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Opinion: Releases by Armstrong, Young front and center

November 8, 2012
By MARK J. MILLER - Staff writer ( , The Herald-Star

Well, it feels good that nasty old election is over and I now can dwell on things I really care about - such as music!

This week I give "the treatment" to Psychedelic Pill," the new Neil Young album with Crazy Horse and Columbia Legacy's re-issue of the complete Okeh, Columbia and RCA Victor recordings of Louis Armstrong.

Louis Armstrong - "The Complete Okeh, Columbia and RCA Victor Recordings 1925-1933."

People sometimes ask me why I listen to "old music" from the turn of the last century, and what does it have to do with anything happening in the modern music scene.

My answer is that you can't understand where you are if you don't look back. If you want to understand American music, you have to study and listen to older music styles. It helps you become a better musician as as well as develop an appreciation for America and its musical legacy.

Besides, it's fun, and the music of the past is our gift from those performers who excelled at their craft. And no one excelled more than the great Louis Armstrong, who virtually invented jazz and DID invent the concept of hard swing, which became an integral part of all types of American music from the 1920s through the 1960s, including influencing rock and roll.

Armstrong's' music from 1925 to 1933 also is the Rosetta Stone of modern jazz, a marvel of ingenuity, shear talent and amazing invention.

Although jazz still was in its infancy, Armstrong and his band made jazz into a serious music art form while also making it popular.

Although there had been fine players in jazz in the early 1900s, players tended to be a bit stiff and stilted with phrasing. Armstrong revolutionized the way players thought about their horns by humanizing the instrument and mimicking the human voice.

The result - a glorious and joyous sound that was supple, organic and harmonically and rhythmically complex. Louis Armstrong was the first true virtuoso of jazz or even American music at that time.

In the late 1920s Armstrong also revolutionized popular music by creating one of the first big bands, with him leading on trumpet and vocal duties. Armstrong's roll as a jazz vocalist also has been somewhat overlooked in American music history.

What's interesting is that with vocals Armstrong did the opposite of what he did with his horn. Instead of singing "straight" he mimicked horn players, resulting in a swinging vocal style that was known as "scatting."

Once again, Armstrong's ingenuity influenced generations, and there would be no Billie Holiday or even Frank Sinatra without Satchmo's influence.

Armstrong over the decades evolved into a much-loved personality and had hits well into the 1960s. But it's on these 10 CDs of his early work that Louis Armstrong invented modern popular music.

The set is selling for about $65 - a steal when you consider the musical gold within - and is available at and

Neil Young and Crazy Horse - "Psychedelic Pill"

Anyone that reads my column knows that I've been harshing on Neil for quite some time now as he's recently coasted from one mediocre effort to another. The nadir was his last release with Crazy Horse earlier this year, "Americana," a lame and sloppy take on famous American songs that was uninspired, dull, banal and easily the worst album of his career.

I felt like I needed a psychedelic pill to forget that last stinker, but Neil love is strong, and it was with some trepidation I purchased Neil's new effort with his longtime cohorts in Crazy Horse.

But only after listening to some of it at my local friendly music dealer, that is.

The double CD only boasts nine songs, so you know right away that Neil's in epic jam-band mode.

When I heard the first cut, "I'm Drifting Back," I was in despair, as Neil's lyrics - always the strong point of his best efforts - were completely, well, improvised on the spot.

Uh-oh. This is what I was afraid of.

But as the song wore on - and on, and on, a total jam of 27 minutes - I seemed to forget about Neil's lack of anything relevant to say and just dug the groove, which got better by the minute.

And then, after that, real songs began, with at least acceptable lyrics, if nothing really new. But the sound of Neil's guitar with Crazy Horse is nothing to sneer at, and there's a real originality there that's rare.

The vibe is there, too, and boy, am I thankful for that.

The jams just kept getting better and better, and by the end I had to admit I was hooked.

Neil Young had made a really great Neil Young/Crazy Horse record, and while his best years creatively are far behind him, the music still speaks and means something.

And with Neil Young now in his mid-60s, good Neil Young is still better than no Neil Young at all. Thanks Neil, for still being able to surprise me.

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