[ Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Sevens sessions are deservedly considered among the most important jazz cornet and trumpet recordings of all time. Over the course of these recordings, Armstrong revolutionized brass soloing, and study of these four CDs worth of material is not only a pleasure, but everyone interested in jazz history. What follows in this post is not, however, a discussion of Armstrong's contribution so much as a summary of the clarinetists and their contribution to these recordings. ES ]
Before picking up this box set of reissues, meticulously remastered by John R.T. Davies, my CD collection was limited to the Columbia remasters from the late 1980s. Those recordings weren't without their charm, and there is a warmth to the Columbia Masterworks approach that I enjoyed for many years. One of the first things I noticed about Davies's work, though, after its directness of sound, were the key changes of some of the performances. The Columbia Masterworks version of "Lonesome Blues" was in B. This is course highly unlikely, but as it was one of the first solos I'd transposed, I never questioned it until hearing the Davies remasters in the more sensible key of Bb. I haven't gone through these recordings with a fine toothed comb to discover all of the key differences, but would bet Davies's choices turn out to be the more accurate ones.
The Hot Fives 1925-1926 (Disc A)
Despite his work as a bandleader, and many other examples as a distinguished sideman, the original Hot Fives and Hot Sevens sessions are probably the recordings most people associate with Johnny Dodds. This can be a blessing and a curse. On the blessing side, these cuts really do demonstrate his unique tenacity, soul, drive, and creativity. Those are big pluses. On the curse side, for one reason or another, they didn't capture Dodds's often rich, deep sound particularly well, and on some sides (particularly from the first session in 1925) he struggled to keep up to pitch. These recordings have been considered so representative that some writers have even suggested Dodds's vibrato tended to function below the pitch as a rule. I'm not sure this is true, and if we listen to all of his other recordings (especially the sound he produced on the King Oliver sessions in 1923),we hear a fuller, more in tune Dodds. It has been said that Dodds disliked the recording studio and distrusted microphones. Considering how much of an acoustical challenge it is to record a clarinet, and that the focal point of these sessions was Armstrong rather than Dodds, we shouldn't rush to judgement on the subject of his sound. As far as the pitch is concerned, perhaps at times Dodds was overblowing to compensate for balance against an open cornet rather than the muted recordings of the Oliver band. All caveats aside, however, Dodds was far greater, in terms of intonation, control, and content, than his immediate successor in the Hot Fives and Sevens, Jimmy Strong ( heard on Disc C).
Throughout all of the Hot Five sessions on Disc A, Dodds's ensemble figurations are solid, as usual. On "Don't Forget to Mess Around" he takes solos on both alto sax and clarinet, moving well between the instruments. Immediately after that, on "I'm Gonna Gitcha", Dodds flashes his hot tempo soloing style. For those not impressed with Dodds's technique, or who consider him an especially rough player (including many respected modern jazz players), I'd just point out that the types of figurations here (common in his playing) aren't really that easy. His clarinet chorus on "Dropping Shucks" is relaxed, vintage Dodds. "Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa" show off his bluesy howling, and maybe the top highlight of the first disc is Johnny's heartfelt statement of the melody for "Lonesome Blues," setting the table perfectly for Satch's vocal.
The Hot Sevens and Fives 1927 (Disc B)
The sound quality on this disc is even better than Disc A, and seems more accurate, with less need to imagine what the players might have really sounded like. Having said that, Dodds's tone is still pretty harsh compared to some recordings before and after these sessions. May of 1927 was a big month for the band, though, as some of the most enduring numbers they recorded came between the 7th and the 14th. The band is in full, swinging, comfortable sound on "Willie the Weeper" and "Wild Man Blues" with Dodds taking a gritty solo on the latter with plenty of talking quality and double time flashes.
After this is a brief interlude for "Chicago Breakdown" of May 9th, with a large group that included Earl Hines on piano, and Boyd Atkins on clarinet, soprano sax, and alto sax (his solo chorus is on soprano).
The next sessions took place between May 10 and 14, 1927, Johnny Dodds announcing his return to the band with a "rip-your-head-off" blues statement on "Alligator Crawl." He's enthusiastic on all of these numbers, including "Potato Head Blues", "Melancholy Blues", "Weary Blues" (where he gets breaks similar in style to those he played so often with King Oliver), "12th Street Rag" and others. Finally, with the September and December sessions of 1927, Dodds's sound is more reminiscent of his playing with King Oliver or afterwards as a bandleader--more mellowness and richness added to the raw power--and despite the harshness of the earlier tracks, these recordings from 1927 seem to me the zenith of Dodds's work in Armstrong's band.
1928-29 (Disc C)
Armstrong's brilliance continues on Disc C, which begins with a reformation of the Hot Five in Chicago in June and July of 1928. Pops's vocabulary continues to grow, but the Johnny Dodds era was over, and he was replaced by Jimmy Strong, whose playing didn't live up to Dodds's. Strong's sound was flabby in comparison, and his playing was flat. His sloppiness on "Fireworks" highlighted the difficulties he had as a clarinetist. Even when outlining arpeggios competently (as on "A Monday Date"), he was uniformly bad sounding and flat in pitch. Oftentimes young players will hear recordings like these, because they happen to be classics of the genre thanks to the brilliance of Armstrong and Earl Hines, and wrongly think that this sort of clarinet playing was considered great in its day as well--that this was the way a jazz clarinetist was supposed to sound. One of the reasons I'm writing this post, though, is to point out, gently, that it just isn't true. This is just bad clarinet playing, no matter how you cut it. Johnny Dodds (especially on other recordings where he was recorded better), Sidney Bechet, Jimmie Noone, Leon Roppolo, and others from the era were the standard bearers, and players like Strong ought to be understood as really poor quality in comparison.
Don Redman took over the clarinet duties (as well as alto sax) for a session under the name of Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five, in Chicago on December 5, 1928. His clarinet work is confined to a few long tones underlining the melody in "Save It, Pretty Mama" and some clarion figurations on the final statement of the theme, opting to solo on the alto otherwise.
Redman and Strong combine forces for another weak overall clarinet performance on the December 12th date. Armstrong seemed unwilling to give either of them extended clarinet solos by this point, so only their ensemble playing is left. Even on "St James Infirmary", a good tune for clarinetists, the clarinet is left mostly to pre-arranged parts, with only the occasional strained and out of tune altissimo yelp. The post-Dodds era was, overall, really disappointing for clarinetist
The Fourth disc of this set is a bit beyond the bounds of what was advertised. None of the groups go by the name of Hot Fives or Sevens, and most of the tracks are from the era of Louis Armstrong leading an orchestra of larger size, with a saxophone section patterned after Guy Lombardo's, so there is little specifically for the jazz clarinetist. An era had ended, and the Hot Fives and Sevens were now a part of music history. Johnny Dodds's contribution has remained a lasting legacy and influence because of them, but players who have come to him through these recordings should look for his other recordings with King Oliver, and leading his own band, where they will find even more dimensions to his art.