May 26, 1938 was unique in Sidney Bechet's career: on this day he recorded ten tunes, all of them entirely on the clarinet. Maybe his soprano sax was in the shop, maybe he forgot it, or maybe he simply didn't feel like playing it that day, but whatever the reason, his clarinet chops were ready to go. One thing we can say without reservation: the sides he cut on May 26, 1938 in Decca's New York studios with singer Trixie Smith document some of his finest clarinet work.
What can I say about his playing on "Freight Train Blues"? It's an anthology of his greatest clarinet techniques, and he is so well miked that we really, finally, get a sense of his total sound quality. Trixie Smith is laid back as a singer, but a perfectly cool partner to Bechet's heat. The rest of the band includes Charlie Shavers on trumpet, Sammy Price on piano, Teddy Bunn on guitar, Richard Fullbright on bass, and O'Neill Spencer on drums. On "Trixie's Blues" the band gets the perfect soft bumping groove, and imprompu head riffs are woven and embellished by Bechet and Shavers throughouot. Bechet's clarinet is really in astonishing form for this date, and he delivers as close to a definitive performance as we could hope for on "My Daddy Rocks Me With One Steady Roll" (Parts 1 & 2). In his sound we can hear everything--from his warmest pumpkin bread chalumeau to muscular, biting altissimo. The interplay between Bechet and the muted Shavers is a type of contrapuntal perfection: they seem ideally suited for this sort of vocalist-fronted combo. Trixie is at her best when she's singing a blues; the more popular tunes like "Jack, I'm Mellow" or "My Unusual Man" are less convincing, and she falls a bit into vaudeville style. But the masterful blues sides by this band more than make up for anything else.
Later that day, the same backing band recorded with Coot Grant & Sox Wilson, a girl/boy vocal duo with more vaudeville pretensions, and a considerable step down from the musical quality of the Trixie Smith recordings. Bechet's clarinetistry is good and solid; once again the Decca recording engineers capture him exceptionally well, but these are comparatively forgettable sides. By the last tune of the day, "Blue Monday on Sugar Hill", Bechet seems to have run out of inspiration, delivering a competent but very common solo by his standards. Still, on the whole, this was a remarkable day in Bechet's recorded output, especially from the standpoint of the clarinet. Fans of Sidney Bechet are going to want to hear them.
[ Note: My review is based upon the remastered versions found in the Universal boxed set. I can't vouch for other transfers...]