I suppose if anyone deserves to have his centennial celebrated for two years running, it's Louis Armstrong, jazz's first genius. (Though recent investigation proves Armstrong was actually born in 1901, the birthday he always claimed--Independence Day, 1900--has become a permanent part of his legend.) Amid the hoopla of the last year or so--even the Manhattan Transfer offered a salute in October, with The Spirit of St. Louis--I found myself wondering how trumpeter Nicholas Payton would pay his respects. Like Armstrong, Payton grew up in New Orleans, and the sweet blare of his sound, the way he sashays through a second-line rhythm, and even his stocky build and baby face all bring Satchmo to mind. And his improvised melodies, with their deceptively simple structures, aspire to and sometimes attain the gritty grace of Armstrong's own. On this year's Dear Louis (Verve), Payton covers a dozen songs associated with the master, from Armstrong originals--"Potato Head Blues," "West End Blues"--to the pop tunes that made him a target for caricaturists in his later years, such as "Mack the Knife" and "Hello Dolly." But rather than simply re-create the past, Payton offers a radical but thoughtful reassessment: he's performed major surgery in the course of arranging this material for his 12-piece group, grafting on fresh harmonies, unexpected voicings, and modern rhythmic schemes. The resulting music sometimes strays so far from the original as to be almost unrecognizable--but even this serves as a reminder of the way Armstrong, through bravura and imagination, could transform the banal into the sublime. In further revising such classic Armstrong vehicles as "Tiger Rag" and "The Peanut Vendor," Payton reminds us that this element of Satchmo's brilliance isn't lost on musicians nearly a century later. His little big band headlines this Armstrong celebration; his N'Awlins confreres the Dirty Dozen Brass Band open. Friday, May 25, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Barron Claiborne.