Sidney Bechet: Save It, Pretty Mama

The tune begins with a slow-tempo, beautifully balanced ensemble thematic statement, delivered almost delicately, like an old formal dance stepping along. Then pianist Earl Hines enters with gorgeous, rolling variations, employing superb dynamics and accents, followed by Rex Stewart's muted cornet sliding and punching out some sublime blues lines spiced with perfect slurs. Next the drama and intensity take a leap upward with a characteristic soaring, wailing solo by Sidney Bechet. The last section brings everybody together for a marvelous rhythmic, bouncing ensemble ending, with all the instrumental voices contributing just the right tone, momentum and spirit, in excellent balance, resolving things nicely. This is sweet stuff from a great group of jazz masters.

February 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Perdido Street Blues

This track is from the notable 1940 recording reunion of Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. Some critics called the results "disappointing," but to my ears this track, at least, is terrific.

Bechet opens with a brilliant riff on clarinet, soaring at the start and adding a superbly crafted line, only to step downward with bluesy, slurred and bent notes to rich, low-register tones. Armstrong follows with equal brilliance, flowing through inventive lead lines with that inimitable trumpet tone and blues feel, punching out well-placed accents, and creating a beautifully structured solo. After adding subtle counterpoint behind Satch for a couple of bars, Sidney jumps in wailing with a further sparkling lead line on soprano sax. These two masters are already spurring each other to musical heights.

The fine pianist Luis Russell's mellow interlude follows, guitarist Bernard Addison adds atmosphere, and trombonist Claude Jones restates the theme before the storm. To set the final scene, Armstrong gives us three majestically punched-out climbing notes, then a smooth thematic variation at medium volume, as the band backs him with a rumbling, rolling repeated figure carried on from their earlier work. Satchmo cuts loose with a beaut of a line, building intensity, climbing to a series of high notes with blues slurs for a penultimate climax. He ends on a mid-range note, from which Sidney takes off for one last rollicking, soaring phrase to end it in compelling fashion.

This is "disappointing"?! Some critics needed their hearing aids checked.

February 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Sidney's Blues

After Sonny White's fine rolling piano, rather like a simplified pre-boogie, sets the mood, Sidney Bechet takes a rare turn singing, in a pleasing lower to mid-range tenor. He swings along for three choruses in a marvelously jivin', jazzy, cool '40s-style vocal, with great phrasing, soulfully drawing out key words, the rest of the band comping in support. Next Bechet grabs his clarinet for a soulful, sliding run, then quickly switches to soprano sax for a scintillating, soaring solo to wrap things up. This is most enjoyable music, especially the rare treat of Bechet's vocal. Some superb instrumentalists are lousy singers and shouldn't be on record (boogie pianist Roosevelt Sykes comes to mind), but Bechet acquits himself admirably.

February 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz & Bill Connors: Tavia

Although Lee Konitz plays the soprano sax on this track, his sound and his phrasing are nonetheless immediately recognizable. He'd started playing the straight horn on record the previous year with his Nonet, and doesn't use it in the same way as most tenorists who double on the smaller instrument. Like the tenor sax, the soprano is pitched in the key of B-flat, whereas the alto is an E-flat instrument, so few altoists (at least in those days ) doubled on soprano. But in the late '70s, Konitz played the soprano mostly for color and, in the context of a duo with an acoustic guitar as on this track, did so most efficiently. This song, penned by the reedman for this session, is essentially about melody. The soprano's fragile yet firm tone fits perfectly with the chords that Bill Connors strums on his guitar beside him. There is no real improvisation, except when the guitar is alone and launches a solo that brings more dynamism to the tune, while respecting its elegiac atmosphere. When Konitz returns the song to its original slow pace, his sound is so rich and dense that there's no feeling of entropy. His soprano is really a voice and, soft as it may be, it's hard to remain indifferent to what that voice has to say.

February 18, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz & Clark Terry: Flyin' - Mumbles and Jumbles

At first listen, few would think that these two instrumentalists were venerable, seasoned musicians (Terry, 73 at the time, and Konitz, then 66) who'd been respectively members of the Ellington and Kenton bands. Right from the start, their playing is so free as far as melody, rhythm and tempo are concerned that you might even think of some "angry young men," as they were called in the early '60s. But listen closer: the blues is there, not far behind the apparently shapeless lines, and follow a rather clear question-&-answer pattern. The powerful, assertive sound, along with articulate phrasing, also tells you that these musicians have huge chops and know what they're talking about. Indeed, it takes a lot of self-confidence to indulge in such playfully informal blowing.

Yet who would recognize Lee Konitz on soprano sax (so far from his allegedly "cool" style on the alto) and Clark Terry (even though his lively fluegelhorn has actually often strayed from classic patterns)? And even if one could expect the latter to end this tune with his typical scatting and mumbling, who'd have thought that the usually introverted Konitz would sing along with his wild elder? These two definitely sound like old uninhibited kids who couldn't resist playing a good trick on listeners who think they know all about them. The fun that was theirs is amply shared by us, and the surprise makes it even more pleasurable.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Wild Cat Blues

This was Sidney Bechet's first recording. Beyond the start of a tremendously important recording career, this track was historic because Bechet was the featured player, rather than simply serving as part of the ensemble in classic New Orleans style, and this recording was made more than two years before the first of the Louis Armstrong Hot Five tracks that are usually credited with the landmark step of featuring a solo artist.

This track starts out in classic New Orleans polyphonic ensemble style. It is grounded on the standard early 1920s chug/chug/chug rhythm, especially from Christian's banjo—as trumpeter Max Kaminsky said, "those '20s bands with that dreadful '20s beat." But it also has energy and bounce. Then Bechet soars above it all, and quickly we hear that the intense, unique vibrato that became so notable was already well developed. He also adds some of those great, crying, keening high notes that became another trademark, along with very inventive lines. To hear the recorded beginnings of this jazz giant is a treat, even if Clarence Williams was a better music entrepreneur than pianist, and despite the chugging rhythm and merely OK sidemen.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Really the Blues

Teddy Bunn opens this track with a repeated, deep-toned figure on his guitar that sets the mood, then Tommy Ladnier takes the lead on trumpet, blowing some very smooth, soulful, bluesy lines, shadowed by Sidney Bechet and Mezz Mezzrow with nicely harmonic clarinet playing, some dipping down into the low register for extra-rich deep tones. The piece then transitions into a delightful Bechet-Mezzrow clarinet duet, Mezzrow taking the lead line (it was his composition) and Bechet adding creative harmony, the two playing in octaves at one point to provide a special dimension. Ladnier next adds further lovely, bluesy variations on the theme, followed by the clarion call of Bechet on soprano sax, playing some superb, inventive, compelling and soulful lines, backed by Ladnier, Mezzrow, et al. This is outstanding music, with Ladnier and Bechet drawing on that good ol' New Orleans blues with fine assists from Bunn and Mezzrow.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Viper Mad

What more can you ask from a song? A memorable, catchy melody, sung by O'Neill Spencer in perfect late-'20s/early '30s style; a novelty theme touching on the illicit; and buoyant, jaunty instrumental work played at a high level. All of which makes "Viper Mad" irresistible. The illicit part is the title, which meant mad for marijuana—a substantial presence in the background of jazz culture—putting this tune in the same happy family as the popular "hokum" songs by Tampa Red and others from that era. The score of 91 is for pure musical value; if a fun quotient were included, the rating would be 95.

After a brief ensemble opening, Sidney Bechet introduces the theme in rhythmic, rollicking, jaunty manner, then yields to the vocal choruses. Following those, Clarence Brereton takes the lead with some beautifully flowing trumpet work, including nicely placed blue notes, and Bechet responds with a soaring, ringing break on his soprano sax in his inimitable style before the final vocal chorus. This is highly enjoyable stuff, and the melody will keep reverberating in your head.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Maple Leaf Rag

This recording, led by New Orleans standouts Sidney Bechet and Tommy Ladnier, is from a "celebrated" session of the Feetwarmers band, to quote from Ted Gioia's review of a companion track, "I've Found A New Baby." My rating of "only" 89 for this track may be jazz heresy; but to my ears, they take this song at such a frenzied pace that balance, tone and nuance are often lost. (Part of the problem may be the CD's harsh, shrill digital remastering.) "I've Found a New Baby" has better balance and tone, and the various parts work together better for a creative whole, while maintaining the classic New Orleans ensemble playing and drive.

On the other hand, the music here has great energy and illustrates how the famous Joplin ragtime tune was revved up by New Orleans musicians into an intense work of jazz (which transformation was explicitly demonstrated by Jelly Roll Morton in his historic Library of Congress recordings).

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jimmy Greene: Blue Bossa / Boudreaux

Jimmy Greene chills out in this unorthodox version of "Blue Bossa" in 7. His solo flows with total rhythmic freedom and control, which he displays by both floating freely through the changes and digging in with tight rhythmic accuracy. Greene presents "Blue Bossa" along with a composition of his own, "Boudreaux," which serves as a funky jam of an outro. After the pause between the two, Greene is joined by Marcus Strickland on tenor sax for a short, improvised conversation to launch Strickland into a passionate, energetic solo. The astounding rhythm section takes it out in style. A great recording by this relatively young, talented group.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Strange Fruit

The Billie Holiday recording of this song is justly famous. By contrast, this version is not well known outside the limited ranks of jazz writers and the most intense jazz lovers. That is a cultural tragedy because this is one of the ultimate masterpieces of musical art performed and captured on record in the 20th century. (Astonishingly, in his major biography of Bechet, John Chilton basically dismisses this recording with a one-sentence wave of his hand.)

Besides pure musical art, this is drama of the highest order. It is the tragedy Shakespeare would have created if he had lived as a black musician in the American South during the Jim Crow era (1876-1965). The title "Strange Fruit" refers to two African-American men in Marion, Indiana, hanging from a tree upon which they'd been lynched by a white mob in 1930. Haunted by a photograph of this grisly event, a Jewish high-school teacher in the Bronx named Abel Meeropol wrote the song under a pseudonym in 1936.

With its striking lyrics, Billie Holiday's recording is transfixing. But to me, Bechet's instrumental version is even more powerful. And his soprano sax, with its famous intense, throbbing vibrato, offers the perfect instrument for expressing the meaning and emotion of this ultimate cry of the heart and protestation against the stark inhumanity of lynching. The recording can be enjoyed purely for the stunning music; but the societal meaning adds an extraordinary dimension to this American cultural expression.

Bechet provides a climbing and descending opening with rich tone and great poignancy, making a kind of mini-overture to the story. He plays with less volume than usual, the first use of dynamics in this song that has rarely been equaled for enhancing meaning and art. Everett Barksdale's guitar next offers a reflective transition, in descending steps, to the main musical lines, followed by pianist Willie "the Lion" Smith introducing the main theme with simple virtuosity of touch and tone. Now Bechet plays the theme with embellishments, starting in still restrained manner, like a lament. Then he steadily increases the intensity and passion, climbing higher and higher, taking the lament to a profound cry of the heart and then to a keening protest with that throbbing Bechet vibrato in full cry, only to climb even higher and end on a dramatic high note that is simultaneously an ultimate anguished wail and an appeal to the heavens to end this insanity. It is sublime musical art, yet also carries profound social meaning.

And then, all too quickly—in 2½ minutes—it is done. Rarely has such great musical art and human expression been accomplished in so short a time.

February 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Steve Lacy: No Baby

Like many an American jazz musician before (and after) him, Steve Lacy found Europe to be a more agreeable place to ply his trade. He moved there to stay in 1965; he would not live in the U.S. again for many years. He did pay the occasional visit, however. “No Baby” comes from the 1977 album Raps, which was recorded in the immediate aftermath of a week-long series of performances at Ali’s Alley in New York.

One of the wittier items in his discography, “No Baby” begins with drummer Oliver Johnson verbally intoning the title over and over, as if scolding an errant toddler on the verge of committing some childish misdemeanor. The chant morphs into the simple three-against-four motive (played by the twin sopranos) which makes up the tune. Potts takes the first solo. He sounds a great deal like Lacy—working against the pulse rather than riding on top of it, cleanly articulating his deceptively simple melodic ideas—yet you realize he’s not, the instant Lacy’s distinctive, astringent tone enters the fray. The saxophonists make a terrific team, rather like an old married couple completing each other’s sentences. Johnson plays hard and loud. One can imagine in a live setting he might be overbearing, but with the sax and bass volume essentially normalized by the recording process, his contribution is actually quite exciting. In later years, Lacy would employ more conventional drummers than Johnson, but none had the capacity to generate more intensity. This is visceral stuff, demonstrating that Lacy’s inspiration never flagged, even in a high-energy context.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet (featuring Ernie Caceres): What a Dream

November 1938 was a standout in the career of Sidney Bechet. Mid-month, he recorded "Chant in the Night," "Hold Tight," "Jungle Drums" and "What a Dream" (all on this CD) with the unique support of Ernie Caceres's baritone sax and Leonard Ware's electric guitar. Two weeks later, Sidney and Mezz Mezzrow shared reed duties on a Bluebird date for the Tommy Ladnier Orchestra that resulted in "Ja Da," "Weary Blues" and "Really the Blues" – all classic Bechet recordings (and all also on this CD). While the latter session may be better known, the earlier soprano/baritone hookup yielded some of Bechet's more remarkable recordings.

Bechet and Caceres are involved in a direct dialogue throughout much of "What a Dream." Caceres answers Bechet's calls throughout the first statement of the melody, with Bechet delivering the goods and Caceres improvising in and around him. The two then engage in a brief trading session, featuring an impassioned Caceres doing his best to keep up with the master. Guitarist Ware then temporarily takes Sidney's solo position before a high-voltage Bechet returns and handles the concluding improvisation himself. Up until that point, though, this track had consistently highlighted the powerful possibilities of the baritone sax as both a refreshing voice in a supportive role and a commanding voice in a lead role. It's a somewhat unanticipated and altogether enjoyable performance: a shining moment in the recorded history of both underdog saxophones represented.

December 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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James Carter: Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure

For Present Tense, producer Michael Cuscuna was able to rein in James Carter's sometimes over-the-top, unfocused tendencies, resulting in perhaps the saxophonist's finest outing to date. Carter reminds one in a way of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Unlike Kirk, he plays only one of his many instruments at a time; but he plays each with equally spirited proficiency, and has an eclectic taste that extends from traditional jazz to the avant-garde.

Carter unearths an endearing Django Reinhardt ballad, "Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure," that Django himself never recorded, and elects to perform it on soprano sax in a style that pays unabashed homage to the nonpareil Sidney Bechet. (For Carter's extended tribute to Django, check out his Chasin' the Gypsy.) Carter's wide, sweet vibrato, alluring lyricism, and technical control are the key components that make this track so successful. After Carter's glowing interpretation of the theme, Genus and Jackson follow with melodic, unpretentious solos that set the stage for the leader, who improvises with total command and great emotional depth. Midway through, Carter's tone hardens and he modernizes his attack by introducing more dissonant elements and some vocalized effects, while also increasing the density of his phrasing. However, his remarkable coda alone should satisfy and placate even the moldiest of figs. Bravo!

December 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane: Blues To Bechet

"Blues To Bechet" is another of John Coltrane's many superb pianoless blues performances. Apparently there was something about the sonority of a simple bass/drums accompaniment that brought out Trane's best, especially when playing the blues at a slow-to-medium tempo. As one might deduce given the song title, he plays soprano—somewhat of a departure for him, since most of his recorded blues performances were played on tenor. Coltrane plays very lyrically, as was often his tendency on the smaller horn. In his solo, he leans on simple melodic figures, stitched together with an occasional technical flourish. The mood is laid back and fairly restrained. Neither of his bandmates solos, but both provide more than adequate support. Things heat up in his final chorus, but mostly Trane tells his story in (relatively) simple language, within a narrow emotional compass. It's a Coltrane not often heard, but one that is invariably affecting.

November 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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