Ol’ Man River, played at breakneck tempo, features the passionately histrionic high-tenor voice of Sonny Woods. Midge Williams swings brightly  in Heebie Jeebies, and the orchestra sounds in top form on At The Swing Cats Ball, Algiers Stomp and (probably, but not titled) Hot Bricks. Red Allen and J.C. Higginbotham impress in fiery solos.

Sonny Woods is back next, with a couple of sentimental song medleys on which Armstrong is little involved. The biggest surprise of the CD is the final set of short solo stride-piano showpieces, imbued with technical subtlety and vintage charm, composed by Willie “The Lion ” Smith and Luckey Roberts. Though a famous and respected bandleader and arranger, Luis, a modest and self effacing man, never attracted much attention as a pianist in his highly competitive world. These unreleased recordings, probably made for personal study, prove his unflaunted exceptional expertise in the stride idiom.

Never intended for issue, and sometimes incomplete, these recordings of a large orchestra were captured by a single wire and cut into a glass or shellac disc, now well worn. Restoration expert Doug Pomeroy faced an uphill task. He has done an excellent job; don’t expect studio quality, but the listenable standard of restoration achieved is due to painstaking specialist care.

This release will be of great interest to collectors and jazz historians. The informative notes were written by Paul Kahn, Russell’s son-in-law. Further “newly discovered recordings from the closet”, including unissued studio tracks and radio airchecks by Russell are promised in the forthcoming Vol. 2 (1945-47).

(1) Jammin’; After You’ve Gone; Them There eyes; Blue Rhythm Fantasy; I’ve Got A  Heart Full Of Rhythm; Riffs (Dunkin’ A Donut), Parts 1 and 2; Mr Ghost Goes ToTown, Parts 1 and 2; (2) Ol’ Man River; Heebie Jeebies; At The Swing Cats Ball; Algiers Stomp; Hot Bricks (prob.); (3) Melancholy Lullaby/Lilacs In The Rain; Leanin’ On The Ole Top Rail/Gotta Get Home; (4) Rippling Waters; Fussin’; Echo Of Spring; Moonlight Cocktail (51.12)
(1) Louis Armstrong Orch. Live broadcast. Presumed personnel: Armstrong (t, v); Shelton Hemphill, Louis Bacon, Henry “Red” Allen (t); Wilbur De Paris, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham (tb); Pete Clarke, Charlie Holmes (as); Albert Nicholas, Bingie Madison (cl, ts); Luis Russell (p); Lee Blair (g); Pops Foster (b); Paul Barbarin (d). Grand Terrace Ballroom, Chicago, February 1938.
(2) Luis Russell Orch. Live dates. Presumed personnel as (1) except omit Armstrong. Louis Bacon or Otis Johnson (t), Paul Barbarin or Sid Catlett (d), and Rupert Cole (as) replaces Pete Clarke. Location and dates unknown.
(3) Louis Armstrong Orch. Live broadcast, featuring Sonny Woods (v). Presumed personnel as (1) except Bernard Flood (t) replaces Louis Bacon, Rupert Cole (cl, as) replaces Pete Clarke, and Sidney Catlett (d) replaces Paul Barbarin. Add Joe Garland (ts, bar). 17 December 1939 and 25 February 1940.
(4) Russell (p). 28 February 1940.
Dot Time DT8022