Nicholas Payton’s new release, “Tribute to Louis” (Verve), paints the colors, shapes and textures of Louis Armstrong’s tunes on a great big, brand-new canvas. The largish ensembles Payton put together on the CD re-energize Armstrong’s earlier, blues-based work from the ’20s and ’30s on songs such as “West End Blues,” “Tiger Rag” and “Potato Head Blues.” The dynamic arrangements and superb soloing make the older songs as relevant to the modern, entertainment-minded ear as they are to the historian.
Payton also carries out a major reclamation project on recordings from Armstrong’s later career, such as “Hello Dolly” and “Mack the Knife,” songs that had become stale self-parodies when Armstrong eventually turned into a showbiz cliche. Rescuing the later tunes isn’t that much of a project, though, when you have the likes of Dr. John and Dianne Reeves taking over the vocals. Armstrong was originally an important vocal innovator, introducing scat and unique phrasing to the entire jazz and pop repertoire. Rising to the same challenge, Payton adds his own very solid vocals on one cut.
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