A Gift To Pops

A Gift To Pops attempts to modernize Louis Armstrong. The question of whether or not it accomplishes this is overshadowed by larger ones: Why attempt to do so? Who is this for? Is it to introduce Armstrong to a new generation of listeners? If so, this is a failure — those listeners would be better served being pointed straight back to the source material.

Nicholas Payton arranges seven of the songs here and plays skillful trumpet throughout; Wynton Marsalis pops up on “The Peanut Vendor” to trade off with him. Eleven musicians make contributions to the album, and they, along with co-producer Wycliffe Gordon, do what they set out to do: bring Armstrong to the 21st century. And this gets forehead-smack-inducing when it attempts to go hip-hop, via Common, on “Black And Blue.” There’s no insight to be derived from Common rapping things like, “Louis, he kept my arm strong … .”

The album took considerable effort and is well recorded. But its pointlessness is thrown into stark relief by the CD version, which begins with Armstrong himself performing “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” (placing a brief dose of the real thing ahead of what follows is unflattering) and ends with “Philosophy Of Life,” a 36-second spoken-word track of Pops summing himself up. He says, “I never wanted to be any more than what I am.” Yet this project drags him into the future, five decades after his death, and insists on making him something he’s not.

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