“Floating Above the Beat”
Terry Teachout is the drama critic for The Wall Street Journal and the chief culture critic for Commentary magazine. His writings on theater, music, and the arts have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and National Review. His most recent book, "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), was published in December 2009. Teachout is also the librettist for The Letter (composer Paul Moravec), an operatic version of Somerset Maugham's 1927 play, which was commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera in 2006 and premiered there in 2009.
Question: Is there a definitive Louis Armstrong masterpiece?\r\n
Terry Teachout: Well, a man who made recordings from 1923 to 1971 is not going to have a single definitive masterpiece. There are records that I especially like. There's a list of 30 of them in my book. The Armstrong record that I personally like the most, is a recording of a song by Harold Arlen called, "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues" that he made with his big band in 1933. I love this record for a lot of reasons. One is, it started with his speaking voice. He introduces the record. So, suddenly it's like he is reaching out and coming to you. Then he sings a wonderful vocal on this great Harold Arlen tune. And then, he takes a solo. And most of Armstrong's solos tended to stick pretty close to the melody because that's what he thought you should do as a Jazz musician. But for some reason, when he was playing this song, it's like he let go of the tether and suddenly he's playing this beautiful high, almost abstract line that’s floating above the beat. In my book, I compare it to the way that a 19th century operatic tenor might have sang an Aria because he's just completely let loose of the background and he's making this magic sort of flying above the staff. Then he comes back down to earth and takes you out with the melody. It's serene, it's incredibly lyrical, but it also has this quality of abstraction that I find fascinating. That has always been the Armstrong record that has had a special meaning for me.\r\n
Most people who know a lot about Armstrong put that high on the list of masterpieces. That happens to be my favorite.
Recorded on November 17, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen
Critic Terry Teachout describes the unrestrained, abstract magic of his favorite Louis Armstrong recording.
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