One of my favorite, off-beat Louis Armstrong tracks sounds like a club remix released only recently. Recorded in May 1970, this track sounds so far ahead of its time that you'd think it was on one of those "reloaded" albums popular now—where studio wizards (or butchers) take a jazz artist's old master recording and add backbeats and samples to make it appetizing to the club crowd.
Many jazz critics and even some Armstrong experts aren't fond of the album on which this track appears. Though I must say that the CD—Louis Armstrong and His Friends—isn't really as bad as all that.
The song I'm referring to is The Creator Has a Master Plan (Peace), which was written by Pharoah Sanders and Leon Thomas in 1968. The spiritual, African-influenced song features Louis singing, chanting, scatting, riffing and laughing—with a Leon Thomas' vocal mixed in. There are two alternate takes on the album—one showcasing Louis singing the song alone while the other features Thomas mixed in again.
What makes this track (and the album, for that matter) particularly interesting is that it was one of Louis' last studio dates before his death in July 1971. Arranged by Oliver Nelson, The Creator Has a Master Plan (Peace) was a highly unusual choice for an album that included such sticky pop fare as Give Peace a Chance and Everybody's Talkin' (yep, that one, by Harry Nilsson).
The Creator Has a Master Plan originally appeared on a Pharoah Sanders album recorded in February 1969 called Karma. The song took up an entire side, running for just over 32 minutes. The song appeared again on Thomas' Spirits Known and Unknown recorded in October 1969, and on a live session from November 1970 called Leon Thomas In Berlin with a band backed by Oliver Nelson.
What makes all of these recordings of The Creator special—particularly the Spirits version—is the optimistic African mood of the piece, the bright clarity of Thomas' voice, and Thomas' pygmy-inspired yodeling, which he used brilliantly for authenticity and texture.
So why were so many takes needed on the Louis Armstrong date—one with Louis alone and two with Louis and Thomas? And did the two really record as a duet?
The mystery was resolved in the updated liner notes by Carlos Kase from the 2002 reissue of Louis Armstrong and His Friends:
"At the original recording session, Louis Armstrong was the only featured vocalist on [The Creator], though Leon Thomas was probably in the studio. At some point producer Bob Thiele and/or Armstrong decided that the vocal performance on both versions was not satisfactory. The original LP version substituted Leon Thomas' performance for Armstrong's in the second verse and eliminated the first verse entirely.
The first bonus mix [on the 2002 CD] is the original recording in its entirety, featuring Armstrong as the only vocalist on the track. This mix thus preserves this take of the song as it occurred live in the studio. It includes both verses as sung by Armstrong, and his entire ad-libbed 'outro,' which was faded-out much earlier on the LP release.
The second mix is a composite of the original unedited version of Louis Armstrong's performance and Leon Thomas' overdub. It is a hybrid of the other two presentations included here."
On Louis Armstrong and His Friends, the pairing of Louis and Leon is wonderful—combining America's best known apolitical jazz artist and showman in the twilight of his career with the African-influenced newcomer delivering a very political and spiritual message.
Each of the three tracks has a unique personality. As you'll hear, Louis doesn't fully get the song's intent or depth. But he puts his own spin on The Creator, and that's what makes it fun to hear. Oliver Nelson's arrangement for strings, bass, percussion and flute is absolutely perfect. (And listen for Louis' sung remark toward the end of an alternate take that "chops is flying all over the studio.") Too much.
Best of all, the song's pure message of peace, harmony and a higher force (recorded a year before Marvin Gaye's What's Going On album) is as poignant today as it was back in 1970 when Louis and Leon recorded The Creator—or 1968, when it was written.
Wax tracks: I'm mildly fond of Louis Armstrong and His Friends—it's gentle and light, and Louis brings a special, laid back (almost stoned) feel to some very mainstream pop songs. But admittedly, this album is not for everyone, especially hard-core Pops fans who favor his recordings from the 1930s 1940s and 1950s.
However, The Creator Has a Master Plan (Peace) is a different story. Armstrong's gravely joy (and marijuana-fueled upbeat spirit) is infectious, especially mixed with Thomas' glossy earnestness. This song is a hidden gem and a must-have.
You can download the master and two alternate takes of The Creator at iTunes for about $3. Again, it can be found on Louis Armstrong and His Friends.
If you discover that you enjoy the tune as much as I do—the bass line is hypnotic and the song meaningful—type in the song's name at iTunes and up will come a bunch of versions.
If you want to own Pharoah Sanders' Karma, you can buy it here. Leon Thomas' Spirits Known and Unknown can be found here. And Leon Thomas In Berlin is here—though I favor the first two much more than the live date.
Wax videoclip: To hear a version that someone in the YouTube universe created by mixing the Leon Thomas Spirits version with the Louis Armstrong version, go here.
To hear the complete Spirits version of The Creator by Leon Thomas, go here.
I don't know how you will ultimately feel about the song, but I think the quote from a fan of the clip posted at YouTube says it all: "Sooooo Doooope!!"