Indirect Listening

Apr 23, 2020
Every six months or so, I put on Louis Armstrong and wait for two of my main philosophical impulses to slug it out. On the one hand, I'm for listening to the things that just hit you on a gut level. Be honest with yourself about what you really like, follow that path to its various logical conclusions, and you'll find more than enough cool music to listen to, and develop your own aesthetic priorities in the process. On the other hand, everything is based on something else, and it's a reasonably safe bet that certain artists' names come up over and over for a reason. So in the case of someone who looms as large as Armstrong, I just assume that if I continue to be play and listen to the kinds of music I play and listen to, a reckoning with Armstrong is in the cards no matter what. The fact that I don't have a visceral response to it yet bugs me, so I keep returning to his music, waiting for the lights to go on. It's not that I don't like it. It just hasn't ever done what other music does to me without my even trying. I didn't have to try and like Duke Ellington's "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo," Ray Bryant's Alone With The Blues or Charlie Christian on "Six Appeal," any more than I had to try and like the opening notes of Sgt. Pepper or Duane Allman's playing on "Statesboro Blues."

At various points in the past year I've done this with Lester Young, early Count Basie and Fletcher Henderson; these musicians have all been on my radar in one sense or another in the same way Armstrong is, and they've all come more into focus with continued listening. And more often than not, that's been the result not of listening particularly consciously and intently, but through a more indirect experience. Once I've done enough reading to zero in on a particular period or phase of someone's career and foraged for those recordings someplace like Spotify, it's a matter of just having those recordings playing while something else is going on. That seems to let the music show up in a more macro way; ten or twenty minutes in, a particular groove or ensemble moment will catch my attention, and provide the necessary gap in the tent for me to get my camel head inside. With Basie and Henderson in particular, certain tunes suddenly seemed so obviously groovy and cool that I couldn't believe I hadn't heard them that way any sooner. In the case of the Louis Armstrong recordings, it seemed obvious to zero in on the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. They've been rolling by while I write this, and the chord progression of "Beau Koo Jack," the groove on "St. James Infirmary" and the ending ensemble on "Tight Like This" have certainly gotten my attention this way. While they don't seem as obvious yet to me as Basie's "Pennies From Heaven" or Henderson's "Christopher Columbus," maybe they will soon. I'll keep you posted.

It's been a few weeks since the last installment in my Youtube series on Travis Picking The Blues. I'm resuming this week with Part Four, another lesson in how to use phrasing to develop your own licks over an alternating-thumb bass in E. You can check it out here:

Improvising With Long-Short Phrasing

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More soon,


P.S. I've posted a short playlist on my site if you want to listen to a little indirect Louis yourself: