Pops’ Tops: The 10 Best Louis Armstrong Albums Since 1945

 

Satchmo at Symphony Hall (1947)

The first live document of Armstrong’s return to the small group format after the big band era. The All Stars—Jack Teagarden on trombone, Barney Bigard on clarinet, Sid Catlett on drums, Arvell Shaw on bass and Velma Middleton joining Armstrong on vocals—all got featured spots in a set that covered the entire history of jazz up until that point, from Armstrong classics of the 1920s to the bop-era vehicle “Mop Mop.”

Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy (1954)

The first and greatest of the albums Armstrong recorded with producer George Avakian. Avakian chose 11 Handy songs that the band rehearsed during a tour of 41 consecutive one- nighters. All Stars pianist Billy Kyle created illuminating arrangements for “Aunt Hagar’s Blues,” “Hesitating Blues,” “St. Louis Blues,” “The Memphis Blues” and “Chantez Les Bas” among other songs. Nat Hentoff gave the album 5 stars in Downbeat and called it one of the greatest recordings in jazz history.

Satch Plays Fats (1955)

Producer George Avakian’s follow up to the W.C. Handy session was an album of Armstrong and the All Stars playing Fats Waller material. Some of these tunes, including the classics “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Black and Blue” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” had been cut by Armstrong in the late ’20s and early ’30s, but the album also included a few relative rarities.

Ambassador Satch (1956)

Recorded live on his 1955 European tour and in two sessions, one after hours at a Milan theater and another in a Los Angeles studio, this is the Armstrong/Trummy Young/Edmond Hall All Stars in top form. “Muskrat Ramble” features an Armstrong trumpet solo that shows him in complete command of his skills.

The Great Chicago Concert (1956)

This live recording of the All Stars from Chicago’s Medinah Hall on June 1, 1956 was billed as “50 Years of Jazz.” Though it wasn’t released publically until 1980 it’s considered one of the greatest All Stars recordings ever. See Stereophile editor Robert Baird’s featured review of this year’s vinyl reissue of the show in the review section.

Ella and Louis (1956)

The historic meeting between two of the greatest vocalists in jazz history produced the incendiary “Can’t We Be Friends” and memorable recordings of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Stars Fell On Alabama,” “Cheek To Cheek” and “The Nearness of You.”

Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography (1957)

Armstrong reminisces about his life and revisits over 40 songs he recorded during the ‘20s and ‘30s. It was a daring move since many critics were making unflattering comparisons between his contemporary work and his early recordings at the time. But Armstrong proves himself to be a maturing artist who added life perspective to his reading of this material. He also proves that his trumpet playing was as good or better than it ever was on standout versions of “If I Could Be With You,” “When You’re Smiling,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Lazy River.”

Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington (1961)

An absolutely sublime performance from the All Stars augmented by Ellington on piano-playing material associated with Ellington—“Drop Me Off In Harlem,” “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” “Mood Indigo.” Barney Bigard, an Ellingtonian himself for 14 years, plays some of the best clarinet of his stint with the All Stars. The highlight of the session is a song Ellington had composed for Armstrong years before but never got Armstrong to perform until then, the beautiful “Azalea.”

The Real Ambassadors (1961)

Pianist-composer Dave Brubeck and his wife Lola wrote a social protest musical for Armstrong with the idea of producing it theatrically. The vocal team of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross and singer Carmen McRae also participated. On “They Say I Look Like God,” Armstrong capsized what was meant to be a satirical song and turned it into a powerfully emotional statement about racial equality. Armstrong and McRae are great together on “One Moment Worth Years” but the highlight of the album is Armstrong’s poignant reading of the elegiac “Summer Song.”

Hello Dolly (1964)

Armstrong’s magic was still in full force well into his Sixties. The title track is Armstrong’s blockbuster hit single, the tune that knocked the Beatles off the top of the charts at the height of their popularity. The song itself is a throwaway, but Armstrong’s ability to personalize it (“This is Louis, Dolly…”) epitomizes his vast, timeless appeal. He could still turn in a great trumpet solo as witnessed in this version of “Jeepers Creepers.”

(All albums listed chronologically by recording dates, not release dates)