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Sidney Bechet - Mosaic Select  Print E-mail
Music Disc Reviews Audio CD
Written by Scott Yanow   
Tuesday, 17 May 2005

Mosaic
CDs, Mono (3)
performance 9
sound 7
released 2005

Sidney Bechet was one of the first great jazz soloists. Born in New Orleans in 1897, he was already an impressive clarinetist when he was a child. After playing locally, he relocated to Chicago in 1916, and by 1919 made a strong impression in Europe as a member of the touring Southern Syncopated Orchestra. While in London, he purchased a soprano sax, a fateful acquisition, and over time it became his main, and signature, instrument.

A fiery personality who was actually deported from two European countries, Bechet fought for the primacy of his instrument, often dominating ensembles and having battles (not all of which were musical) with trumpeters and other musicians over who played lead. Bechet made some impressive records in the United States during 1923-25, spent most of the rest of the decade overseas, struggled a bit in the ’30s and then recorded some of his finest work for Victor during 1940-41, one classic after another. His last period found him an unlikely national hero in France, a major celebrity during the decade before his death in 1959.

Bechet loved to play New Orleans-style jazz, dominating ensembles and exploring the classic repertoire, but he was more flexible than expected and sounded modern in his own way. While some listeners hated his playing due to his wide vibrato, he was the favorite musician of both Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. Bechet was such a dominant force on the soprano sax that by 1940 it was practically extinct in jazz. Even Bechet's former pupil Johnny Hodges gave up the soprano around that time, and only bandleader Charlie Barnet occasionally played soprano. The instrument would not make a comeback until the late 1950s, when first Steve Lacy and then John Coltrane adopted it.

The Mosaic label has compiled this three-CD set that features Bechet during several different periods of his career. While the Victor sessions and his later Paris period are bypassed, this three-fer gives one a very good picture of Bechet's musical genius.

The first disc has 25 of Bechet's most significant recordings from the 1923-25 period. He is heard in brilliant form on his very first record date ("Wild Cat Blues" and "Kansas City Man Blues"), in groups accompanying singers Sara Martin, Mamie Smith, Eva Taylor, Margaret Johnson, Virginia Liston and Sippie Wallace, and as part of pianist Clarence Williams' Blue Five. Six of the numbers team Bechet with the young Louis Armstrong. On "Mandy Make Up Your Mind," Bechet steals the show by playing the contrabass sarussophone, a remarkable-sounding instrument whose range is lower than the bass sax. However, on "Cake Walking Babies from Home," Armstrong takes honors with a dazzling solo.

The second disc features Bechet as a soloist with Noble Sissle's so-so swing band in 1937 and on two small-group sessions from the period, including one that has him interacting with baritonist Ernie Caceres. More rewarding is his 1947 set with Bob Wilber's Wildcats. Wilber, heard on clarinet, was Bechet's student and protégé at the time and the Wildcats are filled with enthusiastic youngsters. In addition to Wilber, pianist Dick Wellstood and trombonist Bob Mielke would have rewarding careers in trad jazz. On four selections, augmented by six alternate takes, the Wildcats do a fine job; most memorable are "Polka Dot Stomp" and "Spreadin' Joy."

The final CD puts the focus completely on Bechet as he is showcased in a quartet from 1947. While there are many alternate takes, Bechet's variations make each performance quite interesting. Most intriguing is that, in addition to blues and stomps, Bechet explores such sophisticated material as "Love for Sale," "Just One of Those Things," "Laura" and an overly dramatic "The Song of Songs," none of which would normally be in the repertoire of a Dixieland player. Bechet's melodic creativity and passion really come through.

This perfectly conceived set amply and enjoyably demonstrates why Sidney Bechet was one of the immortal jazz greats.

Sound
Mosaic did the best they could with the early recordings but there is some surface noise on some of the 1920s performances, but that seems unavoidable without seriously affecting the recordings. The results are never less than listenable and in some cases sound better than they ever had before. No such trouble exists with the music on the second and third discs, even the previously unreleased alternate takes, and this package is a constant joy.







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