Album reviews

Luis Russell – ‘At the Swing Cats Ball, Vol.1’ (rec. 1938-40)

Luis RussellAt the Swing Cats Ball, Vol.1

(Dot Time Records DT8022Album review by Len Weinreich)

Interested in time travel? While dancers in Chicago were digging this music, people in Britain were digging air raid shelters. Interested in eavesdropping? Listening to this album is like overhearing to a private conversation. And that’s because the majority of tracks are live broadcasts from clubs, recorded onto aluminium or shellac discs at the radio station but never intended for commercial release. All were requested by bandleader Luis Russell to monitor the quality of his band’s performance. All the evidence points to their being well-used until they were redundant. Then overlooked, forgotten and lost.

Not yet a subscriber of our Wednesday Breakfast Headlines?
Join the mailing list for a weekly roundup of Jazz News.


However, recently discovered in that mythical closet where elderly jazz recordings rest under a thick blanket of dust, hearing them again is our privilege (as is our privilege that the music on the well-worn discs was restored and transferred by the sonic wizard of the stylus, exceptional sound engineer Doug Pomeroy,).

Luis Russell was born in Panama in 1902. His dad was a music teacher and young Luis was a prodigy, rapidly picking up guitar, piano and violin. He also picked up a $3,000 lottery bonanza, prompting him to up sticks and emigrate to New Orleans, Louisiana, eventually following the enticing road to Chicago in 1925 to work with King Oliver’s band. Next stop, New York City where, in 1929, he formed his own orchestra with stellar Oliver alumni. It was such a top-notch band that, when uber-maestro Louis Armstrong returned to the U.S. after cutting a swathe through Europe in 1935, he embraced the Russell organisation and employed it as his backing outfit.

In 1938, America was on the dance floor. Big bands were such big business that they rescued the U. S. recording industry from near-bankruptcy. In a cut-throat arena, Russell maintained the band’s edge by hiring the best Afro-American arranging talent including Chappie Willet, Mary Lou Williams and Maceo Pinkard.

This album displays three facets of Russell’s work. First, playing under the title: ‘Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra’; second, as the Luis Russell Orchestra itself and third, Russell himself as solo stride pianist.

The first nine tracks feature Louis Armstrong performing at the Grand Terrace in Chicago and are included courtesy of the arch-criminal owner, Prince of Prohibition, murderous mobster Al Capone. The album starts with excerpts from ‘Sleepy Time Down South’, Armstrong’s familiar theme, fully furnished with Guy Lombardo-type syrupy saxes and peppered with the superstar’s gravelly grunts before launching into Sam Coslow’s Jammin’, previously a success for Tommy Dorsey. Russell’s high calibre soloists are on show: the fluent J. C. Higginbotham on trombone and the fleet Albert Nicholas on clarinet, preceding Armstrong’s trumpet tour-de-force that effortlessly melds faultless phrasing, limitless warmth, endless invention and unremitting swing. Creamer and Layton’s After You’ve Gone provides flashes of superb alto saxophone from the unfairly neglected Charlie Holmes. Armstrong rips through Them There Eyes, written by Doris Tauber, Maceo Pinkard and William Tracy, interposing subtly altered bugle calls and an almost surreal vocal before concluding with an almost operatic finale.

Blue Rhythm Fantasy by Chappie Willet and Teddy Hill finds Armstrong playing impossible games with accents around the beat (trenchantly supplied by fellow New Orleans’ compatriots ‘Pops’ Foster on bass and Paul Barbarin on drums) and executing aerial acrobatic feats with no more than two notes. His own song, I’ve Got A Heart Full Of Rhythm is essentially self-descriptive (again, superb drumming from Barbarin), each precise trumpet phrase a concentrated work of art. The brilliant, though under-appreciated, Mary Lou Williams wrote and arranged Riffs (Dunkin’ A Donut) and we hear the fiery trumpet of Henry ‘Red’ Allen, loudly encouraged by Armstrong followed by J. C. Higginbotham’s laid-back trombone. On the two surviving precious fragments of Mister Ghost Goes To Town, a bouncy item by Hudson, Mills and Parish, the band, as it is throughout the album, is never less than crisp, disciplined and swinging.

After the Grand Terrace feast we hear a few tracks of the Russell band without the monumental Armstrong. Kern and Hammerstein’s Ol’ Man River introduces us to the vocal styling of Sonny Woods. A singer unfamiliar to these ears, Woods seems to be the lovechild of Ethel Merman and Cab Calloway, but with less restraint on his vibrato. However, on the next track, On Boyd Akins’ Heebie Jeebies Blues, we’re given the rare opportunity of hearing Midge Williams, a fine singer whose career was sadly short-lived. Russell and Campbell’s At The Swing Cats Ball finds the band in full-throated cry with the reed section hunkering into a driving boogie-woogie riff supporting Higginbotham, Red Allen and Charlie Holmes at their most expressive. The unknown vocalist (was it the announcer?) makes up in enthusiasm what he lacks in musicality but the drumming is sensational.

Henry Red Allen’s Algiers Stomp is the sort of chart that would have the dancers crowding the floor. The featured soloists, especially Albert Nicholas on clarinet, are terrific as they are on Luis Russell’s Hot Bricks, which really cooks with Allen blowing his top. Sonny Woods returns with a mash-up of Benny Carter’s Melancholy Lullaby andde Rose and Parish’s Lilacs In The Rain from a WABC broadcast from December 1939.Fortunately, Allen’s trumpet is close by to combat the schmaltz. We hear more of Woods in full melodramatic mode on Charles and Nick Kenny’s quasi-Western Leanin’ On The Ole Top Rail and Gotta Get Home (well appreciated by the audience).

Shortly before his death, Louis Armstrong wrote: “Luis Russell played that good New Orleans piano. Very lusty and swingy”, comparing him to fabled Harlem ticklers like Fats Waller, Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith and James P. Johnson. Here, you have the opportunity to judge for yourself, because, in 1940, Chappie Willett recorded Luis Russell playing solo piano with a repertoire linked to two of Harlem’s masters: Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith’s Rippling Waters, Fussin’ and Echo Of Spring and Luckey Roberts’ Moonlight Cocktail.

As ever, Armstrong wasn’t wrong. So there’s your introduction to Luis Russell, thanks to producer Paul Kahn and his informative sleeve notes. Russell has been overlooked but is worth knowing better. We anticipate Volume 2 with interest.


Tracks 1-9: Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra
Louis Armstrong (tp,vcl), Shelton Hemphill, Louis Bacon, Henry “Red” Allen (tp) Wilbur DeParis, 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) Georgie Stoll, Chappie Willett (arr)

Tracks 10-14: Luis Russell Orchestra
Louis Bacon (tp) or Otis Johnson, Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen (tp) Wilbur DeParis, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham (tb) Rupert Cole, Charlie Holmes (as) Bingie Madison (ts) Albert Nicholas (ts,cl) Luis Russell (p,leader) Lee Blair (g) Pops Foster (b) Paul Barbarin or Sidney Catlett (d)

Tracks 15 & 16: Louis Armstrong & Orchestra
Louis Armstrong (tp) Bernard Flood, Shelton Hemphill, Louis Armstrong & Orchestra: – Henry “Red” Allen (tp) Wilbur DeParis, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham (tb) Rupert Cole (cl,as) Charlie Holmes (as) Joe Garland (ts,bar) Bingie Madison (ts) Luis Russell (p) Lee Blair (g) Pops Foster (b) Sidney Catlett (d), Sonny Woods (vcl)

Tracks 17-20: Luis Russell – piano

LINKS: Buy or download the album on Bandcamp

Recent LJN reviews of Luis Russell’s daughter Catherine Russell LIVE and ON DISC

Leave a Reply